By Bill Farnham
With the recent injuries to Fabio Borini and Martin Kelly, will Brendan Rodgers consider changing Liverpool’s formation from his favored 4-3-3?
The upcoming Premier League fixtures are an interesting mix, with Newcastle and Wigan coming to Anfield, while Liverpool will travel to Goodison Park, Stamford Bridge, the Liberty Stadium and White Hart Lane before the end of November, meaning that the Reds will play four teams that can all claim to have Champions League ambitions in addition to several relegation candidates. Rodgers will need to field the strongest possible line-up for the matches against Tottenham, Chelsea, Newcastle and Everton. With recent injuries in mind, there is an argument to be made that a 4-3-3 is not the optimal formation.
Based on the personnel currently available, Rodgers could consider employing a 3-4-1-2 for several of the upcoming matches, especially against Chelsea, Newcastle, Tottenham and Everton, where it will be critical for Liverpool to dominate possession if they are to get maximum points. The 3-4-1-2 would employ 3 central defenders playing in a looser line with Agger in a semi-libero role. Coates and Skrtel would be expected to play somewhat wider than they would in a 4-3-3, but would not assume the role of a fullback or wingback. When Liverpool has the ball Agger would push forward, while when in defense the wingers (Sterling and Johnson) would be expected to track back to assist on defense. For the relatively easier matches against Reading, Wigan and Swansea, Rodgers might consider reverting to a 4-3-3.
Below is what a 3-4-1-2 (top) would look like compared to the favored 4-3-3 (bottom), with starters in white and potential subs in gray:
Note: in the 4-3-3 Glen Johnson is listed as first choice for both left back and right back positions because he is Liverpool’s best choice at either position. Barring some sort of cloning revelation in the final Being: Liverpool episode, he would only play at one of the two positions.
Here’s my reasoning:
Fullbacks are of most concern:
With Martin Kelly out until March and Jose Enrique making slow progress to fitness there are many options for depth. The only fullbacks left in the squad are Glen Johnson (RB/LB), Jack Robinson (LB), John Flanagan (RB), Andre Wisdom (RB), Stewart Downing (LB) and Ryan McLaughlin, whose sole appearance for Liverpool was as a substitute in the friendly versus AS Roma at Fenway Park. Flanagan and Robinson have both represented England at the U19 level, and certainly appear to have promising futures ahead of them, but they have 23 career appearances between the two of them. This season Robinson has appeared in two Europa League matches, versus Hearts and Udinese, and once in the League Cup against West Bromwich Albion. Flanagan has yet to feature in a competitive match. Wisdom has had a stellar start to the season but he’s still relatively inexperienced.
The lack of depth at fullback and the fact that Liverpool will play twelve competitive matches in the next fifty days, opens the discussion for using a formation that does not require fullbacks occasionally. Two such adaptations could be a 3-5-2 or 3-4-1-2, with Sebastian Coates, Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel forming a strong back three.
Pairing Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson or placing Jonjo Shelvey alone in front of the defensive line would provide adequate cover without compromising too much attacking ability.
Glen Johnson is one of the best options for Liverpool on the right side of midfield:
Johnson has been one of the most dependable players thus far for Liverpool, and he carries a legitimate attacking threat going forward. He has put in more crosses than any other player this season and trails only Steven Gerrard in cross accuracy (26 percent versus 22 percent). In terms of chances created, Johnson trails only Gerrard (21), Luis Suarez (18), and Raheem Sterling (11), with 8 total chances created, and is tied for the team lead in clear cut chances created. From the all important possession standpoint, Johnson leads the team in possessions won in the defensive third, and is behind only Joe Allen (38), Gerrard (23), and Sterling (21) in Possessions Won in the Midfield 3rd, with 19.
While Suso and Assaidi have certainly shown glimpses of potential, I can see Rodgers using the veteran Johnson on the right hand side of a midfield four or five in the matches against the better Premier League teams during Fabio Borini’s absence. Johnson does not fit in a three person defense, however he is too integral to the team to sit. Playing him wide on the right in a 3-4-1-2 would allow him to contribute in a formation without fullbacks.
Another potential option would be to move Gerrard out to the right in either the 3-4-1-2 or 4-3-3, with Sahin, Henderson, or Shelvey playing in Gerrard’s preferred role in the middle of the pitch.
Luis Suarez is the only striker left in the squad with Premier League experience:
Adam Morgan and Samed Yesil will get plenty of experience in years to come, but neither has appeared in the Premier League thus far, with Yesil debuting against WBA in the League Cup, and Morgan appearing in the Europa League twice against Hearts. Daniel Pacheco, top scorer for Spain in the 2010 U19 European Championship, also looks good for a run of games in the League in the near future. While there are good wide midfielder or winger options in the squad with Sterling, Oussama Assaidi, Suso, and Downing, Rodgers will need to manage their minutes carefully, as with the exception of the out-of-favor Downing, none have had to endure the rigors of a full Premier League season. Pacheco is included because he is a young player who has shown flashes of promise and this would be an excellent run of games in which to blood him in the Premier League.
Liverpool’s greatest strength is midfield depth:
Without a doubt, Liverpool’s midfield is the strongest part of the team right now. When Lucas makes his return to the squad at the end of next month, the depth will only expand. There have been several excellent performances by Nuri Sahin and Jordan Henderson has been proficient from the bench. In fact, the young England man completed 96 percent of his passes against Norwich. This proves that the younger players in the squad have the potential to make an impact in the Premier League. With current limitations in the squad for fullbacks and wide midfielders/strikers right now, Rodgers should seriously examine the possibility of putting more midfielders in the game to field the strongest possible side.
Using a three-man defense allows for more of Liverpool’s best players to be on the pitch at the same time:
- Sebastian Coates is the best backup center defender on the team, while Jack Robinson and John Flanagan are second or third choice at their positions currently.
- Using Glen Johnson on the right hand side of the midfield provides an excellent option to compliment Steven Gerrard playing wide on the right and will allow Suso to be brought along at a more appropriate rate. Also, Liverpool has plenty of options in the center of the field, but fewer in the wide areas. Johnson would ameliorate the lack of depth.
- Changing the formation to allow for another offensive player addresses the team’s need for goals more drastically than maintaining a 4-3-3 with Robinson or Flanagan compliments the team defensively.
Here are some stats from the Stoke match for Suso and Johnson:
Stats from eplindex.com
And some chalkboards from the same match with Johnson on the left this time:
Chalkboards from: www.squawka.com
Final point: the games against Newcastle, Everton, Tottenham and (to a lesser extent) Chelsea are going to be hard fought and tightly contested. If Liverpool wants to break these teams down in the final third an extra attacker could make all the difference. As the chalkboards below show using take ons, in a wide open game such as the Norwich contest, a 4-3-3 works very well. However when teams defend deep and keep men behind the ball, space is at a premium and having an extra man in the final third could tilt the match in Liverpool’s favor.
Chalkboards from: www.squawka.com