Following Liverpool's 3-0 defeat away to Manchester United in mid December, Brendan Rodgers decided he'd seen enough positives from the 3-4-2-1 formation he used for the first time that afternoon to give the formation another go. It was a brave decision to stick with the experimental shape after a heavy defeat to bitter rivals but Rodgers' side had played much better than the scoreline suggested- David De Gea was excellent in the Manchester United goal coming up with 9 saves. Rodgers' decision paid off- Liverpool went on a 13 game unbeaten run in the league with the 3-4-2-1 formation and put themselves in a position to contest for the final Champions League spot.
However, over the course of their last two fixtures, an unconvincing 1-0 win over Swansea and yesterday's defeat to Manchester United, Liverpool have begun to look more stretched defensively and less threatening going forward. Swansea were dominant in the opening half, controlling possession with 57.8% and getting into dangerous scoring positions. Their wastefulness in the final third let them down but Swansea were the better side in the opening 45 minutes. It was a similar story yesterday. Liverpool were entirely overrun in the first half. Manchester United bossed possession with 60.4% but more importantly controlled the tempo and didn't let Liverpool get anywhere near them.
The source of Liverpool's recent difficulties seem to largely be coming from the central midfield zone. The 3-4-2-1 shape uses two holding midfielders- Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen- and two attacking midfielders- generally two of Adam Lallana, Coutinho or Raheem Sterling- in what in effect is a midfield box. At its best the shape allows the two attacking midfielders to float into dangerous pockets of space between the opposition defensive lines, creating plenty of forward passing options and resulting in a brand of football that is fluid and confusing for opposition defenses. Over the last two games however it has caused Liverpool to be overrun in midfield. In the system, the two attacking midfielders stay high up the pitch when the opposition is in possession. Liverpool defend with a defensive bank of three- the three center backs- and a midfield bank of four- the two holding midfielders and the two wing backs. The shape forces Henderson and Allen to do a tremendous amount of defensive work in the middle of midfield. Against a side that plays with three central midfielders like Manchester United yesterday, Allen and Henderson are outnumbered 2 v. 3 in the central midfield zone. As a result, Liverpool have had difficulties getting the ball off the opposition which is why we saw Swansea and Manchester United with such high first half possession totals.
We also see big gaps form in the center of the pitch between Henderson and Allen. The opposition can split these gaps with vertical passes, easily bisecting Liverpool's midfield. This happened time and again against United. United were in a 4-3-3 with Herrera and Marouane Fellaini to the left and right respectively of Michael Carrick at the base of midfield. Both Herrera and Fellaini would take up positions closer to the channels than the center of the pitch. In order to deny passes into them in these areas, Henderson and Allen would have to get tight to them in the wider positions they were taking up. This left what at times was a 15 to 20 yard gap between the two Liverpool holding midfielders. United were able to play passes between that gap, effectively taking the entire Liverpool midfield out of the game with one simple vertical pass. The screen shot below shows one of many examples of the vast gap between Henderson and Allen in the first half. With Carrick enjoying plenty of time on the ball he has plenty of options for playing forward passes against a stretched Liverpool midfield line.
Rodgers recognized this issue in both the Swansea and Manchester United games. In the second half of those contests he replaced one of the two attacking midfielders with Steven Gerrard who operated just in front of the back four, altering the shape from a midfield box to a midfield diamond. Against Swansea Gerrard replaced Alberto Moreno with Lallana dropping in to fill Moreno's left wing back spot. Against Manchester United Gerrard replaced Lallana. The midfield was therefore Gerrard at the base, flanked on either side by Henderson and Allan in shutting roles with Coutinho at the top of the diamond. The subtle change in shape gave Liverpool more control in the Swansea contest. Defensively, Allen and Henderson would drop in alongside Gerrard to form a midfield bank of five rather than the four they had when they were operating with two attacking midfielders. They were better able to compete in midfield and prevent Swansea from circulating possession as they had in the opening half. We were unable to see whether the change would have a similar impact yesterday after Gerrard's immediate dismissal following his introduction at halftime.
I think the midfield diamond as opposed to the box is something Rodgers may need to opt for more often in the final fixtures to give Liverpool a stronger presence in midfield. With the two deeper lying midfielders used in the box they're asking Henderson and Allen to do too much ball winning in the central midfield zone. By switching to a diamond and defending with a midfield bank of five rather than four they'll be better able to disrupt the attacking rhythm of the opposition and allow fewer gaps in midfield for the opposition to play passes into. Figure 1 shows their current defensive set up with the midfield box, Figure 2 shows the defensive shape with a midfield diamond. (I'm using the traditional numbering system here so these numbers don't correspond to actual Liverpool players, it would have made way too much sense to show the names of actual Liverpool players in their normal positions.) In the box system there is at times too big a gap between Henderson and Allen that the opposition can easily get in between. With the introduction of a holding midfielder those gaps are tightened.
They'll still have four central midfielders and will therefore continue to be able to overload the opposition midfield when in possession but it will be more structured, less of the swashbuckling style we've seen with the current box midfield. Gerrard's dismissal of course means he'll be unavailable for the next three games but they still have the personnel to play the diamond. Lucas Leiva is a fine candidate to play at the base of the diamond. He lacks Gerrard's range of passing but is competent in possession and provides needed bite on the defensive end.
The one obvious downfall of switching from the box to the diamond is that Rodgers would likely have to remove one creative midfielder to make way for Lucas. However, Coutinho has already shown he can be effective in a slightly deeper, shuttling role. He's played on the left of a central midfield triangle in a 4-3-3 and on the left of a center midfield diamond in a 4-4-2. One option would therefore be to go with Lucas at the base of the diamond with Henderson to his right and Coutinho to his left in the shuttling roles and either Lallana or Sterling at the tip of the diamond as shown in Figure 3 below. Allen would be the odd man out. It's a set up that provides quite a nice balance of defensive steel, energetic running and technical ability.
Throughout his time at Liverpool Rodgers has shown a great deal of tactical flexibility. If he feels a system isn't working he's more than willing to experiment with another one. Given yesterday's loss was only Liverpool's second since introducing the 3-4-2-1 it's hardly time to scrap the system. However, the Swansea and Manchester United fixtures may hint the midfield box leaves Liverpool too thin in midfield.