Jurgen Klopp sprang a surprise in the pre-season of 2018/2019 by using Adam Lallana as the deepest midfielder.
Despite the fact the Reds manager hinted at it in the press, Liverpool fans had to pick their jaws off the floor when they saw Lallana — an attacking midfielder for all his career to date — lining up against Lyon as the deepest midfielder in a midfield three.
Many saw it as a quirk of pre-season, as Klopp mirroring Rafael Benitez — who famously used goalkeeper Pepe Reina for a period in central midfield in a warm-up game in 2008 — and not taking a practice game seriously.
The German would repeat the trick twice more, however, and in competitive games. Lallana started in the number 6 role — or, to borrow an Italian term popularized in the English speaking world by Football Manager, as the Regista — against Aston Villa away in the league and at home to Arsenal in the League Cup.
The results were mixed. The former Southampton captain showed nice touches in tight areas, with his trademark ability to turn under pressure shining through. But to counterbalance that — and understandably so, given his lack of experience in the area — he didn’t sufficiently protect a defence that conceded six goals in the two games.
Klopp changing tact in these games, though, might offer an insight into his plans for the future, amid continuing links to Bayern Munich’s Spanish international midfielder Thiago Alcantara.
The consensus on Liverpool’s midfield is that it is workmanlike and limited, with the subtext somehow being that players having the capacity to adhere to the doctor’s tactical orders is a bad thing.
Simply, the narrative goes, the Reds’ engine room is only a conduit that supplies the defensive ballast that lets Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson — the two players, along with Roberto Firmino, who are the team’s chief creators — get further up the pitch without exposing the team on the counter-attack.
But in every season since he was hired, Klopp has altered or added another tactical layer to the team before each new campaign.
After his debut half-season in 2015-2016, the Anfield side — having played a 4231 up until that point — switched to a 433 shape.
Each new term saw more alterations — in terms of tactics, personnel changes or more emphasis placed on certain phases of the game, such as set pieces — like, for example, the creative responsibility being ceded to the full-backs; an extra focus placed on set-pieces; or moving players, such as Lallana being converted in a goal-scoring midfielder, into new roles.
And perhaps the newest iteration of Liverpool will be adding a sense of control and passing penetration to midfield and this could go some way to explaining the persistent links to Thiago, a player who boasts those attributes in spades.
The reigning English champions were so dominant last season that finding a recurring issue when they faced opposition is difficult and a touch nitpicky. But if you were to go through results and performances with a fine-tooth comb, the inability to break down teams play a deep sitting 442 defence was the Reds’ tactical kryptonite.
Napoli, Atletico Madrid, Everton, and, even though they used a different shape it has the same idea at heart, Manchester United all took points off the Merseysiders by flooding the central band of the pitch and forcing Liverpool wide. Here, Alexander Arnold and Robertson would be double marked and their creative thrust would be suitably nullified.
Burnley also took points off the Champions with this style after lockdown, but with the league already sealed you would short shrift to that game; especially because the hosts missed ample chances and were denied a stonewall penalty in a frustrating 1-1 draw.
But with a player of Thiago’s ilk — along with a fully fit and firing Naby Keita — pulling the strings in the engine room, constantly offering himself for the ball and creating angles that will bring other players into the game, the Reds could have the incision to turn a lot of those draws and losses into wins.
For a glimpse into Liverpool’s future, we might have to have a look at their recent past.