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Tactical: How a Martinez Liverpool 3-4-3 Could Look

With Roberto Martinez currently in the front running to take over the vacant manager’s job at Liverpool I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how his tactics, formations and general footballing philosophy might be applied to the current crop of Liverpool players.

Footballing Philosophy

It is pretty evident Martinez’s teams likes to pass out from the back, and he is a believer in the passing game rather than a lump it forward kind of style. His Wigan side managed an 80% passing success last season, just 1% lower than Liverpool’s 81%. Sometimes there can be a slow build up in the play, and he uses his wing backs/full backs a lot to bring out the ball. Especially the left back Beausejour. 42% of Wigan attacks came down their left side last season, more than any other side, and no team shot from the left side more than Wigan last season, 25% of their shots all came from that side. From his time at Swansea to his time at Wigan he’s always tried to play football the ‘right’ way.

Martinez quote:

“I always believe the only way you can get out of relegation is by playing well,”

“If you do not get the results, you need to find a way to win, but it is not about short-term ambition, to sneak a win here or there, because that is not going to be enough”.

Martinez – Formations

It’s no secret that Martinez switched from a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-3 formation back in February. And as it transpired, it proved to be a tactical masterstroke from him. It increased Wigan’s average points per game from 0.66 points per game to 1.93 points per game. An increase of almost 300%, which, ultimately kept them in the Premier League.

As a young coach he can be quite flexible with his formations. In fact, when first managing Swansea he chopped and changed a lot between a 4-4-2 and a 4-5-1 formation. He eventually settled on a 4-5-1 and Swansea went on from there. Of course he then moved to Wigan where he eventually implemented a 4-3-3 system, then changed again with great success to a more dynamic 3-4-3, which turned out suited the players at his disposal much better. You could say the Wigan 3-4-3 more resembles the Napoli one and not the more fluid 3-4-3 that Barcelona sometimes use.

It is worth noting, that a formation by itself will not win games, it will increase your chances, but it’s ultimately the players and how they apply themselves to any given formation that will be the overriding reason in whether a game will turn out to be a win, a loss, or a draw.

What Martinez said in April:

“The system suits our players, you have to be a bit different to get an advantage if you are brave enough to get on the ball.

“We are flexible enough to change it, and we have had to adapt in certain games.

“However, systems do not win you games, it is the attitude of the players.”

How Wigan Shape Up With A 3-4-3

Of course this 3-4-3 system is very flexible, well the way Martinez implements it is. He has played this system in both an attacking and defensive way. In it’s attacking implementation the wing backs will remain high up the pitch and try to put pressure on the opposition wingers and full backs, and keep them pinned back in their own half. The wing backs have the security of knowing both the right and left-sided centre backs can come across and cover for them. (see areas marked red above) In turn the middle centre back knows if play get stretched down either of his defensive wing zones and one of his partners has to leave his station he is always left with one other centre back for protection.

In it’s defensive implementation the 3-4-3 will revert to a 5-4-1 or even a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 depending on what positions the opposition attackers are taking up. The wing backs will sit deep, forming a five across the back. It may seem ultra defensive, but this can be effective if used correctly. It relies on quick counter-attacks, mainly using one of your left or right-sided front 3 players to break quickly forward and get in behind the spaces the opposition full backs have left. We’ve seen it used to good effect by Chelsea against Barcelona in the Champion’s League. In this case, the breakaway forward being Ramires, who eventually scored from such a move at the Nou Camp.

Quick animation of firstly changing from 3-4-3 to 5-4-1 and then from 3-4-3 to a 4-4-1-1:

Back Three – does it suit the current Liverpool FC squad?

Taking a look at Wigan’s 3-4-3 in the graphic above, we can start with the back three. Caldwell is the player who is the constant in the centre. He usually picks up the opposition’s main forward, especially at corners and set pieces. Both the other (left & right) centre backs are players who need to be mobile, quick and have an intelligent footballing brain. These two will come forward and engage the opposition players more than Caldwell. They will also come across (see red marked spaces above) and cover for the wing backs if they are caught too far up the pitch during a quick transition.

So do Liverpool have a centre back like Caldwell? Of course they do: see Martin Skrtel. With an able standby waiting in the wings like Jaime Carragher they wouldn’t be over-stretched in that department.

Have we got two quick mobile centre backs who are good at reading the game to play either side of Skrtel? See Daniel Agger and Sebastián Coates. With Martin Kelly also an able standby.

Quick animation of changing from back three to four:

First players marked blue, are the defenders picking up two forwards, the left-sided centre back marked yellow is the spare man.

