Liverpool’s recent form — if not totally reflected in results — has taken a nosedive.
Losing 3 of their last 5 games across three competitions, the Reds have looked slow of both body and mind, despite having a 10 day respite from games thanks to the Premier League’s winter break.
Victories over Norwich — the game which preceded the break — and West Ham United — the first league game after their temporary hiatus — came in spite of laboured performances, lacking the rhythm and swagger that has seen the European Champions top the league by a landslide margin.
The 3 defeats in this 5 game run — away against Atletico Madrid in the Champions League, to Watford at Vicarage Road in the Premier and away to Chelsea in the F.A. Cup — all had a familiar feel about them. A lethargic midfield, despite personnel changes in the engine room in each of the trio of reversals, failing to create chances and, on the other side of the ball, protect their back line has been the dominant factor in Liverpool’s poor run.
The possible antidote to these woes is a switch back to Jurgen Klopp’s trusted 4231 shape.
Without the barking and cajoling leadership of Jordan Henderson — who was forced off injured away in Madrid — the Liverpool engine room has looked fragmented and very susceptible to the counter attack. The “advanced number 8’s” — the midfielders who are stationed higher up the pitch from the defensive midfielder — spacing off the ball has left too many gaps — to the extent that players like Mark Noble were able to influence proceedings and pull the midfield strings — and expose the “number 6”.
In the F.A. Cup defeat at Stamford Bridge, Fabinho — who has looked under cooked and severely lacking rhythm since his return from injury — looked lost at sea as his midfield partners, Curtis Jones and Adam Lallana, provided him with no protection and were too far away from the Brazilian, further up the pitch. To properly execute a gegenpressing strategy, a team must be compact; but the Reds were the opposite of this, with the gaps in their midfield plain to see.
Ross Barkley’s match sealing goal came from Jones losing the ball and exposing the visitors on the counter attack, with Chelsea enjoying a numerical advantage on the break. A similar story of woe can be told when looking at Watford’s goals from the Reds’ recent trip to the Hornets.
Switching to a 4231 would see someone — most likely Georginio Wijnaldum or Naby Keita, given Henderson’s injury — slot in beside Fabinho and give the former Monaco man the assurance of an extra body beside him; which, on paper, would not see him adrift at the base of midfield, as has been the case in the past 5 games.
The defence, too, — who looked near impregnable near the turn of the year but have now conceded 8 goals in their last 4 games — would benefit with two sitting midfielders adding a much needed injection of solidity.
And while the lack of clean sheets has been a concern, so has the relative lack of goals and chances created and this is an issue that a tactical pivot from 433 to 4231 can remedy.
The 3 goals scored against West Ham — 2 of which were from inexplicable goalkeeping errors from Łukasz Fabiański in the Hammers net — were the only goals Liverpool have scored in their last four games, with the fearsome attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane rendered both peripheral and ineffectual by a combination of poor finishing and movement on their behalf, and a lack of creative flair coming from the midfield.
The best of a mostly poor bunch in the F.A. Cup game away to Chelsea was Takumi Minamino. The Japanese international looked to knit together play, drive with the ball and play penetrative passes, all from an unfamiliar number 9 role.
Best suited to playing as a one of the 3 attacking midfielders in a 4231 — as evidenced by his goal and assist playing from this area for Salzburg in the Champions League visit to Anfield in October — the 25 year old could provide Liverpool with the creative spark and on ball ambition required to see Mane, Firmino and Salah fire regularly again.
Losing away to Atletico Madrid and Chelsea is no disgrace, but the Reds will be concerned about their level of performance of late. But thankfully, they have the tactical scope to change things and the 4231 shape — which Jurgen Klopp has utilised successfully at both Borussia Dortmund and, at times, Liverpool — could the European Champions get over the bump in their road to success.