Jurgen Klopp’s appointment as Liverpool manager was like a drop of blood in a piranha media tank; It sent the national press into a frenzy.
Klopp was, is, and forever will be money. Overnight people became Klopp experts and after the initial honeymoon period some media outlets started to question the Germans past achievements in their quest for clicks. One such criticism thrown by those claiming he was a false God was just how one dimensional he apparently was. He was seemingly 4231 or bust, and his final season at Dortmund showed he’d been “found out“.
It was slightly awkward, Klopp didn’t get the memo. His first match in charge of the Reds was away at White Hart Lane to a well drilled Spurs side. To the surprise of many fans, pundits and journalists Liverpool lined up in a 4321 system.
This wasn’t in the script. People looked for reasons for the change. Perhaps Klopp was hampered by injuries so was just making the most of what he had at his disposal. Alternatively, he’d just seen how soft Liverpool’s core was and decided to put another body in midfield to shield the defence.
The screenshot above shows a clear 4321 system. First up the benefits of such a system –
- In a traditional 433 system the two either side of the striker are usually positioned out wide. In a 4321 system they play behind the striker and almost shield the midfield. It gives the team a much more structured look.
- There are four lines of defence that the opposition have to play through effectively meaning there are more chances for Liverpool to win the ball back in a favourable position.
- It hinders the opposition, Spurs in this instance, who like to build from the back. If they manage to play through the Origi press an then the Lallana/Coutinho press then they still have to get past the midfield of Emre Can, Lucas and James Milner. All of that before even getting to the defence.
- Klopp has spoken about the importance of winning the midfield battles in the past and this formation enables them to do so. They clog the middle up and make it difficult for opposition to play through them. Playing through compact lines isn’t easy.
- It keeps your ‘creative’ players in areas they can do damage in. Phil Coutinho isn’t playing as a left-winger. He’s able to play in the pockets of space between the midfield and the defence.
In the screenshot above you see how Liverpool react to having to press Spurs. Those circled in black are the outside midfielders of the three in midfield, Emre Can and James Milner. Those circled in red are the two behind the striker, Lallana and Coutinho. The Spurs centre-back had been pressed by Divock Origi before passing out wide to Danny Rose.
As soon as the pass goes wide James Milner moves out wide to put pressure on him. As Milner does this Lallana and Coutinho withdraw from their advanced position to almost fall into a centre-midfield area. Looking at the picture you could call it a 4141 formation with James Milner as the right-midfielder, Lallana at RCM, Coutinho LCM and Emre Can left-midfield.
If Milner wins the ball back when pressing Rose then Lallana and Coutinho are central and in dangerous positions for the attacking transition. If Walker goes long and Liverpool recover the ball in defence then they’re perfectly set-up to turn defence into attack in a matter of seconds. Sakho/Skrtel into Lucas who can pass to one of Lallana or Coutinho. Exploiting the space centrally and it all stems from Origi pressing the centre-backs and pushing them deeper.
With Liverpool looking to build from the back this formation gives the team a chance to overload centrally. The first screenshot shows Martin Skrtel bringing the ball out from the back. The shape at this stage is 23221 with the only width coming from Moreno and Clyne. While the picture looks like Spurs are well positioned to press (5 v 5) just off the screen is Milner and Lallana. If Clinton N’Jie (just outside the centre circle) press Clyne then that frees up that entire area of the pitch for both Milner and Lallana to drop into and receive the ball. The full-backs keeping such width opens the centre up for the midfield.
As the play moves up the pitch you get to see how Liverpool shape up when in attacking areas. Kind of like a 2143 but all of the time Liverpool look to have numbers centrally. Lucas takes up a position which enables him to play a part in potentially three passing triangles meaning in theory there should always be a passing option.
At this point Coutinho, Origi and Lallana are almost playing like three strikers. Coutinho drags Kyle Walker wide which then pulls the RCB over to cover some of the space. This then leaves Origi and Lallana 2 v 2 with Clyne on the overlap if the play calls for it.
A fluid system
Formations are nothing more than a base template but as you can see from this it lends itself to a fluid system. It helps both defensively and offensively, it gets the players you want playing centrally in those areas and it supports the striker who, in the Premier League, can often find themselves isolated. Even when the team is defending it has the pieces in the right players for if we’re able to transition into attack.
It’s understandable as to why Klopp favoured that system when he was originally appointed. Although it did make Liverpool a lot more solid because of the personnel at the club the goals in attack seemed to dry up. A midfield three of Emre Can, James Milner and Lucas doesn’t scream goals. Injuries played a part but from January onwards Liverpool seemed to use a variant of a 4231 system until the end of the season with the aim being to get as many goals into the team as possible.
Klopp has revisited a 4321 system, although it has been slightly tweaked to what fans saw last season, in pre-season and Liverpool have looked impressive.
In some halves Liverpool have used a flat midfield three, other times it’s been a 1-2 and on the odd occasion Liverpool have played an almost staggered three with Grujic being slightly more advanced than Ejaria who in turn is ahead of Kevin Stewart. No matter how they’re used there are some similarities to the system Klopp used in his earlier matches as Liverpool boss.
The screenshot above is from the Liverpool vs Chelsea friendly. It shows Chelsea building from the back and Liverpool are in a 2323 shape as they look to win the ball back. Just off of the screen is a three of Randall, Stewart and Moreno. Those on screen have almost gone man for man as they look to make Chelsea go long because the altnernative it having to play through 5 lines of Liverpool defence.
Both Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho are very narrow here and close to Firmino. The main purpose here is to press the Chelsea defence into going long all the while positioning players in central areas. If Liverpool regain possession then these three are in dangerous parts of the pitch.
The next shot shows how Liverpool looked as they looked to build an attack last night. There are shades of a 3421 with how they’ve shaped up. The width comes from the full-backs as Liverpool look to open the pitch up centrally and play through compact lines. What you will notice is how Mane, Firmino and Coutinho are all (Phil is almost there) in the space between the midfield and the defence. An area which makes them all difficult to mark. If Randall plays a pass to Grujic and the big Serbian is able to play it between the Chelsea centre-midfielders then both Mane and Firmino are in on the Chelsea centre-backs.
When he was at Southampton Mane scored a lot of his goals after drifting in centrally and exploiting the space the striker had made. Firmino and Graziano Pelle are completely different in style but both do create space. If Grujic threads a ball into the feet of Firmino and the Chelsea centre-back engages him then Mane has the awareness and the pace to get in behind and make the most of that space.
Whilst Klopp hasn’t been able to field his strongest XI yet this pre-season it would be interesting to see a midfield of Emre Can, Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum. With Can playing the Stewart role, Henderson playing the Ejaria role and Wijnaldum as the Grujic in this formation. The width coming from the full-backs and it means Liverpool would have Henderson, Wijnaldum, Mane, Coutinho and Firmino all making runs in and around the box.
The 4321 formation gives you that sort of luxury and enables you to balance the defence and the attack. It could be why pre-season has been built around familiarising the players with the formation and the roles that are necessary if it’s to work as effectively as it can. Where does it leave Sturridge though? As such a tactic demands a highly energised front three. One things for sure, Klopp isn’t a one trick pony and Liverpool have so much attacking depth for him to work with next season, it’s frightening.