Ever since the beginning of the 2016/2017 season, Jurgen Klopp has almost consistently lined Liverpool up in a 433 formation.
The only exception came in the winter of the 2018/2019 season when the Reds lined up in a 4231 shape. In that reshuffle, Mohamed Salah played as the teams’ focal point, with Roberto Firmino dropping into the number 10 role. Xherdan Shaqiri, meanwhile, in his most productive run at the club, added creativity from a right-wing berth.
Klopp soon reverted to his favoured 433 shape and — given Liverpool have won the Premier League and Champions League with this shape — with some justification.
But now, the German may be minded to recommit the formation that saw his Borussia Dortmund team blast their way to two Bundesliga titles, a German Cup win, and a European Cup final during his stint at the Westfalenstadion.
His signings — or would be signings — over the course of the last three summers have all pointed towards a shape realignment.
Had it not been for a knee issue and rumours over an 11th-hour demand for increased wages, Liverpool would have signed Nabil Fekir in the summer of 2018. As it was, the Frenchman — who played as the number 10 in the Les Gones 4231 formation — stayed put at his boyhood club before joining Real Betis in the summer of 2019.
Fabinho, who formed an excellent partnership with Tiémoué Bakayoko in a two-man midfield at Monaco, joined the Reds in the summer of 2018 for £39 million. After an initial bedding-in period where the Brazilian had to learn the ropes of playing in a three-man midfield, he has been a cornerstone of the Anfield club’s success, both domestically and continentally.
Naby Keita, who was signed the summer before but was only allowed to join the club the following summer, followed Fabinho in the door in what was a busy 2018 summer transfer market for the Reds. The Guinean had excelled in Ralph Hasenhüttl’s 4222 formation with Red Bull Leipzig with his aggressive dribbling and penetrative passing.
Last summer, after what felt like an interminable chase for his signature, Thiago put pen to paper on a deal with Liverpool for £20 million from European Champions FC Bayern. The Spaniard was an integral part of the Bavarians winning a domestic and European treble, forming a partnership with either Leon Goretzka or Joshua Kimmich in the engine room.
With so many of his big signings coming from clubs who operated in 4231 or 442 formation’s, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that Klopp is planning to move away from his trusted 433 in the near future.
This season, the German has experimented with shape changes, most notably in the 1-1 draw away to Manchester City in November. The defending champions lined up at the Etihad in a 4231 formation, with Jordan Henderson partnering Georginio Wijnaldum in the centre of midfield with the usual front three and Diogo Jota forming an attacking foursome ahead of them.
Similarly, in the 2-o win at Sheffield United in late February, the Reds lined up in a fluid shape which at times resembled a 424 with Curtis Jones, Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah forming an interchangeable attacking line ahead of the midfield double pivot of Wijnaldum and Thiago.
At times, Klopp has also changed tact and lined up in the 4231, with the most recent examples being Brighton and Aston Villa at home.
To avoid stasis and to keep opponents on their toes, a move to a 4231 makes sense for Liverpool next season.
Looking at FC Bayern’s success — a team who have similar principles to the Reds, with their high press, high defensive line and attacking intent — it would be the right call to fit all of their best-attacking options into the team at the same time, but not in a manner that would leave them exposed defensively. The main pillars of the club’s success, the high press and an intense attacking game wouldn’t have to be sacrificed.
With so many tactically intelligent midfielders — even with the likelihood of Wijnaldum leaving — who are well versed in playing with discipline, the Reds have the personnel to make the switch and not only remain at a high level but also to improve.
The majority of teams play deep block defences against the defending English champions, in an attempt to stifle their attacking flow and stop quality service to their front three. To counteract this, the 4231 gives a licence to add another attacking player to the team.
Klopp has liked his midfielders to, first and foremost, act as the defensive coverage to his marauding full-backs, Trent Alexander Arnold and Andrew Robertson in recent years, but a change in shape could still see them have the required protection.
Bayern Munich — with Alphonso Davies especially eye-catching in getting forward — have tasked their full-backs with providing attacking thrust in their 4231 shape without looking unbalanced and susceptible on the counter-attack. Liverpool, with Virgil van Dijk to return — a centre half who the Bavarians have nobody in the same league as — could still rely on Robertson and Alexander Arnold in an attacking capacity.
Mane played his first season at Anfield — and successfully so — on the right-hand side and the Senegalese could easily move back to his flank with Jota — who has also played on the right and is similarly ambidextrous — operating from the left-hand-side.
It’s not beyond the realms of possibility that a Liverpool front four — with Firmino as the number 10, a role he was played successfully for Hoffenheim — could interchange and combine effectively with Salah as the number 9.
What the Reds do in the upcoming summer window will be interesting. Perhaps Klopp will sign players with a switch to 4231 foremost in his mind. Time will tell.