The recent release of the EPL Index Tactics Board has kept me busy over the last few nights and judging by the reaction on Twitter, I haven’t been the only one.
Playing with the tool (which can be found here: https://www.eplindex.com/tacticsboard/) prompted me to put this article together looking at different formations used by Liverpool in the recent history.
I’ll start where most discussions today tend to start about Liverpool; with Rafa Benitez’s Premier League runners up of 2008/09. Having assembled the squad over the previous four seasons, Benitez’s 08/09 side was arguably Liverpool’s best in Premier League history – the second place finish certainly suggests so, with the club only matching it in 01/02 (not that football began with the Premier League of course). The formation used, as it was for most of Benitez’s period as manager, was 4231, with a strong midfield pairing of Alonso and Mascherano behind the incredible partnership of Gerrard and Torres.
The system worked well, but also involved the best group of players seen at the club in recent history. Also, at this time, the system wasn’t used nearly as much as it is today. Bizarrely, Benitez was actually criticised for it being defensive. Since this side was dismantled, Liverpool have tried several different formations with varying success but popular opinion from fans tends to be for Liverpool to return to the 4231 shown above. It has been toyed with occasionally, but both Kenny Dalglish and Brendan Rodgers (the less said about Roy Hodgson, the better), have preferred to use other systems.
When he returned for the second half of the 2010/11 season, Kenny Dalglish enjoyed a league run-in of 10 wins, 3 draws and 5 defeats. While he notably used a 5 man defence in the 1-0 win away to Chelsea, the general system was a flexible 4222, perhaps most successful (and entertaining) in the 5-2 win away to Fulham. The image below shows the starting line up that night.
As with the majority of formations, this was based on the central midfield. With Steven Gerrard out injured, Jay Spearing was promoted to partner Lucas in the middle, while Raul Meireles, who most fans wanted to play central, tucked in from the right. The other three front players rotated in an attacking sense and it tended to get the best out of Maxi (who scored 7 league goals in the half season Dalglish was in caretaker charge) and Kuyt (who scored 10 league goals in the same period). It seemed to work well with Luis Suarez too.
After the Hodgson disaster, the second half of the 2010/11 made fans very excited ahead of the 2011/12 season. However, despite the relative success of the flexible system used, signings seemed to be made to suit a more rigid 442, shown in the image below. Despite looking similar on paper to the 4222 previously used, the players circled meant the system lost it’s flexibility.
Jordan Henderson was used in a similar way to Raul Meireles previously – tucking in from the right, but other summer signings changed the way the team played significantly. Firstly, with Steven Gerrard again injured for most of the season, Charlie Adam was a frequent starter (when later injured, Jay Spearing replaced him but seemed to have lost form shown in his brief spell the previous year). Adam playing meant more defensive work for Lucas, who was performing miracles before injury ended his season. When he was out, the central midfield base that made the system work previously was completely lost. Secondly, on the left side of midfield, from where Maxi had scored so many goals, Stewart Downing was offering (or trying to offer) a more traditional wing threat and the team lost a major goal threat. Finally, up front, Andy Carroll, injured when the 4222 was being played the season before, wasn’t as mobile as Dirk Kuyt and also lacked goals. Between them, Downing and Carroll scored 4 league goals in the entire season – a massive drop from the 17 scored by Maxi and Kuyt in just the second half of the previous season.
When Brendan Rodgers came in, things changed agan, with talk of a dominating passing style of football and his favoured 433 system. Summer signings were made to suit this, in particular Joe Allen and Fabio Borini for a combined £25m but the season started with Liverpool clearly struggling to adapt. The image below shows the starting line up from the 3-1 home defeat to Aston Villa, which was one of the most clear examples of Liverpool’s struggles with the new system.
A lack of attacking options meant this was a weakened side but it was no excuse for the performance. As wide forwards, Shelvey and Sterling struggled to contribute at all and the central of midfield also struggled, as a half fit Lucas had too much work to do, Gerrard didn’t seem to know what his role required (although he did score a late consolation) and Allen looked weak as Villa players ran through the middle of the pitch with ease. It’s been a regular problem with the system – 3 centre midfielders has often looked like less than 2, as opposition players run through the centre of pitch unchallenged.
The signings made in January marked a change. Initially, it was expected that Daniel Sturridge was bought for the right side of attack, where he had previously played for Chelsea, but Rodgers soon confirmed that Sturridge would play up front – and, crucially, that Luis Suarez wouldn’t be pushed out wide. With the other January signing, Phil Coutinho, also best suited in a roaming role behind the main striker, Liverpool’s front 3 would soon look very different.
A run of tough away games, none of which Coutinho played, saw Liverpool move to a similar system to the 4222 saw under Dalglish. Shown in the image below, Liverpool again had a base of two holding midfielders – Lucas and Gerrard, whose role has changed significantly this season – and a wide midfielder tucking in to make a three – this time Jordan Henderson from the left. The other wide player again had more license to join the attack, with a slight change being that Downing stayed more towards the right, rather than rotating freely with the forward players as seen with Maxi in late 2010/11.
Positive displays in the second half at Old Trafford and later away to Arsenal and Manchester City gave fans a sense of what could be. However, the formula was tweaked again for the home game against Swansea. Henderson was dropped for Coutinho in an attacking change that worked well for the 5-0 win. Several enforced changes meant a different shape away to Wigan, which resulted in another comfortable win. Despite two comfortable wins, many expected the team to revert to the style seen away to Arsenal and Manchester City, for the home game against Tottenham, but Henderson was on the bench again, with all four of Downing, Coutinho, Suarez and Sturridge starting. The 3-2 win was very welcome but Liverpool struggled to control the game and had started too open. Only when Joe Allen came on to add a body to the midfield did Liverpool look possible of even getting a draw.
That it became another win arguably led to overconfidence and Liverpool again started with all four front players away to Southampton, shown in the image below. The two man midfield couldn’t cope and Liverpool were comfortably beaten.
Out of all three cup competitions and with little to play for in the league, Liverpool, and Brendan Rodgers, have an opportunity to use the remainder of the season to define the plan for the future. Rodgers came in looking to implement a 433 but Liverpool’s best performances have been with different systems. If Rodgers still wants to implement 433, which is notably still being used at Academy level, he will have to face questions as to why he moved away from it originally and why the January signings were made when the players are more suited to other systems. If it is decided that 4222 is the way forward, it should be recognised that one of the wide players needs to be able to support the central midfield two. This has worked best with Jordan Henderson coming from the left, but means dropping one of Coutinho, Downing, Suarez or Sturridge. Downing has offered a good balance on the right but probably doesn’t offer as much as Coutinho going forward. Few would support the other option of dropping one of Suarez and Sturridge.
The signings made in the summer of 2011 brought a stop to the progress made under Dalglish and the 4222 system. Those made in the summer of 2012 signalled a plan to use 433 but may now have to be disregarded. Any made for 2013 will have to be done so with a clear plan of what system they will fit in to if money isn’t going to be wasted again. Rodgers has 8 league games to decide what that system will be.
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