Every football team has it’s vital organs – the spine, the heart, the lungs, the brain. The sum of its parts become the driving force behind its level of on-field success.
To continue with the human anatomy metaphor; these parts aren’t effective, as is the case in all team sports, without a body to contain them.
This body is the formation.
When discussing a team’s formation, it is imperative to understand a fundamental truth of football – structural discipline does not equal success.
There are examples of managers who based huge amounts of success, at either ends of a football league table, on strong foundations of structure, shape and discipline.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid team, Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea and, at the opposite end of the spectrum – Sam Allardyce’s countless teams which managed to defy odds in avoiding relegation and consistently over-achieve; are just three examples. But each of these examples rely on individuals to drive their teams.
Without Koke’s vision, and Diego Costa’s finishing and tenacity, Atletico Madrid would have been a solid, defensively immense team without teeth. They certainly wouldn’t have been capable of winning their first La Liga title in 19 years.
Without Arjen Robben, Damien Duff, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba – Chelsea would have been something similar. A team that could soak up huge amounts of offensive pressure, but without the individuals to successfully exploit a counter attack.
And Allardyce, with his Bolton Wanderers team of the mid 2000s would have been difficult to beat, annoying to play against and ultimately able to survive in the Premier League without the creativity of Jay-Jay Okocha, the heart and drive of Kevin Nolan or the brute force of Kevin Davies.
But would they have managed to consistently finish in the top-8 and qualify for Europe in consecutive seasons? Probably not.
The point is, structure and formation are important but they are not the reason a good team is a good team. There is always a balance between shape and style, and between the team’s input and the individual’s.
There has been much focus on Liverpool recently; a team that has seemingly transformed itself from attacking, mercurial and unpredictable dynamos into solid, tactically astute, underwhelming winners.
There are some half-truths in this, and nobody could feasibly deny, for one – the change in style from last season, and also the expertise, ability and undeniable talent of their manager, Jurgen Klopp.
But what is behind this change?
There are many possible reasons – some are technical and based on practical changes employed by players and coaches, and some are philosophical; the result of a change in style by their manager.
Today, I will explore an idea that lies somewhere between the two: the differences between a 4-3-3 formation and a 4-2-3-1 formation.
When Liverpool played Manchester City at Anfield in October, they set up something like this:
The players’ base positions are those assigned within the system, and the arrows denote their general locations and positions occupied as the game progressed (as demonstrated in their heat-maps).
Something that becomes clear here, is that the positions occupied by the wider midfielders - Milner/Keita and Gini Wijnaldum - are generally more defensive. This is in order to cover for Liverpool’s attacking full-backs - in this case, Joe Gomez and Andy Robertson - who tend to move up the field as secondary wingers. The midfielders are expected to cover all thirds of the pitch in order to fill the empty spaces.
The most central of the midfielders, Jordan Henderson, is an integral part of this system. His position becomes more focused within the middle third, but he must make himself available to receive the ball in both right and left channels, as well as through the middle.
All of the midfielders must possess huge physical attributes. Their role is not to directly influence attacking play, but to cover the space left by either attacking full-backs or advanced wingers.
This is, in the case of Klopp’s 4-3-3 at Liverpool, typical of the midfield.
Let’s compare this to Manchester City that day, who set up in a 4-2-3-1 formation.
The midfield is a vital area in any system, and it acts as a good point of reference for how well a team deals with the transition. Both Liverpool and Manchester City are experts at this.
We can see here that the midfield of David Silva and Fernandinho is much more concentrated centrally. With the two-man midfield, there is usually one assigned as defensive-midfielder (Fernandinho) and the other as a deep lying playmaker (D. Silva). For this to be successful, as it has been for Man City, both players must be much more technical in their play.
For Silva, this technical ability is clear; he has been one of the most talented creative midfielders in the Premier League for the past 8 years. But for Fernandinho it is much more subtle. He cannot simply occupy the space the way that Wijnaldum can. There aren’t enough numbers in the midfield of City’s top heavy system.
Fernandinho must possess the knowledge to understand where he can most effectively disrupt the midfield. This is the ability commonly referred to as ‘reading the game’. His 3 interceptions (the same as all of Liverpool’s midfield combined) is testament to this.
Their individual heat-maps demonstrate this further:
Silva did spend most of his time on the ball occupying the defensive midfield position alongside his partner, but also shows activity higher up, wide in the offensive third. While Fernandinho tended to stay either in front of the back-four and sometimes venturing as far as the centre circle. Both have their assigned roles yet both base themselves on either side of the same defensive position.
Note here that they have an almost identical number of touches; both are integral to the success of the system but for different, opposing reasons. One focuses on the defensive action, the other on the transition.
This is mirrored in the Liverpool midfield for their recent game against Fulham, where they used the same 4-2-3-1 system.
With the notable exception being in the advanced right position occupied by Wijnaldum (likely a tactical move to load-up the right side in order to open up central and left wing space), the players’ positions remain the same as the Man City midfielders’; with Fabinho in the playmaker role and Wijnaldum as the defensive disruptor.
Here are their individual heat-maps for that game:
The big comparative differences between the Liverpool and Man City systems here are within the number of touches and also the average positions occupied. This can be explained by looking at the nature of the games themselves.
Against Liverpool, Man City saw 50.6 % of possession and had 708 touches of the ball; while against Fulham, Liverpool had 73% and 914 touches.
It was a dominant offensive display and this meant that the average position of the Liverpool midfield was higher up the pitch. This is also true of the number of touches – most of the Liverpool phases began with the centre-backs (usually Virgil van Dijk) and came to Fabinho in his central position.
Fabinho provides a great example of the midfield’s role in a 4-3-2-1 as he possesses both strong physical attributes and sound technical attributes, I have no doubt that he could have successfully occupied either of the midfield positions during the Fulham game.
