A new tactical age for Liverpool, a diamond midfield?

Almost every article written about Brendan Rodgers inevitably uses the word “philosophy”, which is associated with his “passing football”, “possession” and often, his insistence on a 4-3-3 formation that served him so well at Swansea City.

Yet the current Liverpool manager has displayed his tactical versatility this season, acknowledging that depending on the opposition, he might not have the players to play his favoured 4-3-3 effectively. His most well-publicized formation tweak – perhaps because of its uncommon application in England and Manchester City’s struggle with carrying it out to winning ways – was employing a 3-5-2, one that has been used to varying degrees of success.

Rodgers’ preference for width is obvious in his 4-3-3 (with wide midfielders sticking to the touchline) as well as his 3-5-2 (through the use of wingbacks with plenty of license to attack down the flanks). Hence, Rodgers’ choice of personnel in Liverpool’s 1-0 win over Southampton was intriguing: there seemed to be 4 defenders (Johnson Skrtel Agger Enrique), 4 central midfielders (Gerrard Lucas Allen Shelvey) plus 2 forwards (Sterling Suarez).

In other words, there didn’t seem to be any wide attackers bar perhaps Sterling. Some television stations viewed it as a 4-3-3 with Shelvey shifted out as a wide attacker, while others thought that Shelvey was playing as a central striker with Sterling and Suarez out on the wings.

As the game went on however, it became clear that Liverpool were really employing a 4-4-2 diamond shape. Lucas held the midfield, Gerrard was on the right of diamond, Allen on the left and Shelvey playing as the furthest forward midfielder.

Liverpool's formation included a midfield diamond

Liverpool’s formation included a midfield diamond

The midfield diamond has proved unpopular in England because of the nation’s like of wingers (giving rise to the 4-4-2 being the most basic English shape), although this season, Manchester United have often played a similar formation following their purchase of Kagawa.

Despite Liverpool’s midfield diamond, Rodger’s team didn’t lack any width at all. This was due to the attacking forays of their fullbacks Johnson and Enrique, both of whom pushed forward relentlessly to make up for the lack of wide midfielders in their starting XI. Johnson’s offensive abilities at right-back have never been in question and he proved a real threat down the right flank with 3 shots and 4 key passes.

Enrique, who had a rather impressive run on the left wing of a 4-3-3 in past games – scoring a goal, assisting a few more and even leaving Downing, a traditional winger, to take up the fullback slot – was back in his usual left-back position. However, Enrique’s attacking play was not diminished at all, and it looked as though he was still playing as a left winger despite being fielded as a left-back.

Compare: there is little difference between Enrique's passes received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back

Compare: there is little difference between Enrique’s passes received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back

The statistics prove that point well: there is little difference between the location of the passes Enrique received against Tottenham where he was a left winger, and that against Southampton where he was a left-back – indicating his constant commitment to attack.

Simultaneously, Sterling and Suarez also both helped to stretch Liverpool’s play by pulling wide. There was nothing different about the way Suarez played, as he dropped deep and to the flanks and tried jinking past defenders – all part of his natural game that Rodgers encourages by giving his top goalscorer a free role.

On the other hand, Rodgers often gives Sterling a much a more basic and simple responsibility: try to get in behind defences by staying wide and sticking to the touchline, either the right or the left depending on where Rodgers plays him. In this game however, Sterling was allowed much more creative license. Though he still hugged the touchline, he had permission to switch from flank to flank whenever he felt like doing so.

Sterling's drifting from wing to wing indicated his increased tactical freedom against Southampton, as compared to his rigid instructions against Tottenham

Sterling’s drifting from wing to wing indicated his increased tactical freedom against Southampton, as compared to his rigid instructions against Tottenham

The location of the passes Sterling received against Tottenham act as a microcosm to his tactical instructions in this breakthrough season of his: stick to one flank; in the Tottenham game, he was played as a right winger so that was where he stayed. Compare that to the location of the passes he received against Southampton, where he moved to the left flank a lot more than he did against Tottenham.

What this resulted in was Liverpool fielding two forwards who were tirelessly working the channels as well as the flanks, similar to how Cesare Prandelli’s Italy side employs Antonio Cassano and Mario Balotelli. The constant lateral movement of both Suarez and Sterling created plenty of problems for the opposition, because Southampton’s centre-backs Jose Fonte and Maya Yoshida didn’t know whether to follow them out wide.

Of course, the theoretical issue for Liverpool would be where their goal threat would arrive from, given that their forward players were spending plenty of time out wide. That has been the biggest problem for Liverpool stretching back to the years when Gerard Houllier was manager: there weren’t enough players in the opposition’s penalty box, often relying on either

a) the long ball forward for a big targetman (Heskey, Crouch) to knock down to a quick nippy striker (Fowler, Owen, Cisse)

b) individual moments of magic (Gerrard, Torres, Suarez)

In other words, Liverpool were often labelled a one or two-man team because of their dependency on a few individuals to get goals.

Against Southampton however, Liverpool counteracted this potential problem brilliantly, via the constant movement and rotation of their central midfielders, the majority of whom were willing to get into the box to get on the end of crosses and trouble Southampton’s defence.

