Examining Liverpool's Tactical Flexibility for the coming Premier League Season
In just over a week’s time, the prayers of every football fan will be answered as the Premier League launches out of the starting blocks once again. There has been quite an upheaval over the summer at Liverpool and, under Brendan Rodgers’ guidance, a squad has been assembled that should be in a fit state to challenge with greater sincerity at the top of the table once again. Perhaps one of the greatest strengths of both Liverpool’s boss and the current group of players is the vast flexibility available in terms of tactics and formation. Just what are the key features behind this trait and how can each be exploited to the maximum in the coming months?
The current squad at Anfield is now almost littered with players well capable of performing to an extremely high level in a variety of positions; dubbed ‘utility men’. James Milner adds to the already present Jordan Henderson and Emre Can as the prime examples of this concept and in my opinion, this trio are the keys to Liverpool’s available variation.
The former Manchester City midfielder whom Liverpool acquired on a free transfer this summer has become famous over the last few years for his vast levels of versatility. It has to be said that one of the defining factors behind his move to Merseyside was Brendan Rodgers’ intention to play him regularly in a central midfield role, bossing the engine room of the team. However, Milner is undoubtedly very capable of playing on either flank; either with a primarily offensive or defensive mind-set, and has been known to play at right-back and even as a nominal number nine in the past. Adding numerous strings to his bow has been a direct consequence of this rather inconsistent playing position and it is quite possible that Liverpool will now receive the greatest benefits of this wide knowledge of the skills required all over the pitch.
Emre Can really came into his own as a vital member of Liverpool’s squad in the latter half of the last campaign. He excelled as a young player in the new and intense environment of Premier League football, performing at the slightly alien role of the right-sided centre half of a back three. Here he was able to demonstrate an impressive level of tactical awareness, rarely being shown up defensively and excelling most in his composure in possession, being capable of bringing the ball out from the back to initiate an attack. It is more likely that his long term future on Merseyside will see him in a central midfield role not too dissimilar to his position for the German U-21 side in this summer’s European Championships. Liverpool will certainly look to take advantage of both his fantastic physical attributes and surprising level of subtlety shown at times last season in the final third of the pitch.
Confirmed as the new Liverpool captain to replace Los Angeles-bound club legend Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson has come on leaps and bounds over the past few years and is now more than capable of applying himself all over the field. His stamina and physical prowess allow the midfielder to work at full pace between both penalty boxes for 90 minutes and so one often sees Henderson putting in vital contributions at both ends of the pitch. Strong in the tackle, rapidly improving in possession of the ball, and developing an increasingly sharp eye for goal, Liverpool’s number 14 is cemented as a key man wherever Rodgers chooses to deploy him. One interesting point to note is Roy Hodgson’s recent decision to shift the ex-Sunderland man to right-back in an England game rather than bringing Nathaniel Clyne into the fray. The Three Lions needed additional attacking impetus and Henderson certainly did not let anyone down on the right side of defence, however I would expect Rodgers to only consider this option in the direst of circumstances.
The incessant willingness to experiment that has been shown by the Northern Irish manager is a useful aspect to explore further and take advantage of as the season progresses. Liverpool’s long unbeaten run in the middle part of last year coincided with Rodgers converting his side to a 3-4-3 formation. There is no doubt that a back three of Can, Skrtel and Sakho added solidity, whilst the efforts of the wing-backs allowed Coutinho the freedom to express himself and create at will. It must be said however that The Reds possibly arrived at this formation more by luck than judgement, as a flurry of injuries left Rodgers with few options other than transforming his system. Nevertheless, he retained the style much further down the line, clearly appreciative of the assistance it brought to his side at the time. From the additions he has made to the playing staff this summer and the setups employed in pre-season to date, I see him preferring a formation with four at the back but with the knowledge that the 3-4-3 can be reverted to if need be.
During the season where Rodgers’ Liverpool fell tragically at the final hurdle in their quest for Premier League glory, it was commonplace to see his teams switch between a 4-3-3 and 4-1-2-1-2 at regular intervals throughout matches. Depending on the opposition they came up against and how the early portion of the game had transpired would determine the tactics for the minutes to come. This approach keeps the opposition guessing and means that they could well arrive unprepared.
