Are Liverpool bottling it is the question on many people’s lips? Before their match against Leicester City four weeks ago, the Reds had the opportunity to extend their gap at the top to seven points. Now, they find themselves leading by a solitary point. Just one win in their last four league games, all of which were very winnable, has prompted premature talk of Liverpool slipping up again. Whilst their defence has remained relatively strong, as it has done all season, it is the attack that is misfiring as of late.
The major cause for concern is not that they aren’t producing the goods in front of goal, it’s more an issue of a lack of creativity. Barring a couple of set pieces against Manchester United, they barely looked like scoring, despite the hosts being severely hampered by a host of first-half injuries. The lack of an attacking midfielder is hurting the Reds, and could ultimately cost them their first league title in 29 years. Liverpool fans will be bemoaning the club’s decision not to complete the summer signing of Lyon’s Nabil Fekir on medical grounds, as the World Cup winner looks to be the missing cog in Jurgen Klopp’s machine.
However, it is futile now to say that Nabil Fekir would win Liverpool the league title. After all, Liverpool didn’t have a designated playmaker for the second half of last season, a period which saw them reach a Champions League final. In fact, the 4-3-3 system used recently against West Ham and Manchester United was the one primarily used last season, to devastating effect. So what’s the difference?
Ultimately, Liverpool have become predictable. When Klopp’s side dominate possession, as they did on Sunday (65%) and against West Ham (73%), opponents know that if they play in a very compact manner, man-marking the danger man, Mo Salah, then it becomes very difficult for Liverpool to find a breakthrough.
There are times when Liverpool do produce moments of magic – as you would expect given the amount of money spent on the side – or opposition teams make mistakes which are consequently capitalised on. If they can then force teams onto the front foot, they are the best exponents of exploiting space left in between the midfield and defence.
However, if Liverpool fail to find a breakthrough, they become increasingly frustrated. The growing frustration, combined with the pressures of a Premier League title race and the need to win, results in a lack of patience and instead of playing the football Klopp wants them to play, the players try overly ambitious plays that seldom come off.
This predictability is costing Liverpool precious points and is the reason why Klopp must revert back to the 4-2-3-1 formation. When it was first used in October, pundits and fans alike were criticising the idea of playing Salah, the man who had just broken the Premier League record for most goals in a 38-game season, out of position. People were questioning the deployment of Roberto Firmino, much lauded for his performances at striker, as an attacking midfielder.
Overall this season, Liverpool have started Premier League fixtures in one of three formations. The 4-4-2 system has been used twice; at Bournemouth, when the Reds came away with a 4-0 victory and also at Burnley when they were trailing after an hour until they changed to a 4-2-3-1 system and ended up winning 3-1.
Klopp has started with a 4-3-3 set-up 13 times. After winning all of their first five games of the season using this formation, with performances built on defensive stability, Liverpool have gone on to use it eight further times. These eight matches have yielded two wins (against Bournemouth at Anfield and away to Huddersfield), five draws, and their only loss of the season to Manchester City. In these games, Liverpool scored an average of 1.46 goals per game, conceding an average of 0.54 goals per game.
In the 12 games in which Klopp has opted for the 4-2-3-1 formation, Liverpool have won 11 of them, finding the back of the net at an average of 2.92 goals each game, while conceding just 0.58 goals per game. In fact, the only league game Liverpool haven’t won after starting in the 4-2-3-1 system was the last time they used it, at home to Leicester.
Liverpool’s most complete performances of the season came against Arsenal in that 5-1 thumping at Anfield in late December. Not only does the 4-2-3-1 still cater for Liverpool’s counter-press out of possession, it allows for far greater fluidity in attack. When the table toppers become predictable in their 4-3-3 system, they look rigid and static in attack.
However, whilst in the 4-2-3-1 formation, Salah is able to drift into midfield, just like he did against Brighton to become the influential figure in their vital 1-0 victory. Firmino can play as a number 10, as the central striker, or push out wide and help create overlaps for wingers Sadio Mane and Xherdan Shaqiri to take advantage of.
Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum are Liverpool’s best midfield partnership as the two behind the four attackers. The Brazilian has improved drastically over the last few months, not only with his tough tackling and astute defensive positioning, but also his long range passing. Fan favourite Wijnaldum is very efficient with the ball at his feet, rarely misplacing a pass or being tackled. With Liverpool using Salah as a striker, both midfielders’ capacity to pass the ball through the lines of defence is only accentuated due to Salah’s pace and ability to latch onto passes that others would give up on.
Statistics do not always tell the whole story, but it is becoming increasingly evident that Liverpool’s 4-3-3 system is turning stale. Klopp should act now and change back to the 4-2-3-1 formation, one which has allowed Fabinho to play in his natural position and has also culminated in most of Liverpool’s finest displays so far this season. Salah has flourished in his new position, one which prevents him from being man-marked out of games, while Firmino’s goalscoring numbers have improved considerably in the number 10 position.
Unlike last season, Liverpool’s issues are not at the back, but further up the pitch. This formation change could get Liverpool’s attack back on track and could be the difference between disappointment and that elusive Premier League title.