In this week's Talking Reds column, Harry Hugo examines Liverpool's recent change in formation.
Three at the back, surely not! That mystifying combination of four single digit numbers is only for the great European teams! In fact, no, only Italian sides exuding panache out of every pore could ever possibly use this ludicrous system.
During this era we have been lucky enough to watch the great Barcelona play their finest football; pressing, passing and, ultimately, scoring a stack load of goals. It may be stupid to draw parallels (and call me a fool for doing so) but in terms of replication, the style is being implemented. The high press, the patient build up and then that clinical edge - something we've certainly developed under Rodgers.
The 4-2-3-1 seemed to be Rodgers' default with balance being the key factor of the proposal but the beauty of being managed by someone like the Northern Irishman is that we've become adaptable. Adaptation by its very nature is a positive thing for the specimen involved, allowing it to evolve its entity to suit its environment; something so drastically needed in the modern Premier League. That evolution, possibly brought about through injury, has seen Liverpool experiment with the 3-5-2.
Now, the 3-5-2 is an odd one. It can sound defensive when you call it a 5-3-2 but, in contrast, it can sound too open and attacking when you call it a 3-5-2. In fact, it's neither. It's a blend of the two brought about by constant manipulation and transition of the players deployed on the pitch. Midfielders become defenders and attackers become midfielders in defence whilst the opposite happens when on the attack. Liverpool have further modified the 3-5-2 into something reminiscent of a 3-4-1-2, with Victor Moses playing as the '1' behind the potent force of Suarez and Sturridge.
With a full strength side out, Gerrard and Lucas occupy the traditional '2' in the centre of midfield. Their job: to drop in to help the centre-backs when needed and likewise drive forward and aid the on-going attacks. Within this 'transition', we see the wing-backs push high to create a new '4' in midfield, whilst Lucas drops in between the two centre-backs to provide cover.
The key is fluidity. This is mostly found in the midfield, where all three are expected to move around the pitch (Gerrard, Moses and Lucas). Instead of the strict 3-5-2, Liverpool play a lot of the match (due to being in possession of the ball for large periods) in more of a 3-4-1-2 or, if you are horrendously pedantic, a 3-1-3-1-2. Because of the natural narrowness of the central players in this formation, the creativity from wide comes solely from the wing-backs and luckily for Rodgers, along with his abundance of centre-backs to choose from, he also has plenty of players who can play wider in defence. Johnson, Kelly, Enrique, Cissokho, Wisdom, Sterling and even Toure can all play this position competently. With this width coming from deep it gives Liverpool more momentum going forward in transition, with players naturally having to get forward from defence to get into useful positions - this has been seen in a few of the recent games where more players have been surging forward in attack and getting in and around the box.
But the selling point for me isn't the width from the wing-backs (which we get in any formation due to the players we have) but the strength we have when Sturridge and Suarez play together as the partnership up front. Both players are similar in how they do similar jobs on the pitch, dropping deep, running channels and ultimately scoring goals. However, it's their interchangeable nature that compliments the system more than most. The fact that both players can drop deep and pick up the ball helps players like Steven Gerrard in distribution and allows the team to move around the pitch quicker as there are more options. Sturridge can run a channel whilst Suarez makes a decoy run short, or the other way round. Although it worked at the start of the season for us and for the majority of last season for lots of other high-profile teams, the 4-2-3-1 inhibits Sturridge's ability as a goalscorer slightly. Some may argue that he had his best spell at the end of last season when we were supposedly playing this formation, but really Sturridge enjoyed his best form last season and the start of this when Coutinho was all but playing alongside him. The league's top scorer works brilliantly alongside someone who provides him service; and there aren't many better creative players in the league than the Liverpool attacking force.
Distribution channels are also paramount to a fluid passing side and this is something Simon Mignolet has to capitalise on. If we take the 3-4-1-2 model there are three, almost straight, distribution channels that feed straight from the goalkeeper to the strikers. Now, what's good about this is that when there are parallel lines of players on the pitch, it opens up the opportunities for triangles to be made. One-twos within triangles can eliminate opposition players from the game in an instant and allow the pressing side to enhance their attacking threat. Although it seems to detour the direct, triangles on the football pitch are vital to clever attacking. These shapes are mostly formed by the wing-backs and inside-forwards as they commandeer down the flank, passing inside to one of the dictators of play, only to receive it back on the other side of the opposition player. Glen Johnson, when fit, is a brilliant example of this.
The flanks are used far more than the centre of the field, where a lot of teams employ five midfielders. That's why the full-backs are so pivotal to the system; overlapping in attack and tracking back in defence. It doesn't matter who plays there, they never get plaudits for their work to retain the system and the shape of the team. This attacking threat from the wings does, however, leave any team who plays this system slightly open in those areas. That's when the defensive midfielder becomes vital, dropping into the departed wing-back's position therefore allowing the defence to either retain its '5' shape or morph into a more traditional back four where, for example, Kolo Toure drops to right-back. Through the course of a game Liverpool will play a mixture of 3, 4 and 5 at the back depending on the situation. There aren't many other formations that allow this to happen and with the players we have at our disposal it's a system I'm surprised we haven't employed earlier.
The system changes as much as the manager wants but the players available first and foremost drive it. I can see Rodgers wanting Liverpool players to master more than one position and formation, to become tactical players that can rotate, cover and play in any system at any time. It's unfair to draw parallels to Barcelona or Total Football, but you can certainly see the likenesses or at least how we are going about doing it. Even in The Academy players are taught in this way, with Alex Inglethorpe telling me only a few months ago that Jordon Ibe was played in four or five different positions at Liverpool youth levels so his tactical awareness and ability to fit into more than one system was increased. Ibe is now a first team player at 17. This is far from the only reason he's made it, but it is certainly a contributing factor.
Whether it's a 5-3-2, 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2 on the team sheet, I don't care. At the end of the day they are just a string of single-digit numbers that are displayed and talked about to keep people like me content. What really matters is that it's slowly starting to come together, the tight 4-3-3 that set up on the first game of Rodgers' reign is transforming into an interchangeable system that modifies itself dependant on environment and situation. The evolution continues.