Another important role to consider when comparing the two systems is the role of the attackers.
Man City are, as I’ve mentioned before, a top-heavy team. The two wingers become more like forwards, and the attacking midfielder is given the freedom to occupy any space within the final third that he can best exploit. Kevin de Bruyne is a master of this, but against Liverpool this role was tasked by Bernardo Silva.
His creative freedom becomes evident in the fact that he wasn’t focusing on either side with any great favouritism, perhaps slightly favouring more the left-side in support of Raheem Sterling. He was given the choice of either side and could switch his focus as he decided.
The fact that B. Silva’s central channel was effectively empty is evidence of Man City’s reliance on wing-play when attacking. We can compare the two wingers to Sergio Aguero in support of this:
The Argentine had uncharacteristically little involvement in play. His 17 touches of the ball were only 2.4% of Man City’s total.
This was a defensive game, with two evenly matched teams cancelling each other out – Roberto Firmino’s heat-map (21 touches) also resembles Aguero’s; but this game especially shows the reliance on exploiting the wide channels when using the 4-2-3-1 formation.
Liverpool however, in their 4-3-3 had Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah in the wide positions, though more centrally as wide-forwards.
Salah, playing as a right-forward, favours cutting in onto his strong left foot. The right side of the pitch is covered lightly in most offensive positions with the exception of the centre-circle. Mane mirrors this on the left side.
The lighter patches show the areas in which the players would generally receive the ball and the darker patches indiciate the positions they would invariably dribble into.
Their system relied on the fluidity of movement and a very fast transition. Whereas Manchester City’s relied on the constant and relentless pressure on the wide channels.
Firmino, playing in the central attacking midfield, has a comparable heat-map to B. Silva’s vs Liverpool; except it is clear that he favoured the Liverpool left side. This is understandable as it was on the left side that Liverpool found most space in the midfield and their left wing-back, Andy Robertson, was arguably their best performer on the day.
Their wingers showed a different pattern and this is indicative of the stylistic, philosophical differences I mentioned earlier:
Mane, on the left side, shows his usual willingness to cut inside and drive into a more central position. This is contradictive of Sterling, who kept very wide against Liverpool.
Xherdan Shaqiri, on the other flank, displays something similar. Although his side was more congested, as mentioned earlier with Wijnaldum favouring that position from the midfield. The passes here were shorter and played with more intricacy. The forward, in this case Salah, also favoured the right side:
Liverpool seemed to cut the pitch in two vertically. The right hemisphere was overloaded and forced Fulham to respond with numbers, while the left side remained much clearer for Mane, with his explosive pace, to exploit.
This doesn’t match up with the way Manchester City used both flanks to stretch the defenders and create spaces between full-back and centre-back.
It is these stylistic differences that I was talking about before. These have nothing to do with formation or shape, and everything to do with team management. Pep Guardiola has his methods and Klopp has his; clearly both are very effective.
How have the two systems worked out for Liverpool?
This season (2018/19), Liverpool have favoured the 4-3-3. From their 17 games (before Watford), they have begun 12 games with this formation, and just 4 with the 4-2-3-1. The formation is, of course, likely to change (and does frequently) during the course of a match, but for the sake of analysis I will take into account the games where the Reds began with the respective shapes.
Take, for example, Liverpool’s first four games of the season. These were all in the Premier League and came against West Ham (home), Crystal Palace (away), Brighton (home) and Leicester (away).
It is immediately evident that the 4-2-3-1 formation saw Liverpool fair far better. They averaged more possession, they scored more goals and averaged a goal every 12.4 minutes less than with the 4-3-3.
There are a few factors to consider here; one being that the four fixtures taken as sample for the 4-3-3 were more difficult ties – Crystal Palace and Leicester especially have been games in which Liverpool have struggled in recent times, especially away from home. Another factor could be the relative and apparent ease of the fixtures in which they employed the 4-2-3-1.
It is for this reason that Liverpool used this shape. The three man midfield in the 4-3-3 offers much more stability in the middle third and suits their counter-pressing style.
In games where there are likely to be a large number of midfield battles, Klopp used the system where his midfield would not become overrun. He relied on the likes of Milner, Wijnaldum and Henderson to demonstrate their physical prowess to cover ground, close space, and make tackles and interceptions.
It is no surprise that the 4-3-3 is the most familiar formation, as solidity naturally takes priority over flair and goal scoring. It is also no surprise that in games against Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham, PSG and Napoli, Klopp used this system.
Only in the games in which Liverpool expected to hold a large majority of possession did he utilise the 4-2-3-1.
The extra advanced man opens more options in all areas of the offensive third, especially with a player as dynamic, intelligent and energetic as Firmino in the attacking-midfield position.
With the wing backs pushing up, and the wingers cutting inside, there are often 6 players moving forward during attacking phases. This is very difficult to defend and gives Liverpool the edge they simply didn’t possess at times during previous seasons.
In these games there was still the need for a stable midfield presence, but as Manchester City have shown so ruthlessly, this is possible with the right players. Fabinho in particular demonstrated this excellently in the Fulham match.
The important thing to take from all of this, is Klopp’s willingness to adapt. He has a superb squad at his disposal, who can offer so much in all areas of the game. All that was missing was the ability to respond to the opponents.
Too often were teams overcrowding the space with their low-block, and putting numbers into their own box to ensure that Liverpool needed to play a game of numbers and averages; forcing them to essentially hope for the best with deep crosses and long balls.
It seems that this has now changed. Liverpool aren’t blowing teams away (at the moment) but they are scoring enough and not conceding. And crucially, they are winning games.
If this is a sign of things to come for Liverpool, the next few months could be very bright indeed for the Reds.
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