In the recent weeks we have seen Liverpool implement the 3-4-2-1 formation across competitions and the formation has proved to be successful. So what has made Brendan Rodgers use the 3-4-2-1 in the last few weeks? What options has it provided us pre-game and in-game? Are there weaknesses or more appropriately ways for the opposition to get around the 3-4-2-1 employed by Rodgers? This set of two articles will try to examine few of the questions mentioned above.
When Rodgers joined Liverpool in 2012 and outlined his core philosophy, the central theme to his philosophy was the midfield, especially the position he branded as the ‘controller’. Controller was the deepest midfielder who would control the game aided by 2 hard working midfielders alongside him, The TRIANGLE.
This triangle was utilised by Rodgers in various forms in a 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, to an extent even in the 3-5-2. Rodgers was very clear that he preferred the triangle of midfielders with a single controller.
So what is new about this 3-4-2-1 used recently? This formation has seen Rodgers deviating from his central tenet of a ‘Triangle’ and transforming into a central BOX of four players.
Rodgers in mid-December highlighted the tactical aspect behind this shift in formation as
We played with a box midfield and a back three, with [Lazar] Markovic wide and [Raheem] Sterling as a free No9, but it took some thought. I didn’t just throw them out there.
To explain this shift, the diagram below demarcates the box midfield as described by Rodgers:
What does the 3-4-2-1 offer ?
The classical 3-4-3 has its central tenet based on numerical superiority through the centre of the pitch in turn sacrificing superiority in the wide areas. In off the ball scenarios the defensive phases are handled by the three centre-backs in a narrow formation aided by the 4 man midfield including the wing-backs. In offense, the attack features 2 withdrawn attackers aiding the striker supported by the advancing wing-backs, basically transitioning the 3-4-3 into a 3-2-5.
The 3-4-2-1, which is a spin off from the 3-4-3, requires the 2 advanced midfielders to to drop deeper offering them options to go wider or stick to centre of the pitch while offering mobility and tactical flexibility. This makes this formation a demanding one by nature to execute for the full 90 minutes.
As outlined above the central pillars to this formation is ironically the wing-backs and how they get used. The wing-backs can hug the touchline and drag the opposition midfield into wide areas giving the space for the deeper attacking midfielders to occupy that space or allowing the centre two midfielders to step up. In another set up,the wing-backs can tuck into the centre along the halfway line, thus bolstering the midfield superiority also allowing the central midfielders to step up and move into advanced positions. Therefore it could be said , in such a formation, very often the game can be won or lost in the wide positions.
In a 3 man backline, the centre backs stay tight and compact to neutralise any forward press by the opposition using the spare man. In a classical 3 man backline, the central centre-back is often utilised as the spare man in possession, often acting as a distributor from deeper positions. But in Liverpool’s case, they have preferred to use their 2 best passers in Can and Sakho in the wider centre-back positions. This gives them the ability to execute various passing combinations as the 3rd centre-back, Skrtel in this case is not essentially sitting deep and thus can cover for an opposition player. In any case there is a spare man in the defence to carry the ball, and this spare man concept can be extended to various zones of the pitch based on how the opposition line up.
If the opposition plays 2 strikers up top pressing the centre-backs then the 3rd centre-back acts as the spare man and creates passing opportunities to the centre midfielders who occupy the space left by the pressing strikers.
Pep Guardiola summarised this succinctly:
In all team sports, the secret is to overload one side of the pitch so that the opponent must tilt its own defence to cope. You overload on one side and draw them in so that they leave the other side weak. And then you attack and score from the other side. That’s why you have to pass the ball, but only if you’re doing it with a clear intention. It’s only to overload the opponent, to draw them in and then to hit them with the sucker-punch
Liverpool vs Swansea
What we saw in the Liverpool vs Swansea game was that Bony and Siggurdson dropped deeper and covered the 2 central midfielders. In this case the 3 centre-backs had lots of the ball, but the passing options reduced. Thus Liverpool chose to exploit the space in the wide areas, sacrificing the superiority through the centre.
If we breakdown the first goal scored by Moreno in that game
- When Sakho passes the ball to Moreno,Dyer is caught in a no man’s land getting caught in a 1 vs 2 situation against Moreno and Coutinho.
- Coutinho’s movement to a wide position drags Fernandez wider allowing Moreno to cut inside and maintain numerical superiority in the centre.
- Since Shelvey did not track Coutinho, Britton tries to compensate thus allowing Lallana to move centrally and receive the ball from Moreno
- Lallana’s movement opens up space in the midfield allowing Henderson to make a run into the wide right position with Taylor tucking in to cover movement of Sterling.
- Henderson crosses to Moreno, who has got in between the centre backs in the space ceded by Coutinho moving wider.
- Liverpool 1-0 Swansea.
A perfect scenario of using numerical superiority in the wider areas shown below as the goal was made by Moreno continuing his movement inside with Coutinho compensating with his movement to the wider areas.
Liverpool vs Arsenal
Liverpool vs Arsenal showed us the second facet of the 3-4-2-1 and the superiority it offers, through the centre.With Arsenal choosing to play a midfield of Flamini, Cazorla and Oxlade Chamberlain, it was very clear that Liverpool could dominate the central regions of the pitch taking advantage of the fact that Cazorla and Chamberlain are not centre midfielders by nature and are always looking to move forward ceding the space in the centre. This led to scenarios where Coutinho and Lallana could take advantage in a 2 v 1 scenario against Flamini who had a disastrous first half and could have easily been sent off in that game.
With Liverpool playing Henderson and Markovic in the wing-back positions, the natural midfielders contributed to the numerical superiority in the centre. The Arsenal defenders chose to sit deep, no doubt scarred by their visit to Anfield last time, thus ceding huge amounts of possession to Liverpool, who somehow struggled in the final third as they were unable to use the pace of Sterling against a deeper central defence.
Looking at the above 2 games it is very clear that 3-4-2-1 formation offers multiple options in a tactically intelligent and mobile setup. The formation is easy to tweak in game to adjust to the opposition set up and dominate possession and attack through the centre, or cede possession but use the superiority in wide areas to counter attack.
So have the triangles disappeared?
On first looks, it is very clear the impact the box midfield setup has provided to Liverpool, but on closer looks we can still observe the triangular passing and movement patterns between Can-Henderson-Markovic/Manquillo. On the other side the link up between Sakho-Moreno-Coutinho has been brilliant to watch. So the triangles exist, just that they are shrouded inside the box like structure employed in the centre. This has led to oppositions being put off by this formation and have exposed the lack of preparation in handling this formation in its initial days.
In part 2 of this series, we will explore on the weaknesses of this set up employed by Liverpool and how opposition teams might look to counter it.