From a coaching perspective, Jurgen Klopp was a victim of his own success last season. Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane’s relentless scoring meant that as much as he wanted or considered experimented with systems, he simply had to a play a 4-3-3.
But aside from the potency of the Three Amigos forcing him to maintain a front three, it was also the composition of his midfield and the players within it that dissuaded the German from tinkering too much with a system that proved more successful than not.
Jordan Henderson, Gini Wijnaldum, Emre Can and James Milner are all good Premier League central midfielders who enjoyed positive seasons of varying degrees. The issue was when their number was reduced from three to two the Reds looked vulnerable.
An already-damaged defence needed maximum protection and through Klopp’s composition of a nominal holder (Henderson), box-to-box (Can/Milner) and more attacking midfielder (Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain/Adam Lallana), it allowed Liverpool’s midfield to cover the necessary ground and space.
Once that reluctance to play a two-man midfield became a habit, there was no going back. The benefits were for all to see but the issues were laid bare in matches when the front three didn’t click, Salah didn’t produce or teams simply figured them out.
In order to grow as a team, Klopp needed increased flexibility and more options for how he sets his team out. The early summer arrivals of Naby Keita and Fabinho have permitted that, offering greater possibility for changing approaches.
Our friends at Football Whispers have examined three ways Liverpool could set up next season, analysing the pros, cons and suitability of each…
Sticking with the norm – 4-3-3
Klopp’s go-to formation throughout much of his time at Anfield, it allows Salah, Firmino and Mane to all be on the field in dangerous positions and gets the most from each forward while also providing enough midfield security for the two centre-backs.
The success is dependent on the work-rate of the front three who press high up the field, forcing the opposition to either go long or make hasty passes into midfield where Liverpool would hope to have defensive overloads, allowing possession to be won back.
Klopp’s new arrivals should slot seamlessly into this structure with Keita assuming the box-to-box role and Fabinho sitting in front the defence, both having played within the formation at club level.
The Brazilian and Henderson are in direct competition for that holding role; Henderson the passing metronome and Fabinho the ball-winner, in a slightly deeper role, launching fast transitions and getting possession forward quickly.
But in games against offensively strong opposition both could play, providing greater defensive structure, with Keita or Oxlade-Chamberlain the link between midfield and attack.
Adam Lallana could also add an extra creative edge on the fringes of the three, which would lose a little defensive security, while Wijnaldum is a sort of one-size-fits-all midfielder who may have lost his status as first-choice but will still be an excellent and reliable squad player to slot in.
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4-2-2-2 – stretching the midfield
This is where the additions of Fabinho and Keita will become most apparent and it’s a formation for the tight, chess-like Premier League games where a three-man forward line may appear a little too obvious.
With Fabinho and Keita as the deepest duo in the two banks of midfielders, Klopp’s defence has plenty of protection while their own skillset and stamina allows them to cover significant ground and prevent breaks between the lines.
The pair will sit deeper than in a 4-3-3 which, theoretically, denies passing lanes to a side like Manchester City and prevents a Kevin De Bruyne-type playmaker finding pockets of space either on the fringes of midfield or in front of the defence.
It requires considerable discipline and worth ethic which should come naturally to Keita who fulfilled this role at RB Leipzig.
The bonus of having the Guinean and Fabinho stationed deeper is the midfield block ahead of them can play wider, perfect for Lallana or Oxlade-Chamberlain who have operated as wingers in their careers, and gives them the freedom to dribble, while Mane could also adopt one of those positions as well.
That forces Firmino, Salah or Mane into a more traditional two, giving them a centralised role and potentially putting them in better and more efficient shooting positions.
If Klopp wants to congest the midfield, he’ll have width via full-backs Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold and while that could leave the defence short, Fabinho can then drop back and form a three.
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From the pressing side of things, that three banks of players should ensure teams have to work even harder in penetrating the defence, unlike the 4-3-3 where two passes and/or a dribble could catch the Reds on their heels.
It allows greater fluidity throughout the field and will require communication and understanding that a player’s starting position won’t necessarily be their finishing one, but it opens up a myriad possibilities for Liverpool from a defensive and attacking perspective.
Diamonds are forever – 4-1-2-1-2
It’s a formation Klopp has scarcely used during his time on Merseyside, to the extent supporters could struggle recall him using it at all, however Mane gave everybody a hint of what is to come in the future towards the end of last season.
The Senegalese was frequently the deepest of the front three and, with Salah’s propensity to drift into a central area, he becomes more confident receiving the ball in areas with more than one defender. Mane was a de facto playmaker.
He perhaps doesn’t have the style to put his foot on the ball and play patient through-balls but you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The former Southampton man pulled the strings for the Reds during the business end of the campaign. His explosiveness on the ball also meant he could collect possession in the middle third before driving forward and creating space for Salah and Firmino.
It’s this shape that gives the greatest case for signing a forward like Fekir who isn’t just a speed merchant playing on the front foot all the time. The Liverpool transfer target’s vision and ability to pick a pass would be perfect in this role.
Like the 4-2-2-2, it requires greater discipline and intelligence in midfield as only one man can really charge forward and join the attack with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Lallana and Keita the obvious candidates.
But the second bank of midfielders would also give scope for width and ensuring the full-backs aren’t isolated or placed in 2v1 situations defensively.
The greatest emphasis is arguably on the anchorman whose starting position implies they won’t be venturing much further beyond the centre-circle in possession and will be committed to a sizeable share of defensive work.
That’s why Fabinho was signed. For all Henderson’s professionalism and whole-hearted approach he does lack the defensive game to truly dominate as a one-man wrecking ball.
With the Brazilian there, Klopp will be confident he has the intelligence, athleticism and ability to hold everything together.
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by Tom Bodell