When people talk “old school” I think of ‘68 Mustangs and non-hipster vinyls. But then I look at the calendar and realize us millennials are getting old. I get annoyed at an Apple advertisement where a neighbor sees the young girl typing on her iPad from across the fence and asks: What you doing on your computer? The young girl responds: “What’s a computer?” Seriously.
We have been blamed for destroying everything from running, suits and dinner dates. But we gave it loads to, like Twitter (Our apologies as well), Thriller, the Smartphone and almost wherever you looked on a football pitch, 4-4-2.
A formation that many has treated as one for simpletons, myself included, has proven to be Klopp’s latest tool to evolve his Liverpool side.
Although Klopp has described it as a 4-4-1-1, Klopp’s 2017 Liverpool attackers have blurred the lines slightly which we will address below. For brief moments in preseason, Klopp ran with the 4-4-1-1 formation so it has not come totally out of the blue. A 4-2-4, counter attacking formation has been recently used at away days at West Ham, Stoke and Sevilla. Klopp has now brought it to Anfield, but with a different mind-set. When the line-ups for the final group stage match against Spartak was announced few thought Klopp was moving away from the 4-3-3 normally used, with Coutinho, Can and Gini in midfield. However, if you see below seconds after kick off, Coutinho and Mane line-up either side of the central midfield pairing of Can and Gini. Notice how it is slightly narrow and slightly ahead of the the two central midfielders. This is deliberate.
When Salah was purchased, one of the most anticipated results was that Coutinho could now make his “Iniesta Move” into the midfield three. However, one of the failings of the 4-3-3 formation is that Coutinho now deeper has more defensive responsibilities, so systematically Klopp needs him to do his share, especially with our frail defense. By no means can he go missing and whenever he has played there, we look vulnerable without the ball. Especially if you consider that behind him, we have Henderson and Lovren that are lacking in confidence and Moreno who has been asked to bomb forward. Does he cover Moreno or does he support Henderson in the middle? These were significant reasons why we lost control and dropped points versus Chelsea and Sevilla recently. One must note, Emre Can is proving a must more assured option ahead of Henderson in the deepest midfield role.
So how do we get Coutinho to dictate play from midfield but not compromise our defense when we are trying to make it better and not hinder our very well oiled attack? Klopp has gone back to the 90’s and plucked 4-4-2 out of its dial-up slumber and given it the Joga bonito twist.
Below is the Brazil side of the 1998 World Cup, when defending, Rivaldo and Leonardo would line up and with Dunga and Sampaio. When attacking, Leonardo and Rivaldo would come narrow and form a front four, while the fullbacks would bomb on to create width.
With this formation, Klopp can use the advantages of the 4-4-2 formation where Coutinho and Mane know that they stay wide and support their fullbacks when defending. Our players are not good at seeing danger and are often too reactive, so any solution that is as simple as possible, no matter how rudimentary, is the best solution. Two simple blocks of four helps players manage space and when to press the ball while defending the final third.
Offensively, the formation suits the electric front four like a glove. Coutinho can come narrow and get on the ball, similar to Zidane and Kaka has done previously. Moreno overlapping to occupy Coutinho’s marker, while Coutinho can also be in a better position to shoot which he does so well from the inside left channel. Mane on the right where he was Liverpool’s best player last year. Firmino can now play off a central striker, which is his natural position and can interchange with Salah. Salah’s goal scoring form is vital in making this formation work as defenders will be drawn to him and Firmino can have a forward waiting to take the space he creates. The high IQ of Gini and Can is also vital. Can sits and protects while Gini will push out and support Mane, Coutinho or Firmino whenever the play is in their zones. Gini will bomb forward and sit on the edge of the box when attacks develop, giving time to recover.
Against Stoke, Sevilla and West Ham, Liverpool were happy to allow the opposition to have the ball and pick them off on the counter. 10 goals were scored but long stages without the football made for uncomfortable viewing for all Reds watching, the defense struggles under pressure at the best of times. One unique and important difference with this fixture is that it is at home where we can and should be dictating play, our press will be high and aggressive and it was.
In the two instances below you can see how Liverpool aggressively shrink the pitch and force Spartak to bring their best technique to avoid it. In the first picture, seven Reds squeeze the right wing channel, with Coutinho all the way across from left midfield. Spartak play a nice one-two to bypass the press, however misplace a pass as they entered the final third on the same side.
In the second instance you can see six Reds near the left side touch line, also notice that it is already 2-0 and Spartak have been forced to be drawn to the ball doing the best to cover the movement of the front four.
In the picture below, which is eight seconds after the previous instance, Spartak in an attempt to avoid the congested right channel and make use of the inevitable space on the left, try to move the ball into that space. Gini instead of recovering his position alongside Can, presses Glushakov who passes the ball onto Dzhikiya’s heel instead of in front of him to attack the space. Mane picks up the loose ball and creates the chance for the Firmino goal.
The benefit of the 4-4-2 formation, especially with this Brazilian twist, is that Klopp can make full use of the four attackers versatility and strengths. We look at goals and a lot like poker, it is the moves you previously made that affect your oppositions choices. After conceding a soft penalty, early doors, the Spartak defenders get pulled out of position and eventually tap by submission, WWF style. Below you can see Mane start the attack for the second goal driving forward from his narrow inside right channel. Notice how the back-line resembles something out of a grade school cursive writing book. Salah comes deep and Firmino drags Tasci left out of his channel. Tasci so weary of Firmino, that he never recovers to be inline with his back-line when his Goalkeeper clears the ball before hand. Neither Fernando, Bocchetti or Dzhikiya make recovery runs of note. Mane feeds Salah who takes the space left by Tasci and Firmino. The right-back Eshchenko gets dragged across to stop Salah, Salah driving into the box puts Tasci in two minds and then pushes the game right to Firmino. Coutinho, who is now unmarked as Spartak have tapped out, is free at the back post and Bobby obliges. Like watching half of Brazil.
In an attempt to mold this exciting Liverpool talent into a cohesive and balanced side while maintaining its flair upfront, Klopp has gone back to basics with a reverse-mullet, business at the back, party up front and pulled a formation that millennials can look at with pride and say, “back in my day…”.