This article will take a look at the “new” 3-4-1-2 of Liverpool FC when in-possession. It will then compare the 4-2-3-1 formation to the 3-4-1-2, using Crystal Palace (5th October 2013) and Norwich (19th January 2013) as precedents. This article considers the in-possession formation only.
This isn’t the first time Liverpool have experimented with a back three under Brendan Rodgers, as Liverpool used a 3-4-1-2 around this time last year for a short period of time. Chris Davies (Liverpool’s Head of Opposition Analysis) back then believed the change to a back three to be minor – that is to say, in reality, there is very little difference between the ideal 4-3-3 formation that Rodgers prefers and the 3-4-1-2 being employed currently. It is worth noting that Rodgers has hardly been able to use his preferred 4-3-3, that he spoke so fondly before agreeing to take the Liverpool job.
Rodgers’ idealistic 4-3-3 (as described by the man himself) is spread over six lines of play and looks for fluid movement to enable the team to overload central areas, whether that be 3 v 2 or 4 v 3 in the central engine.
Rodgers’ ideal formation requires the player movement to ensure that angled options of support are offered all over the pitch at all times, so that no players are on the same horizontal or vertical lines.
Consider the central overloads and six lines of play for a moment (ignoring the full-back’s advanced run) and compare it to the current 3-4-1-2 formation used by Rodgers at Liverpool this season below:
All the same principles apply: a central overload, six lines of play and all the supporting players are off-set from the horizontal and vertical lines of play on the field. But more than that, the two formations (when in possession) are virtually the same – only that those spaces that were previously taken up by the full-backs are now vacated by players with more freedom to roam forward (line 4, rather than line 3) and that the ‘fluid movement’ of players that was expected before has been removed to allow players to take up their positions quicker (allowing for the counter-attack to make up part of the in-possession approach perhaps?)
Moving forward with this formation, there is a possibility that Daniel Agger will take up the role of a libero (a central defender that becomes a defensive midfielder, rather than the more popular defensive midfielder becoming a central defender) moving forward from the first line of play (replacing the less able Skrtel) when in possession of the ball
Positional changes are great, but what does this really mean? This article has taken a detailed analysis from the Liverpool vs. Norwich fixture from last season where Liverpool won 5-0 and the analysis from last week’s Crystal Palace 3-1 victory. We will take a look at the spaces on the field rather than positions in each formation and look to see where the most touches of the ball take place.
The diagram above shows provides us with a lot of information. The diagram below should be used to compare and contrast the differences in the percentage of play through the central engine, the percentage of play using the wider areas of the field and the average number of forward passes in each third. The diagrams have split the pitch both vertically and horizontally into three zones. Please note that where a substitute has taken the place of a first team player, his statistics have been added for the purposes of positional comparisons (i.e. Agger came on for Sakho vs. Palace and therefore their statistics have been merged)
The most interesting statistic, that is perhaps most relevant to Rodgers’ ideal formation and approach to football, is that the central areas of the field are being used more frequently to build up the play. Johan Cruyff would always argue that the ball should be returned centrally as often as possible, particularly when building play, because the whole field is then available to the central player in terms of passing options. The new 3-4-1-2 appears to be far more balanced in terms of the percentage of touches per player, but also in terms of the percentage of forward passes completed for each third – suggesting that the player movement ahead of the ball is more effective.
If you only take one thing away from this article, it’s that formations are a complex aspect of football and just because the media have reported a 3-4-1-2 or 4-2-3-1 formation, it doesn’t mean the whole approach is different. It might just be that the 3-4-1-2 is closer to how Brendan Rodgers perceives the spaces on the field, which fundamentally is what a formation is all about: a response to how you wish to treat particular areas of the field – not to just fit the best eleven players onto the field in an accommodated formation.
How you define formation is up to you, but this particular Liverpool 3-4-1-2 certainly isn’t their defensive formation – which is typically how these formations are detailed. Liverpool’s 3-4-1-2 does, however, allow for Liverpool to respond to each team they come up against and fall back into a 4-4-2 (should Moses drop left and Enrique fall back), 5-3-2 (simple movement) and a number of other options.
My advice? Take a pen and paper and record when and why a team falls back into each defensive shape – this ‘study’ alone will open up a new explanation for ‘formation’ and effectively lead you to the same conclusion I have arrived at: teams will use one or more formations for each moment of the game. One for building out from the back, one for the creating and finishing phase, another for defending in high areas and another one or two for defending in their own half. Each as prescriptive and organised as the last. Each change begets the thought that perhaps style is more important than formation – but where does one end and the other begin? – there is certainly a vast amount of ‘style’ that facilitates each of the changes in formation. You simply cannot consider the attacking shape without the defensive shape and perfecting these ideologies can take a season or more with the same group of players.
Just don’t let yourself believe that the manager sends the team out with the instruction of one singular formation and at the same time, don’t allow for yourself to believe that one labelled formation is drastically different from the next.