“All good things must come to an end.”
That’s in reference to Liverpool’s 13-game unbeaten streak in 2015 of course, which began with a loss to fierce rivals Manchester United and also ended in a similar fashion against the same opposition within the space of a little over 3 months. The feat started after Brendan Rodgers’ opted to switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation with a flat-4 in midfield, consisting of two wing-backs and two midfielders. What contributed to the success of this new-found formation (having an outright defensive midfielder, the ball-playing abilities of Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho at the back, the aggressiveness of the wing-backs, Philippe Coutinho’s resurgence and revival, etc.) however slowly started to diminish one-by-one.
Injuries forced our only recognised defensive midfielder in Lucas Leiva out of the squad, along with Jordon Ibe, Mamadou Sakho, and Steven Gerrard among others. On the other hand, players like Lazar Markovic and Alberto Moreno have also been in and out of the starting line-up, resulting in some inconsistent displays. Even under those circumstances, Liverpool still managed to get draws and wins, though some needed to be grinded out rather than convincingly earned.
But again, all good things must (slowly) come to an end. After unconvincing wins against Sunderland and Southampton, let’s fast forward to March the 17th where the Reds and Brendan Rodgers saw their 3-4-2-1 failing on them in the first half against Swansea. The continuous pressure being piled on proved to be too much to handle – only managing to survive the semi-onslaught thanks to some stunning goalkeeping by Simon Mignolet. The same happened against Manchester United when they exploited the channels behind our wing-backs and the space in between the back-three and the midfield when attacking. That is on top of some of the most proactive and diligent pressing you’d see around.
(The image shows the 3-4-2-1 formation being played by Brendan Rodgers, and the areas being exploited by oppositions as indicated by the yellow boxes.)
With those few games in mind, perhaps the flat 3-4-3 was starting to get a little bit too….flat? Teams are starting to find the chinks in the armour, and nestling their way into the nooks and crannies, and the cracks and crevices of the system. As a result, performances have slowly deteriorated. There is a glimmer of hope for the 3-4-3 however, and it lies in turning that flat midfield-4 into a diamond midfield (as seen in the second half of the aforementioned Swansea game).
What is the 3-4-3 Diamond?
Being a spin-off of other 3-man backline formations, like the 3-4-2-1 or the 3-5-2, the 3-4-3 diamond formation needs no real explanation: 3 centre-backs holding down the fort, 4 players who form a midfield diamond, and 3 forwards consisting of 2 wide players and a striker. But let’s analyse it a little bit more in-depth, starting with the manager and the team who mastered it.
Cruyff’s 3-4-3 – The Breakdown
During his time managing Ajax (and even later on, Barcelona), Johan Cruyff played the 3-4-3 diamond formation rather exclusively, building on the premise of having a diamond midfield which offers several benefits. Here’s a quick breakdown of each part of the system.
(Johan Cruyff’s Ajax side in a 3-4-3 formation built on the foundations of the diamond midfield.)
Cruyff starts off with a goalkeeper who ideally, should be able to play like a typical outfield player. Being comfortable on the ball and having the composure to carry the ball at his feet is truly essential. Moreover, since ‘total voetbal’ was the style of play at that time, long balls by the ‘keeper aren’t encouraged. Instead, the simple pass to the next line of the formation is typically preferred.
This next line is the back-three which in his day consisted of two sweepers-cum-wingbacks (Frank de Boer and Michael Reiziger; both who started off as full-backs) and a central defender (Danny Blind). The job of the sweepers at the sides of the back-three was to receive the pass from the goalkeeper or the central defender, and take the ball into midfield or to the sides of midfield. This achieves several things:-
- If not tracked by the forwards, said sweeper would be given a free pass into midfield with the ball and would be able to push up higher up the pitch unmarked.
- If tracked, the forward would be out of position (that is, away from the box or the final third) if the opposition wins the ball back. Johan Cruyff famously said: “If [the opposing forward] did run back (to track the run of the sweeper), after ten of those runs he’d be wrecked and no longer dangerous offensively.”
- Either way, the run by the sweeper adds another player into midfield areas, which could aid in winning the midfield battle by outnumbering the opposition. Oppositions would have to adapt to this additional player and pre-planned defensive structures would be disrupted.
Now, we talk about the much-spoken-of diamond midfield, which is normally anchored by a defensive midfielder (Frank Rijkaard being the most prominent name for Cruyff’s Ajax side). The role and function of the defensive midfielder here is to be a pivot between the back-three and the upper-triangle of the diamond when in possession. Whenever one of the sweepers make a run with the ball up the pitch, the defensive midfielder drops back and plays as part of the back-three.
(The RCB/LCB – typically wing-backs/sweepers – making a run forward into midfield areas while the DM drops back to fill in the void in the back-line.)
The midfielders at the sides of the diamond (Edgar Davids, Clerence Seedorf, Ronald de Boer, and Jan Wouters) are players who are able to dictate and control the pace of the game as well as be proficient in distributing the ball. They could also be seen as either a box-to-box midfielder, or as playmakers.
Defensively-speaking, how the deeper triangle of the diamond works in a simplistic manner is as follows: the defensive midfielder is tasked to shield the back-line and break down attacks coming from central areas while the midfielders cover the flanks as make-shift, de facto wing-backs. Since Cruyff’s 3-4-3 works best as a system as a whole, more on this defensive structure will be discussed later.
