Liverpool’s season started disastrously. Crashing out of the Champions League in the group stage despite a relatively favourable draw and struggling for consistency in the Premier League, serious pressure was building on manager Brendan Rodgers as his expensive summer signings failed to live up to expectations.
However, since December their form has turned around dramatically, and the Merseyside club now find themselves as the league’s form side. Rodgers deserves serious credit for the turn around, having changed both the team’s personnel and its formation, switching from variations of either 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 to a 3-4-3 (or, to be pedantic, 3-4-2-1) shape.
The back three was an idea Rodgers toyed with early in the 2013/14 season, using a 3-5-2 in order to partner Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, but ultimately abandoned the formation after mixed results, settling on a 4-4-2 diamond shape as the team mounted an ultimately unsuccessful charge for the league title.
In the League Cup quarter finals game against Bournemouth the back three returned, though this time the shape in front of it was different; two central midfielders with two attacking midfielders ahead of them, supporting a lone striker, whilst the wing-backs took up more advanced positions than they did in last season’s 3-5-2.
This is largely due to the personal selected there- usually two of Alberto Moreno, who is a very adventurous full-back, and Lazar Markovic and Jordan Ibe, both wingers. This is a change from the more orthodox full-backs used as the wing-backs last season; Glen Johnson, Jose Enrique, Aly Cissokho and Jon Flanagan.
Since the change the Reds are unbeaten in the league, winning seven of their ten games during that period and imposing themselves as serious contenders for Champions League qualification.
The formation seems to bring the best out of a number of Liverpool players. Martin Skrtel, playing as the most central of the back three, now has an almost wholly defensive role which seems to suit him.
Skrtel’s weaknesses tend to be more exposed when he has to make difficult decisions; in his new position, he knows he simply has to defend the goal and cover his fellow centre backs. Skrtel has thrived in the new system, producing some commanding recent performances.
The other centre-backs are even more crucial to the system functioning. Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho are both excellent passers of the ball.
Though the latter is much maligned by television pundits, his pass completion ratio is 89% this season and, more importantly, his passes tend to be powerful and aimed forwards, often giving the ball to Philippe Coutinho in dangerous areas of the pitch.
In fact, if there is a flaw when Sakho is on the ball it is that his passing can be almost too ambitious, but this is a far cry from the technical incompetence several Sky Sports pundits would have you believe Sakho is afflicted by.
Can is also a pro-active and aggressive passer of the ball. Without these two players the system can lack purpose and forward thrust, as seen against Southampton last Sunday, when Sakho was missing; though they did win, Liverpool were far from their best and Dejan Lovren’s lack of ambition with the ball was part of the problem.
This was even worse in the second leg of the Europa League tie against Besiktas, when a back three of Kolo Toure, Dejan Lovren and Skrtel provided little in the way of forward passing.
The need for the centre-backs to pass positively is partly due to a lack of creativity amongst Liverpool’s central midfielders. Lucas Leiva is an intelligent defensive midfielder and a good passer of the ball but is rarely creates goalscoring opportunities, and for him to score himself is almost unheard of.
Joe Allen works hard and can be a useful player but lacks ambition when in possession. Jordan Henderson has recorded a respectable number of assists this season but can struggle against packed defences and occasionally still retreats into his safe passing mode in difficult games.
Assuming Can remains in defence at the moment, Steven Gerrard is still the most dangerous option Liverpool have in central midfield, but his lack of defensive acumen can expose the team and his penchant for long passes can break down the teams short passing game.
Due to this lack of strength in the centre of the pitch, it is vital the centre-backs are players who can help get the ball to the forward players.
The seemingly bizarre idea of converting Markovic into a wing-back has been surprisingly successful, with the highlights including a man-of-the-match performance and winning goal against Sunderland, though he had something of a nightmare on the left in the first half against Southampton. The position works for Markovic as he has pace and works hard going both backwards and forwards.
Moreno has also done well, if not quite delivering as much end product as hoped for. The system is good for the Spaniard as it allows him to think less about his defensive responsibilities, the weaker side of his game, freeing him up to get forwards.
On the downside, it means he has no winger to overlap, and he tends to lack the skill to beat his man from a standing start. The recently returned Ibe is thriving on the right, using his pace and power to go past wingers and full-backs almost at will.
The wide players are also key to this formation as, with central midfielders who do not contribute enough going forwards and three players at the back, the front three players need support from somewhere.
Playing two attacking midfielders is ideal for a team which has so many talented players capable of filling that position- Coutinho, Raheem Sterling, Adam Lallana, Ibe, Markovic and Gerrard can all play there.
Coutinho has now found form after shaky early performances. On his day there are few players in the country capable of matching him for sheer talent, and that is now being reflected in his performances, playing in a role with few defensive responsibilities which allows him to shine.
The Brazilian has often been used as a left-winger during his Liverpool career, but his current position allows him to be far more involved in the game. His fellow attacking midfielder is usually the explosive Sterling, when he is not being employed up front- when he is, Lallana tends to step in.
The striker role has been a huge issue for Liverpool this season, as with Daniel Sturridge injured, Mario Balotelli, Fabio Borini and Rickie Lambert have all tried and failed to fill the position.
The recent conversion of Sterling into a striker, the return of Sturridge and the improvement of Balotelli have eased the problem, but there is still a glaring lack of depth in that position for Liverpool.
After all, Sturridge will surely remain injury prone, Sterling so far lacks a true goal-scoring instinct, and Balotelli has proven himself utterly unreliable.
Finally, praise for Simon Mignolet is necessary. The formation has little to do with his sharp upturn in form, but the Belgian has suddenly become a far more commanding figure in the penalty area and is making crucial saves of the quality he produced in his first few months at Liverpool. Mignolet’s performances have certainly contributed to the team’s better results.
Ultimately, though talented players like Can, Lucas, Moreno, Sakho and Markovic featuring more regularly in the starting line-up has been essential to the teams improvement, the formation they are playing in has allowed these players and others to thrive.
The long term use of the 3-4-3 should be questioned, as despite improved results, performances are still at times unconvincing, and, bar a 4-1 win against Swansea, the Reds are yet to truly demolish a side using this system in the manner they regularly did last year. There have also been recent particularly sterile performances against Everton and Besiktas.
Yet until new players can be recruited in the summer, it is the best system available, one that draws the best out of the majority of the teams players and provides a reasonable balance between defence and attack, even if it is perhaps weighted a little too heavily towards the former at times.