Last week’s win over Sunderland saw Liverpool start with two upfront. Big deal you say! Well it kind of is. There are trends in football like in most walks of life. Whether its new colourful boots, full length tattoo sleeves, white tape around a players wrist (why do they do this?) or the current quif to the side haircut. Trends are evident in football. None more so than in the tactical side of the game. If you are interested in the tactical evolution of football, I would suggest reading Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid. In this amazing book, it outlines the slow changes of tactics over the years. From a libero to half backs and so on.
Over the last five or six years, Barcelona have dominated world football. Their tiki taka brand of football has taken the world by storm. Soon after their first period of success, every coach wanted to copy their style. Every footballing association marveled at how these diminutive players could dominate a game with the ball as opposed to their size and speed. All the associations around the world looked to revamp their football structure to copy what Barca had done. Their formation was also used by coaches the world over. Teams wanted to play the “Barca way”and entertain while winning. So how exactly did they play?
Playing with high full backs and one holding midfielder instead of a double pivot was replicated everywhere. But the most important part of the puzzle was the striker. They had none. No recognized out and out striker. They did try it with Ibrahimovic but that just didn’t work due to Messi being the focal point. Barca used a false number nine. This was a lone striker who played in the middle of a front three. He would drop off the defense to collect the ball, allowing a pocket of space for either wide man or attacking midfielder to move into. This also confused the oppositions back four. With no one to physically mark, a higher defensive line is played, thus providing space in behind for third man running. As the saying goes, often imitated never duplicated. No one could play the system the way Barca did. But what did happen was that other teams saw the importance of ball retention in the midfield. So they left one player up front and overloaded the midfield to gain possession. This is evident in the Premier League today. Players like Giroud, Torres, Soldado and Lukaku all play the lone striker role with attacking players just in behind, playing in between the lines. But what we witnessed on Saturday in the Stadium of Light was a slight change to the current trend and Brendan Rodgers tactics.
Rodgers was faced with a dilemma once Suarez ban was up. Liverpool had only lost one game in twelve and lone striker Daniel Sturridge was scoring goals for fun and was the focal point of the team. But irrespective of his past behavior, Rodgers knew that it was impossible to leave a player the caliber of Suarez out of the lineup. Rodgers needs to progress this year and he needs all the help he can get. The injury to Brazilian Coutinho had many people suggesting that Suarez would play in the number ten role behind Sturridge or wide of the attacking three. But what Rodgers did was alter his team to accommodate a front two of Sturridge and Suarez. The recent acquisition of Sakho allowed Rodgers to play with three center backs. In the Southampton defeat Rodgers was criticised for playing four center backs so the new formation allowed him to use the majority of his defenders. Jamie Carragher has mentioned numerous times on Sky Sports that Rodgers had tried this in training and even used it and the last home game against Fulham the previous season. He felt it would allow Liverpool to still dominate possession and use their attacking full backs to provide much needed width. It also allowed Rodgers to play the two guys up front together. And that’s exactly what happened on Saturday. Enrique and Henderson played as full backs. Henderson filling in at full back while Johnson was out. The center backs of Toure, Skrtel and Sakho .The double pivot in midfield of Gerrard and Lucas, Moses as the number ten and Suarez and Sturridge up front. 3 goals for the front two proved Rodgers right. The two linked up very well throughout the game and sturridge also providing an assist for his strike partner. Liverpool legend Robbie Fowler recently explained his delight at the sight of seeing two play up front. Fowler wrote in the UK Daily Mail: "It felt like a throwback to a different era when I saw Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge running riot at the Stadium of Light. There has been a trend to play one up front with a man floating in behind but that can make things difficult for the man at the head of the team. He will often find himself with two men, possibly even three, keeping him under wraps. Once you have two strikers working in tandem, though, the dynamics completely change and doubts begin to creep into defenders minds"
The 3-5-2 system has been used before. Mazzarri’s Napoli used it last year as did Conte’s Juventus on occasions. But in the Premier League, this was a bold move by Rodgers. Rodgers bases his game on killing the opponent by possession. Dominating the midfield and having a solid foundation at the back. The possession stats for the game were 53%. They completed 419 passes with 83% accuracy. So with two up front, you can still gain advantage in possession. Many will say “well it was against Sunderland”. This is a valid point. But you can only beat who is placed in front of you and over the last few years, Liverpool have struggled to get results against the so called lesser teams. So a 1-3 win with a new formation and two up front isn’t a bad day at the office for Brendan’s new look Liverpool team.
Greater tests lay in the months ahead and the new formation will be put to the sword against better teams. This weekend Liverpool face Crystal Palace at Anfield. Three points is a must. No doubt in the future, Rodgers will switch his team to counter act other teams but the return of an old school front two in the Premier League is a nice sight. Let’s hope it brings a flurry of goals to the new SAS strike force