Wing-Back to The Future – Liverpool’s Lateral Thinking

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Contact Glen Johnson c/o Liverpool FC.

José Enrique and Glen Johnson were the starting full-backs in Liverpool’s final Champions League game at home to FC Basel. Since then the traditional full-back position has been disregarded, and the club’s 2s and 3s have had to find other activities to occupy their time.

Liverpool starting line-up v FC Basel – 09/12/2014


Whilst the full-backs have been consigned to the annals of history along with the early part of the season, the positions on the field which have replaced them have become key to Liverpool’s new system.

The players in the right and left berths of the back three perform the role that a traditional defensive right and left back might do in a narrow back four system. However, their role with the ball is more akin to that of a wide defensive midfielder, or in the case of Emre Can, a right-sided libero.

Can’s midfield skill has become vital to the system, as has Mamadou Sakho’s directness and bravery with the ball at his feet on the left hand side of the three. Sakho also offers the defensive solidity along with Skrtel in the middle, and this aspect of Can’s game has improved even if he’s been inconsistent defensively.

Though the back three have been critical to this 3-4-2-1 formation, the roles which have really defined the new shape have been the wide players.

Throughout the history of association football, full-backs have defined team shapes. From the early days of 2-3-5 when they were the most defensive players in the team, to the modern day Brazilian type where they’re almost auxiliary wingers, the position can be used as a starting point for any discussion on the evolution of tactics.

They’re also the players who get a mention every time a legendary winger is spoken of. It’s difficult to find a mention of Tom Finney, Jimmy Johnstone, or Garrincha, which doesn’t also contain a description of a hapless full-back scrambling around in a vain attempt to stop them.

Indeed, it was legendary Brazilian full-back Nílton Santos who recommended Garrincha, firstly for the Botafogo first team and then to the Brazil coach Vicente Feola, after the young winger had tied him in knots in a training match for Botafogo reserves.

Brazil is the starting point when it comes to looking at the role played by Liverpool’s current wide players. It’s a country where the term full-back has been disregarded, just like Liverpool’s full-backs, and has been replaced by the word “lateral”, which literally translates as “side”.

It feels as wrong to call Liverpool’s wide players wing-backs as it does to call them full-backs, but it’s probably the closest convenient term to use without referring to them in a more long winded fashion. That said, if words like “enganche” (Spanish), “libero” (Italian), and “raumdeuter” (German) are becoming part of general football parlance, then it might be better to refer to these wide players simply as “laterals”.

Looking at the true description of the role, rather than just the label, the best way to explain the position might be to call them box-to-box wide midfielders. It’s just as likely to see the wide players popping up in middle of the opposition box, as it is to see them covering back to help Sakho or Can. It’s here that they become more than wing-backs, and more like wide midfielders.

LFC formation – Liverpool 2, Manchester City 1 – 01/03/2015


The effective use of Lazar Markovic and Jordon Ibe in the wide position supports this description even more. The players who might look more like traditional forwards or wingers are now being used to shuttle up and down the side of the pitch, using their natural attacking skill to influence the team’s forward play, and their speed of recovery to help out in defence.

Since Raheem Sterling’s legendary appearance at right-back in extra time of a cup game against Notts County last season, it’s been tempting to play him in the wide positions too, even though the team might benefit more from having him central.

It’s here that the prospect of a return to a WM raises it’s old head, but the wide players aren’t quite advanced enough to label the current formation thus.

The WM, created by Charlie Buchan and Herbert Chapman at Arsenal (with a nod to Newcastle’s Charlie Spencer) introduced a third back to the 2-3-5 formation, and effectively created the centre-back position to help counter the new offside law in 1925. To this day the position is still referred to as centre-half, as if the player were still part of a midfield three in the 2-3-5.

The formation also used two wide players at the opposite points at top of the W, with a striker in the middle. To call Liverpool’s system a WM, the wide players would need to become out-and-out forwards, rather than the box-to-box players they currently are.

3-2-2-3 formation

Reminiscent of the M part of the old formation, Liverpool have added their own third back this season, providing a safety net to prevent the errors of the last campaign and the early part of the current one.

Martin Skrtel has been performing impressively in the central role at the bottom of the M. However, the current system owes as much to the destruction of the WM by Brazil in 1958, as it does to the introduction of the third back.

Brazil added a fourth back which allowed the full backs to roam forward, creating a 4-2-4 formation in which one of the forward four – none other than a 17-year-old attacker named Pelé – would drop back to recieve the ball from midfield.


This Brazil side also saw effective early use of a defensive midfielder as well as a defensive-minded winger, but it’s the freedom this formation created for the full-backs which was one of the more notable shifts in style, and it changed the position forever.

Another system which frees up the laterals is the diamond midfield (see also 4-1-2-1-2 or 4-3-1-2). By it’s very nature the diamond encourages wide play from deep, as the midfield can become very narrow, and the system relies on at least one attacking wing-back in order to function correctly.

The recent game away at Swansea was a story of two diamonds deployed by two talented young British managers. Garry Monk’s side used a diamond formation to nullify Liverpool’s 3-4-2-1, as the South Wales side’s full-backs pushed up the field knowing that they had the insurance policy of two shuttling midfielders and one holding midfielder.

This forced Liverpool’s wide players back into a more orthodox full-back position, forming a back five which, amongst other things, highlighted their importance to any success the side have in the system.

In the second half, Brendan Rodgers changed the centre of his own midfield to a diamond 1-2-1, as opposed to the box 2-2 it had been previously. Just as Swansea’s diamond had allowed their full-backs to get forward, Liverpool’s allowed the same, but with the extra insurance offered by the third back. It was a gamble, and almost dared Swansea to keep their full-backs high up the pitch, knowing that if they did Liverpool would find space.

Which brings us to the Manchester United game… Louis van Gaal followed Garry Monk’s lead in targeting Liverpool’s wide players so they were forced back to form a five in defence. On the left, Alberto Moreno had a game he’d like to forget against Juan Mata, whilst Raheem Sterling couldn’t get into the game on the right.

On the face of it this might look like a problem with Liverpool’s “laterals”, but the real weakness lay in midfield, and most glaringly the lack of a dominant defensive midfielder to deal with Fellaini.

Whilst the failure against Manchester United might tempt Brendan Rodgers into abandoning the back three, and with it the futuristic wide players, he might be better off tinkering in other areas to help counter specific opposition threats. Even if the manager does return to a back four, rest assured that the full-backs will still have an important role to play – they always will.

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