As much as Arsenal fans on the internet will tell you otherwise, the Community Shield is a glorified friendly and its importance should be framed as such.
There were, however, some interesting takeaways for Liverpool in their 1-1 draw — and subsequent penalty shootout defeat, again — with the Gunners at Wembley.
Namely the switch in shape from the Reds’ usual 433 alignment to a 4222 shape or, as its also known, the box midfield.
— James Nalton (@JDNalton) August 29, 2020
In every pre-season since the German took the managerial reigns, Jurgen Klopp — be it a change of shape, the repurposing of players to new roles or an extra emphasis being placed on a new facet of play, be it set pieces or controlling possession — has made an alteration to evolve the team and to avoid stasis.
Ahead of his first full-season, Klopp — who had utilized a 4231 formation in his opening salvo as the Reds manager — started to line his team up in a 433 shape, which has been the default — barring an injury crisis that saw Liverpool play a back-three shape at Brighton in the 2017/2018 season — structure since.
But could a change now be afoot?
Judging from their careers prior to moving to Anfield, the 4222 formation deployed at Wembley would suit several of Liverpool’s players and, going forward, could be a means to fit all of the attacking players into the team at the same time.
Naby Keita, Takumi Minamino, and Sadio Mane — all players who have been through the Red Bull football finishing schools, be it Leipzig or Salzburg, at some stage of their careers — are well versed in lining up in this formation, given it is — or some variation thereof — almost dogmatically administered as the formation of choice by the respective German and Austrian Bundesliga clubs.
Similarly, Fabinho — who helped Les Monégasques to a Ligue 1 title in the 2016/17 season — played in a double divot midfield with Tiémoué Bakayoko at Monaco and excelled to the extent that the Reds — so often praised for their foresight in the transfer market — saw fit to part with £39,000,000 to secure the Brazilian’s services.
With Liverpool’s full-backs, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson, already the team’s hub of creative spark then a switch to 4222 — where the onus is on the left and right back to provide the width — would not take much alteration on their behalf.
Additionally, depending on who the player who is stationed ahead of them, the full-back pairing could be afforded extra protection, especially Alexander Arnold given that Mohamed Salah — the right-wing forward — isn’t as diligent in his defensive work and won’t track back as often as others.
For all intents and purposes — despite nominally lining out in a 433 shape — the Reds have played a 442 diamond with Mane and Salah, ostensibly wide forwards, operating as the strikers with Roberto Firmino dropping deep and acting as the number 10 and the linkman.
Any switch to a 4222, therefore, would suit the Liverpool’s most potent attackers and would give the supporting cast, Rhian Brewster, Divock Origi, and Minamino — all of whom have questions above their names when it comes to their ability to lead the line on their own — an opportunity in a formation would heighten their strengths and negate their weaknesses.
Ralph Hasenhüttl, the former RB Leipzig coach, has revived Southampton’s fortunes by playing the box midfield shape. The Saints — after Liverpool and Manchester City — are one of the foremost pressing teams in the Premier League and this will definitely be a factor Klopp will weigh up.
In the 4222, there are three pressing lines ahead of the back four, and having such a layered formation is a key element for a team who looks to pressurize opponents.
If a team beats the first line of pressure — the forwards — then they will have to contend with the next set of players — the “wide players” and then, finally, the midfield pivot will engage them in a press.
This is the reason the Reds play Fabinho deep and not tethered to the other midfielders, so he can sweep behind that press in case of their attempts of pressure being played through.
Georginio Wijnaldum — provided he doesn’t, as suggested in the media, leave the club in the meantime — is a player who could benefit from any change in formation. So tactically intelligent and spatially aware, the Dutchman — who is prone to drifting to the periphery of the game in a 433, especially in away games — could revel in a 4222 where, by design, he is stationed in the thick of the action.
Likewise, Jordan Henderson — who plays in the midfield in a 4231 for England — could quite easily adapt and operate as either the more offensive or defensive of the midfield duo and exert his influence over proceedings.
Curtis Jones, 19, is young enough to be molded into any number of potential roles but, as things stand, has all the attributes — the tight control, the ability to shoot from distance and the vision — to shine tucking in off the left-hand side as one of the “wide players” in a 4222 tactical alignment.
Manuel Pellegrini managed Manchester City to a Premier League title in the 2013/2014 season by playing a 4222 formation and managing to find a balance — which often included Liverpool’s James Milner — that could incorporate Sergio Aguero, David Silva, Samir Nasri, Yaya Toure, and Alvaro Negredo.
Moving forward, Liverpool — whose links to Thiago, another player who is accustomed to playing a midfield double pivot, continue to circulate — could look to change tact, depending on the context of the game and opponents, and play the box midfield more often.