The excellent zonal marking website here makes a great point regarding how the shape would change from three at the back to four at the back if the opposition played with a traditional number 10 just behind a central striker. (See animation above) One centre back would push forward to mark the number 10, which would also create another body in midfield if you were being out-numbered there. If you watch the animation above you can see how this might work. Agger  (circled in yellow) pushes out to engage the forward that drops deep, the other centre backs shuffle across, and the two wing backs pull back into a more traditional full back role.

How A Martinez 3-4-3 May Look

Midfield Two

With both Diame and McCarthy for Wigan I believe we have both Lucas and Gerrard who could fill those roles in a Martinez LFC midfield. Certainly Lucas is well capable of playing the defensive midfielders role.

A more interesting thought would be Steven Gerrard. Criticised in the past for not being disciplined enough playing in a two-man central midfield, his tendency to break forward in dynamic bursts often left his defenders and midfield counterparts exposed. However, with the safety of a three man central defense he would be free to have that dynamic role he craves thus getting closer to Luis Suarez whom he almost has a telepathic understanding with.

Wing Backs

From the line-up above it’s obvious I’ve left Enrique out. His form fell badly in the second half of last season, however, even in the first half of the season, all though he had great defensive ability, he was not the most creative going forward. Hence I believe Liverpool would have a problem filling that role. I’ve heard people mention Downing for the left back slot before, but for me I don’t think he has the defensive qualities to play there. Having said that, as a wing back and free from those ‘normal’ defensive duties he might offer a solution. This would be a risk though.

As a right-wing back I have no hesitation that Glen Johnson would be able to perform that role. In fact, it has been muted in the past that he should be used in a right midfield position. A wing back role could actually suit him better.

Front Three

Wigan play a front three, all with completely different attributes. Firstly a main striker who acts as a central target man, i.e. Di Santo or Sammon. With Andy Carroll it seems Liverpool FC have a player who can more than fill that criteria.


The next two positions however are not as clear-cut. On one side of the striker (see above Wigan graphic) Martinez has used a player like Gomez who likes to get close to Sammon or Di Santo, he tends to drift inside and find spaces between the lines. It’s here that Liverpool don’t have a natural player to fill that role. Suarez wouldn’t be a number 10, and it’s hard to think of a player like that in the Liverpool FC squad. Somebody like Silva, Nasri or Modric is the kind of player that Liverpool would need. At a stretch maybe Maxi could play it, but he may not be around, and will also be a year older. Both Shelvey and Henderson don’t really play that game. So that area might be a problem if Martinez got the job and wanted to implement a 3-4-3.

Moses plays on the other side, a player who relies on pace and dribbling skills. In fact Moses had more successful dribbles (210) last season than any other player. Closely followed by Luis Suarez with 189. He plays wide to stretch the play, but can also come inside to allow his attacking wing back to run beyond him and create 2 v 1 situations. Again it’s difficult to find a player in the Liverpool FC squad who could fill that role. Sterling would seem a natural fit, but it wouldn’t be practical for him to go straight into the first team without some sort of bedding in period. Certainly he should get more playing time next season. Downing, let’s face it had an awful season, and doesn’t have blistering pace, nor a trick to beat a player. So again, this area may be a problem for Martinez. As you can see I’ve included Holiett in that role in the graphic above, as he is the type of player I believe Liverpool need in the summer, regardless of playing 3-4-3 or not. The fact that he had the third most successful dribbles (187) last season, just behind Suarez and Moses would show he’s not shy in taking on his man. (Editors Note: Suarez is also suited to the Number 11 role in your graphic. As shown yesterday by him cutting in from the right and scoring against Uruguay. Suarez can shoot with either foot making him a danger from either flank. I’d put him on the right side and find a new left-sided striker although Suarez could play that role too. I believe he played a wide-attacking role for Ajax so it will certainly suit him.)


If Martinez does get the job, he will need to go into the transfer market, especially if he wants to continue with his Wiganesque system of 3-4-3. Certainly Lavezzi at Napoli, with their 3-4-3, would be ideal to play the left-sided front forward position. But he maybe a little out of our price range. The Liverpool squad seems to suggest they don’t currently have the type of front players Martinez would need to replicate that formation at Liverpool FC. Though with Martinez we know he is not afraid to change the system to suit the players at his disposal, and if it came down to it, and he doesn’t find the right players in the transfer market I believe we may see him switching back to a 4-3-3 if he ends up as Liverpool manager.

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LFC and football. EPLIndex.com writer. iPhone dabbler. Tax advisor. Guitar player. Hendrix & Metallica fan. Husband. Messer. Dad to my best pal Liam.
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