However, it does have the drawback of potentially trying to be too clever for your own good and being overwhelmed in specific areas of the pitch. For example, Manchester United following Van Gaal’s philosophy were able to dominate one side of the pitch to the other as players such as Young on the left and Mata on the right capitalised on the space being opened up. This approach by Rodgers will become increasingly refined with experience and as long as the players are drilled to a sufficient standard, it has the potential to remain a very powerful tactic.
Liverpool almost have an embarrassment of riches in the area of the pitch between the lines of midfield and attack. Several stars with terrific awareness and matching technical ability are on their books and all love to operate in pockets of space behind a main striker. Amongst the contingent, there is a fine balance between very similar players and also those who offer something in other categories.
This variation allows for a flexibility in style, approach, and application depending on the opposition. For example, Coutinho, Firmino and Lallana are blessed with outstanding close control, dribbling ability and acceleration off the mark but are not widely renowned as particularly pacey over longer distances. On the other hand, Markovic and Ibe are scintillatingly fast and attack their opposite number with a direct style when on top of their game. The most appropriate combination of these abilities can be chosen in order to provide the greatest threat to the opposition, whether they defend with a high line or pack the defence to attempt to eliminate the space.
Last season, Liverpool seriously lacked a consistent and reliable threat through the middle of their attack. With Suarez’s departure to Barcelona coinciding with Sturridge’s injury-plagued campaign and other strikers at the club showing varying states of ineptitude, they struggled to maintain a threat to the opposition centre halves.
With the numerous additions to their ranks in this area; namely Benteke, Ings and the long-awaited arrival of Origi, The Reds again have options in attack that can be relied upon to both score goals and wreak havoc in the opponent’s penalty box. I believe that in addition to continuing the previous trend of playing one sole striker; as all four are capable of this job, there are pairings amongst Liverpool’s current quartet which could work like a dream. There is the potential of Benteke and Origi filling the same role as a target man, then combining with either Sturridge or Ings in a more withdrawn position that takes advantage of their intelligence and close control. Either way, there is the argument that opposition centre halves will have significantly more to be concerned about when marking a man each, hopefully maintaining The Reds position on the front foot.
In this somewhat generic looking 4-3-3, I think the main feature to note is the midfield trio. In terms of an engine room, this has to be one of the most powerful examples that one could wish to combine whilst also not suffering in the technical aspect of proceedings. All three of Can, Henderson and Milner can defend, tackle, pass, run, and shoot, and when grouped together would be the driving force behind the effectiveness of this Liverpool side.
When playing in a 4-1-2-1-2, it has the advantage of being able to accommodate two forwards to lead the line and occupy the opposition defence to the greatest extent. However, with the players Liverpool have to choose from, width would be a problem and so Clyne and Moreno would have to work exceptionally hard down the flanks to both quash attacks from the opposition and maintain a threat for their own side. This system could work best against a team with most of their power in the middle of the park as it allows for a rapid transition between dogged defending in compact space and springing a strong counter-attack at the heart of the opposition.
If Rodgers chooses to employ a 3-4-3 formation again this season, then I believe he could mostly stick to what has been tried and tested in the past. The effect of Can taking the ball out from the back and starting attacks with purpose would be massive for the side as a whole. Furthermore, the wing-backs would again have to get through a great workload. Any midfield pairing of the players that Liverpool have at their disposal should be combative and tenacious enough to compete with almost any Premier League side in this area, thus leaving the creative aspect of the game to their Brazilian wizards and a potentially resurgent Lallana.
Of the many talented members of Liverpool’s current squad, who do you think would make the best eleven that carries the greatest threat to the opposition. Does The Reds’ strength lie in their intricate play in the space behind a main striker or should they look to adapt their philosophy to a more direct style with the intention of taking advantage of Benteke’s main attributes? Let us know in the comments or on twitter @TBRFootball .
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