Closing off the diamond would be to have an attacking midfielder or a second-striker at the tip of the diamond (Jari Litmanen and Arnold Scholten have both played in that role). Playing as either an attacking playmaker which could potentially double up as a second-striker, this is where a lot of the offensive support comes from. Aggressive runs in and around the box, playing the key passes in the link-up, and even taking shots when given the open look should all be in his repertoire.
Lastly, two wide forwards or wingers (Marc Overmars and George Finidi, among others) would flank a centre-forward (Patrick Kluivert or Marco van Basten), who should be tactically aware. The trio of forwards have the potential to unlock many defensive structures, thus opening up spaces in the defence for other players (midfielders included) to exploit. The central striker should say within the centre of the vertical axis – either to drop deeper like a false-9 would, or take up goal-threatening positions in the box.
When not on the ball, the wingers would mark the opposing full-back and the striker would either cut off passing lanes between the opposing back-line, or press high up. The attacking midfielder drops and takes up either side of the midfield spot to cover for either of the midfielders who drift wide to function as a temporary wing-back.
(Whilst defending in transition, the midfielders and wingers should move and track back to cover certain areas of the pitch.)
So with the textbook closed, could the current Liverpool squad take up an exact, if not similar shape as Cruyff’s 3-4-3 diamond formation?
How History Could Repeat Itself
(The 3-4-3 diamond using the same XI Brendan Rodgers deployed in a 3-4-2-1.)
Before we jump any further into the application of the 3-4-3 diamond using the current Liverpool squad…
Let’s Talk Limitations
- As the midfielders at the sides of the diamond (Coutinho and Henderson) have to act as make-shift wing-backs in transitions, Coutinho isn’t particularly ideal for that position. Joe Allen and Sakho could still shift out wide to cover as well but again, it isn’t ideal as the centre of the pitch becomes slightly less occupied, leaving room for risk of being run over.
- A huge issue with the current 3-4-2-1 side is that Raheem Sterling is seen to be limited and held-back by being in the wing-back role. While his defensive duties aren’t as prominent here in a 3-4-3 diamond, he is still being played wide as a winger, which may be an issue unless he predominantly plays like how a wide-forward would.
- The deepest midfielder should ideally be a defensive-minded midfielder who is able to drop and form a back-three with the remaining two centre-backs if and when one of the sweepers pushes up. Joe Allen is an excellent choice for a midfield pivot, but again, not the ideal player who can drop deeper.
And these are just some of the limitations of the current Liverpool squad. Next, the pros…
The Cutting Edge of the Diamond
- The single pivot being played by Joe Allen at the base of the midfield acts as a link between the back-three and the side midfielders, and even to the attacking midfielder or the wingers if they choose to drop slightly deeper down the pitch.
- Having four midfielders controlling the middle of the park essentially places an extra emphasis winning the midfield battles. Possession can be kept with greater ease due to many passing angles being opened up through the multiple midfield triangles that a diamond midfield can provide.
- The additional midfielder does not take away anything from the team’s attacking prowess. Daniel Sturridge will still remain in an area in which he is able to cause the most damage, while the middle of the final third will not be overcrowded. This striker is also being supported by the attacking midfielder, Adam Lallana, who roams in a free-role just behind him.
- There is also a reduce need for Raheem Sterling and Alberto Moreno to defend, allowing them to provide more aggressive width than what wing-backs can and at a higher degree of freedom. Wing-backs in a flat 3-4-2-1 are not encouraged to cut inwards into the middle as they would vacate the flank for oppositions to exploit.
- In theory, despite the squad being geared towards an attacking mindset, it does not necessary come at the expense of defending capabilities. The back-three is still being supported by the Joe Allen who sits just in front of them, while the flanks are covered by the side midfielders like Jordan Henderson, or either of the two wingers who drop back.
As a whole, what differentiates a 3-4-3 diamond from a 3-4-2-1 would be the additional midfielder as an attempt to gain midfield control. This is done through deploying a narrower midfield which is achieved by the diamond and also the additional player who has the allowance to push up from the back-three (like Emre Can who even now makes his trademark runs from defence into midfield).
(When on the attack, there is a greater degree of flexibility in terms of how players can play. In an attempt to not overcomplicate the diagram above with too many arrows, only a few attacking movements are shown.)
However, what is gained surely comes at a cost; nothing is free.
As the 3-4-3 diamond relies on the system as a whole to succeed in defence rather than individual performances, there is a higher degree of hustle that needs to be done by the midfielders and centre-backs. With no recognised wing-backs or full-backs, oppositions can still exploit wide areas of the pitch. On the other side of the spectrum, if executed right, there is a higher chance of Liverpool being able to double-up on their wingers in a 3-4-3 diamond (with a midfielder and a winger) rather than having a single wing-back in a 3-4-2-1 who may or may not track back in time.
The 3-4-3 diamond can be a very powerful tool if Rodgers decides to deploy it, but it may be missing a handful of personnel who could take it to another level. While slightly more complicated and there are still inherent risks and downsides to using it, this formation offers a lot of benefits and advocates a certain play-style which may boost the way some of the players will perform in the system.
Whether or not Rodgers will decide to use this formation again as a continuation from its 30-minute cameo against Swansea is yet to be clear. However, if this variation of the 3-4-3 becomes the go-to formation for Liverpool for the long-term, it will certainly require a lot of time on the training ground, as well as the need for a few personnel with a specific array of skills.
And if the criterion is met, this Liverpool squad will have the potential to be a diamond of first water.