Shelvey was the best exemplification of this enthusiasm as he made his first Premier League start since being sent-off against Manchester United in a 1-2 home loss back in late September. Shelvey seems to have lost Rodgers’ trust since that red card, but the young midfielder certainly did not do his future chances any harm here. He’s often been tagged as the closest player Liverpool have to Gerrard because of the former Charlton player’s verticality and eye for goal (and also his tendency to make a reckless challenge or two), but while the Liverpool skipper was a true box-to-box midfielder back in the day, he was also one of the last of the kind. Shelvey in contrast, plays a lot more as an attacking midfielder, and played at the tip of the diamond against Southampton.

Shelvey passes received display his constant movement around all areas of the field

The passes Shelvey received display his constant movement around all areas of the field

The location of the passes Shelvey received are again a good indicator of his positioning, in this case, his perpetual movement around all areas of the pitch. Though he did not receive any passes in Southampton’s penalty box, it was far from a lack of trying because he was a constant presence in and around that area. Shelvey managed to get 2 out of his 3 shots on target, including a blistering drive from the right side, struck with the outside of his boot that cannoned off the far post.

His captain Gerrard had one of his better games too despite being played in a slightly new position on the right of the midfield diamond, laying on a game-high 6 key passes and 2 through-balls for his teammates. Gerrard has come under some criticism this season, particularly because of some high-profile errors which have directly led to Liverpool conceding goals, with some suggesting that Gerrard has been unable to adapt to Rodgers possession-based game. Rodgers has rubbished that claim and rightly so, given that so far this season, only 3 other players in the Premier League have played more key passes per match than the Liverpool skipper.

Gerrard's new position on the right of a midfield diamond

Gerrard’s new position on the right of a midfield diamond

One of Liverpool’s best players made his comeback in this game, and it was his reappearance that made Rodgers’ midfield diamond really function to perfection. Lucas finally returned from his second significant injury layoff, and took over the holding midfield position that Allen gladly relinquished to him.

The Brazilian remains one of the best defensive midfielders in the league, and though he showed inevitable signs of rustiness – giving the ball away on a few occasions – he also exhibited the defensive steel and awareness that Liverpool lacked in his absence. To give credit to Allen, the Welshman did try his best, producing a commendable effort filling in, but nonetheless still remains second-best to Lucas.

The number of tackles Lucas made against Southampton versus that of Allen's against Tottenham

The number of tackles Lucas made against Southampton versus that of Allen’s against Tottenham

A quick glance at the above diagram already establishes that fact: Lucas made a huge 8 tackles, only 1 of which was unsuccessful, as compared to Allen’s 3 attempted tackles in the same holding role in the previous match against Tottenham. The location of Lucas’ tackles are also significant as they were in various areas of the pitch, a display of his incredible work rate and tenacity.

Lucas' aerial duels and fouls committed against Southampton

Lucas’ aerial duels and fouls committed against Southampton

In addition, Lucas won a game-high 4 aerial duels despite his relatively short frame, and committed 4 fouls. Again, the location of the fouls deserve a greater inspection: they all occurred far away from Liverpool’s defensive third, demonstrating Lucas’ intelligence at picking the right place to break up opposition attacks through clever tactical fouling. To top Lucas’ performance off, he didn’t pick up a booking and lasted a fantastic 88 minutes before being substituted for Jamie Carragher.

Lucas’ return allowed Allen to move back to his preferred position a little higher up the pitch as a second function midfielder, acting as the link between defence and attack. Allen did so playing on the left of Liverpool’s midfield diamond, albeit in a much more conservative role as compared to Gerrard on the right of the diamond.

Allen moved back to playing as a second function midfielder on the left of the diamond

Allen moved back to playing as a second function midfielder on the left of the diamond

The difference in Allen’s role is stark when comparing his passes received in the Southampton game versus that in the Tottenham game. With Lucas anchoring the midfielder, Allen played ahead of the Brazilian and received the ball in much more attacking positions in the Southampton game. Allen’s repositioning made much better use of his reliable passing, as it helped Liverpool retain possession in more advanced areas and keep up the offensive pressure on the opposition defence. This was especially evident in the first half where Liverpool’s single-minded pressure led to them recording 6 shots on target within the first 36 minutes: an average of 1 shot on target every 6 minutes.

Does this switch to a midfield diamond herald a new tactical age for Rodgers’ Liverpool? It’s difficult to make a judgment based on just a single game, against a poor Southampton side still in the relegation zone after this match no less. Concurrently, the midfield diamond does not solve Liverpool’s poor finishing – they hit the wordwork twice this game, and could only score a single goal through through Agger’s looping header from a total of 23 shots, 8 of which were on target.

Furthermore, Suarez picked up a yellow card for a handball in this game, reaching a tally of 5 yellows for this season and ruling him out of the next game against West Ham, so Rodgers may find it difficult to replicate the midfield diamond without Suarez’s movement up front.

If anything, it adds another option to Rodgers’ tactical arsenal knowing that his Liverpool team are capable of executing not only his standard 4-3-3, the more counterattacking 3-5-2 as well as this 4-4-2 consisting of a midfield diamond.

Lucas getting stuck in

Lucas getting stuck in

Most importantly, Lucas’ return liberated the whole team’s defensive responsibilities, as the likes of Gerrard, Allen and even the fullbacks Johnson and Enrique bombed forward, all safe in the knowledge that Lucas was behind them to help shore up the defence. It all cumulated into Liverpool’s attacking players producing fantastic off-the-ball movement, and a first-half performance which Rodgers hailed to be “as good as we’ve played, consistently”.  Once mocked, now the pivot on which Liverpool’s season could be turned around, the Liverpool fans should rejoice that Lucas is back.

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