‘Innovation’ may be too strong a term. Brendan Rodgers isn’t the first manager in the game to explore the use of three centre-backs and wing-backs. But in a country where anything other than a flat back four is seen as something of a taboo, and Mike Bassett’s “four-four-***ing-two” was once one of the most popular war cries, Liverpool are taking a positive step into uncharted territory.
It’s not really a weighing up of whether a swing in formation will land Liverpool a top four spot; that is yet to be seen. Instead, it’s about acknowledging a manager, whatever your opinion of him may be, who has flown in the face of public opinion and brought further nuances of European football to the Premier League.
Rodgers is apparently an enthusiastic student of the game in Europe. In Italy, tactics are a common theme in football discussion. By comparison, England tend to ignore them unless something radical comes along. And even then, it would be a push.
Juventus, however, have famously used the three centre-backs option to great effect over the past two seasons. There’s variety in Antonio Conte’s defensive line, with each player able to cover for one another’s shortcomings. Leonardo Bonucci may have his critics, but his ability on the ball is outstanding. When Lazio attempted to limit Andrea Pirlo’s influence from midfield, Bonucci cut out two stunning assists.
Rodgers may look to replicate something similar, but it’s elsewhere in the team that results will come to the fore.
Glen Johnson is far from the best defender, but using him as a wing-back can highlight the upside of his game. Neglect for defensive duty isn’t part of the theme, though. Instead, he’s covered for by others and the extra body in the backline.
The England right-back is of course just one example. Liverpool, on the whole, are benefitting from a system where a balance has been struck between defence and attack. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge are both able to perform in central striking roles if Rodgers chooses to use them in that manner, with width able to compensate for the creative loss of Coutinho.
The recent loss of two points – considering Newcastle were down to 10 men, it should be seen as two dropped – can make it difficult to defend the tactical exploration of something different. But as I’ve mentioned, this isn’t about talking Liverpool up as top four contenders or labelling Rodgers as one thing or another. It’s about the interest to work outside the limited parameters of English football and make the most of the players available. Even with Jordan Henderson playing in a wing-back position, you can’t argue that there are square pegs in round holes at Liverpool. In the case of Henderson, he’s shown how good he can be defensively. The attacking aspect of his game will clearly improve over time.
Should Rodgers be praised for his tactical decisions?
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