In Part 1 of this article, we looked into the importance of the 3-4-2-1 formation and how successful it has been for Liverpool since its implementation. In the second part of the article, we are going to examine if there are any weaknesses in this system as Liverpool use it and how opposition teams might try to set up and counter this system.
Are There Weaknesses in this System?
1. Positional Rotation in Centre Midfield
In the 3-4-2-1, the 2 central midfielders are the immediate passing options for the 3 CBs. If the opposition attackers drop deeper and press your centre midfielders like Swansea did, then there is a potential problem at hand. Henderson has lots of strengths, but receiving the ball facing his centre-backs or losing his marker with positional rotation are not his top 2 strengths. Therefore the potential weak link in this system is probably our future captain. Lucas Leiva is far more accomplished in creating angles with his off the ball movements and consequently provides a far safer option as a passing outlet. Lucas with his movement also drags his marker along with him, thus creating a passing option from the defensive zone to the attacking zone directly. Such movements were executed repeatedly on the side Lucas played in and was less frequent on the side Henderson played. The best way to address this would actually be to use the currently injured Joe Allen. His ‘courage’ in receiving the ball under pressure, ability to use his body as a shield and his ability to move and turn with the ball are inherent strengths for this system. It would also enable Henderson’s strengths to be used better, maybe in advanced roles.
The below image illustrates the off the ball movement of the central midfield and how it aided the passing from CBs to AMs in the Sunderland vs LFC game
The above image indicates how off the ball movements from Lucas/Henderson dragged their respective markers Larsson and Gomez along with them, thus creating a passing option from Sakho to Coutinho or Can to Gerrard. This also took the 2 CMs of Sunderland out of the move and left the less experienced Bridcutt in a 2 vs 1 situation against our advanced midfielders.
2. Systemic Weaknesses
Before we expand on this section, it is imperative to highlight that every formation can be set up in a manner for it to be successful in its objective if executed rightly. It is also fair to say that every formation has its inherent strengths and weaknesses and the players available help in enhancing those strengths or minimising the pain points. Last but not least, the formation is just one building block of tactics and aren’t the ‘be all, and end all’ of tactics themselves.
The game I was most worried about personally was the home game against Arsenal. One, they had excellent mobile players to move around on and off the ball. Second, and the more critical reason was the way they set up in a 4-3-3. This set up gave Arsenal couple of advantages:
- This formation gave Arsenal a 3 v 2 numerical superiority in the centre of midfield to dominate the possession down the middle.
- In Welbeck and Sanchez, Arsenal had 2 mobile wide attackers who could run into the wide spaces in between the advanced wing backs and the centre backs. This would mean the wide attackers would stretch the outer CBs, thus leaving Skrtel 1 on 1 vs Giroud theoretically.
As I said, theoretically…
Ultimately, Arsenal did not press hard to recover the ball enough, allowing Liverpool to absolutely dominate possession. Arsenal also did not pass as well as they usually do, consequently Liverpool did not face the extent of pressure on the counter attack that they should have. Lastly, the usage of Chamberlain and Cazorla as centre midfielders absolutely did not work in hindsight, with both of them turning out to be ‘square pegs in round holes’.
Liverpool vs Chelsea
Considering Liverpool’s next game is the first leg of the League Cup Semi-Final and being a home fixture, what would I do if I was Mourinho? (Not that I would ever want to be Mourinho!)
I would use the same template as Arsenal, but just tweak it to ensure it works as intended.
Liverpool On the Ball
- When Liverpool try to pass it out from the back, The three attacking players would try and press the three centre-backs who are the first passing zone.
- With Chelsea has a numerical superiority in the centre of midfield, it would not be beyond the realms of reality to expect two central midfielders (say Oscar and Fabregas) to try to press Henderson and Lucas. As explained above, the Henderson situation is/could be a pain point.
- This means the immediate passing option for the keeper might be the wing-backs who are already in an advanced position, thus making it a risky proposition, especially if their full-backs start closing in.
- With Mignolet’s suspect distribution, it could also mean any error would be seized upon instantly, leading to a turnover.
- I would imagine Mignolet would resort to kicking it long, but with Chelsea’s advantage in height in their defensive positions, it could mean that we surrender possession easily.
Possible Chelsea Counter Attack
- If Liverpool do lose the ball in the midfield positions of Gerrard and Coutinho, Chelsea will be set up perfectly to counter attack.
- The wide attackers of Chelsea will be set up to try drag the wide CBs of Liverpool along with them, thus stretching the flat centre-backs of Liverpool.
- This movement ideally opens up space for Costa to go 1 v 1 against Skrtel where Costa could make runs either side of Skrtel depending on which wide attacker has the ball.
- It could also allow the attacking midfielder (Oscar in this case), to make a run into the space vacated by Costa, which would put Lucas in a dilemma of whether to go with Oscar or cover the zone.
- The passing sequence illustrated above is just one of the possibilities on how Chelsea could score. This sequence could be executed on the left flank too.
Brendan Rodgers sure should be anticipating this, as he should be aware of the weaknesses in the system he has deployed. Thus it would not be surprising if Rodgers plays Manquillo as the right-sided wing-back and switches Lazar Markovic to the left, especially considering the huge defensive work done by Markovic against Villa. This would mean a slightly defensive stance adopted by Liverpool, but would give them more balance against the counter attacking threat of Chelsea without any compromise on the attacking front.
It is very critical that Liverpool absolutely need to be on top of their passing game and not lose the ball in dangerous areas. This is simply because the team would be in its most disorganised state the moment when Liverpool lose the ball as the transition from ‘on the ball’ to ‘off the ball’ takes a few moments.
All said and done, the above scenarios are theoretically. It could absolutely turn out the reality is something else and makes this article look daft and consign it to the bin. On the other hand, it could also be that something similar to what is described above actually happens.
At the cost of consigning my own article to the bin, I hope it is the former.