From the depths of implosion and a potential managerial casualty, the unexpected change to an unorthodox 3-4-2-1 formation has completely transformed the fortunes of Liverpool’s 2014/15 campaign.
It started with a 3-0 defeat to Manchester United in which their unfamiliarity with the system was abundantly obvious defensively, whilst Raheem Sterling’s surprise inclusion as an out-and-out centre-forward bore disappointing profligacy at the other end.
A loss to historic rivals that saw them drop to 10th in the Premier League table, the result was undoubtedly the Reds’ lowest low of the season.
But since then, things have only moved upwards for the Anfield outfit, with the new system providing balance to a starting Xi and hierarchy to a squad that lacked both at the start of the year. From that humbling loss in mid-December, Liverpool have lost just once in all competitions, to Chelsea in the Capital One Cup semi-final, winning twelve of 18 and claiming five consecutive clean sheets in their last five Premier League outings on the road.
Despite swapping four defenders for three and employing a system often considered alien to the English game, the 3-4-2-1 has added a new sense of resilience to Liverpool’s play, whilst rediscovering the counter-attacking avenues that the Reds’ pacey forward cast clinically exploited to a definitive degree last season. It’s proved an inspired brainwave from Brendan Rodgers; especially for a manager whose intent on possession-based, attacking football when initially arriving at Anfield suggested a worrying preparation for metaphorical martyrdom, living or dying by his philosophical sword.
Long-term however, where does a formation that seemingly seeped into Rodgers’ reckoning overnight fit into his master plan of returning Liverpool to the promised land of Champions League football? Is Anfield now the Premier League’s residency of continentally-inspired back threes? Are the Reds now defined by their 3-4-2-1? Or will Rodgers return to a more conventional formation next season? With the summer window slowing looming, the story of Liverpool’s change in system desperately requires some form of conclusion.
Of course, there are some players that suit it perfectly. The pace, power and left-footedness of Mamadou Sakho, for example, has really stood out in the left centre-back role, producing arguably the best form of his Anfield career. Likewise, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana love those elusive wide-central gaps the dual positions just in front of midfield beckons them to exploit, and any formation that gets the Brazilian, Raheem Sterling and Daniel Sturridge operating as a lucid, nomadic front three is surely essential to Liverpool’s efficiency going forward, regardless of how the eight men are fielded behind them.
Other selections however, feel a little more awkward; playmaking wideman Lazar Markovic as an ad hoc right wing-back – or failing that, Jordan Ibe – attacker Sterling as an out-and-out poacher, left-back Alberto Moreno almost a part of the midfield and industrious defensive-mid Emre Can at right centre-back. These young players are seen as an integral part of Liverpool’s future, the Serbian international, for example, cost the Reds £20million last summer, so in my opinion, it’s imperative they’re played in their most effective, familiar and habitual positions as frequently as possible. Liverpool’s current set-up doesn’t allow that – in fact, it actively defies it.
Furthermore, many of Liverpool’s problems at the start of the campaign – the patch of the season that will be deemed to have cost them a Champions League spot should they failed to qualify come May – can be traced back to a summer in which there appeared to be little plan or preparation for the £110million they eventually spent. They won’t match that outlay in the coming summer, but entering a window without a definitive formation will inevitably throw up more problems than solutions, once again, heading into the 2015/16 campaign.
All footballers are highly adaptable – something Liverpool’s recent success pays specific homage to – yet there’s no debate over what formations are easier to recruit for out of the 3-4-2-1 and more generic back-four-double-wide-man models. Barring central midfield and centre-forward, the Reds will in effect be purchasing players for positions and roles they don’t currently play – and the worst case scenario next year is yet another transition period that eats into the start of their campaign. Although Liverpool would benefit from the uniqueness the formation offers their identity, the issue of recruiting for it could plague them recurringly over the years.
At the same time, right now, Liverpool are benefiting from the ambiguity of their system. Rather than playing the Reds, the majority of their opponents this season have ended up playing the formation, attempting to discover it’s weaknesses and on the most part, failing to do so. But it won’t always be that way; eventually, every system in the Premier League gets found out, and the trick is to adapt quickly and subtly enough so that your rivals don’t catch up with you.
With that in mind, although I see little reason to change between now and May, Liverpool may be forced to revert back to a more familiar formation during the summer. How and what Brendan Rodgers decides their next system to be however, remains to be seen.