Over the past two league fixtures, Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish has sent his team out to play in a formation rarely seen in the Premier League since the mid nineties – with a three-man central defensive line-up. Those who have known me for some time will know this is a system I have – often forlornly and wistfully! – advocated for many seasons. Needless to say, I was intrigued as well as delighted when the Reds took to the field with such a system in mind.
Statistically – including the most important statistic – it has been a success for the Reds as they won 2-0 at home to Stoke City, a team who caused Liverpool no end of problems in the reverse fixture only ten weeks previously, before nullifying the three-pronged attack of Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, winning by one goal to nil.
In both of those games, the opposition was restricted to a single shot on target apiece; fine work considering the (albeit with very different styles and abilities) artillery available to each side.
Against Stoke, Greek giant Soto Kyrgiakos manned the central role and was back to his dominating best as he out-muscled, out-jumped and out-manoeuvred the Potters’ latest addition to their exclusive 6’2″ and over club, John Carew. Either side of him was the adventurous Daniel Agger (left side) and Martin Skrtel, who though has not been anywhere near his best this season has, in this system, put in two highly accomplished displays.
While Kyrgiakos controlled the Stoke aerial threat, Skrtel and Agger maintained shape and a controlled pressure on the Stoke players trying to support the attack. Back in November, Liverpool time and time again failed to deal with the second ball against Stoke, or to pressurise effectively the runners from midfield who pressed the Reds back inside and around their own penalty area for large spells of the game.
Last week, the midfield of the home side was far more effective in this respect and with Lucas Leiva in particular getting through an enormous amount of work shielding the back three, Skrtel, Kyrgiakos and Agger were able to perform their defensive duties both comfortably and admirably.
One of the great strengths of the 3-man central defensive system is – given the right players – its tactical flexibility. In an instant and according to necessity, the three can become four or even five; add to this the likes of Gerrard and Lucas to form a shield in front of them and it is easy to see why it can be such an effective defensive system.
To examine just how this has effectively worked for Liverpool, let’s take a closer look at how the Reds set up.
Playing Daniel Agger on the left side is a bit of a no-brainer; he’s the only one of Liverpool’s centre backs who is left footed and does have experience playing in the full back role; essential for those times when the three does indeed need to become four. For example, in a counter attack situation where Liverpool have lost the ball when attacking down their left; as the opposition attack down their right flank, behind the left wing-back of Liverpool (Glen Johnson in these two fixtures mentioned) who would have pushed up during the attack, Agger can move across to an orthodox left full back position comfortably. The other two central players move across accordingly, leaving the right wing-back (Martin Kelly) to drop in on the right side, making a ‘normal’ back four – something which all modern Premiership defenders are both familiar and comfortable with, and which provides Liverpool with sufficient cover across the entire back line.
Likewise, down the opposite flank, Skrtel would have filled in at right back (he has appeared there before, albeit fleetingly, for Liverpool) and Johnson, Kyrgiakos and Agger would have tilted to the right accordingly. Against Chelsea, Jamie Carragher, who of course has played several seasons at full back through his career, came in on the right side and Skrtel moved to the centre.
For more sustained periods of pressure, such as Liverpool found themselves facing against Premier League champions Chelsea on Sunday, having both wing-backs tucked in narrower and slightly deeper offers a sturdy and impenetrable back five, difficult to find spaces between or play behind. In addition, this makes it possible for one defender to step up and apply pressure slightly higher than usual, knowing that he is covered behind by more than just one team mate.
And what about the flip side? Obviously, allowing for an extra central defender in the team means that one player from further up the pitch must make way. Does it then affect the attacking ability of a team?
In short, no, it doesn’t – as long as the system is implemented well, tactically speaking, and the team has the right type of players to perform specific roles.
This is not a formation which any old team can play, or any old players can slot into seamlessly. Two of the biggest problems with teams playing this way in the mid-90’s was that a) defensive coaches were clearly not well versed in how to correctly utilise the system, or the wrong types of players were asked to carry out important roles (especially the wing backs) and b) coaches and managers seemed unable to see past the two-man forward line, resulting in somewhat predictable and at times unbalanced 5-3-2 or 3-5-2 formations. I would love nothing more at this point than to follow my brain into more detail on the possible alignments of the attackers, but that is for another blog, another time – for now lets concentrate on the defence.
One of the most important facets of modern day football is the attacking full back. Gone are the days of solid, dependable, halfway-line-sitting tacklers and hoofers, or at least from teams with aspirations of winning major trophies, anyway.
The wing back system allows a naturally attack minded full back to carry out exactly the type of job he prefers to do – attack at pace, carry the play, offer width high up the pitch and, hopefully, supply a stream of balls to the attackers. In a conventional four man defence, the very best full backs do this anyway of course – think Dani Alves, Ashley Cole, Maicon – but there is always a hugely demanding amount of pressure, both tactically and physically, on these players to be constantly alert and ready to dart back down the pitch at a moment’s notice in the event of losing the ball.
While no system should exonerate a defender from defending entirely, an extra man at the back always offers that increased cover in the event of a quick break from the opposition, spread over the entire width of the pitch if need be, and the rewards from the wide defenders being able to press higher up the pitch more often are easily spotted with the displays of Johnson and Kelly in the games since Dalglish took over.
There is another piece which adds to the attacking dimension of the team: the ball-playing central defender.
A defender who can bring the ball out comfortably is worth his weight in gold in the right team. In Daniel Agger, Liverpool have precisely that kind of player. Against Stoke Agger completed a fantastic 82 percent of his passes, and 78 percent against Chelsea. Not only is he capable of excellent distribution but the Dane also has the ability to run with the ball out of defence, a big plus point for two reasons.
Firstly, his running speed with the ball can see the Reds progress thirty metres up the pitch very quickly before the defending side has a chance to react – usually when a team plays the ball out of defence, the opposition will be clear on which player takes each man, which midfielder marks their opposite number etc – and not many players have the inclination or ability to deviate from such tactical instructions to close Agger down before he can pick out a team mate or make space for someone else to run into. As we all know, he also possesses a terrific shot with his left foot; I wouldn’t bet against him netting another long range effort before the season is out if this system is persevered with.
Secondly, once Agger has passed on the ball, he regularly continues his run up to the edge of the opposition penalty area, offering an option for a pass or cross. An extra man in an attack can make all the difference, and frequently the runner from the defensive line will not be marked, for the same reasons as given previously – the opposition already all have their men targeted, defender with forward, full back with wide player etc, and the sudden presence of a centre back in the penalty area can frequently go unnoticed.
Martin Skrtel also gave a great example of this against Chelsea as he made a run from deep, completely untracked in the Blues’ penalty area and could have had a chance at goal had the ball in not been cut out.
So two questions remain:
With all these great advantages, why don’t more sides utilise this system? And more importantly, is it a realistic option for Liverpool in the long term?
For the first question, to be honest, I don’t know, and I don’t care. Thoroughly unsatisfactory answer I know but the truth is I don’t pay attention to any club anywhere near as much as Liverpool, though I do love to watch as much football as possible. But I know Liverpool’s reserves and academy players and therefore know there are players who would, long term, fit in this system (Mavinga, Coady, Mendy, anyone?) and I know that many teams simply don’t possess coaches with enough know-how or invention to dream of doing it. The (tactical) coaching standard throughout the Premier League, in general, does not strike me as being extremely high beyond a magnificent grasp of organisation and percentage plays, compared to for example Italy or Spain. Udinese and Napoli have both been users of the three man defence, though Napoli for instance play a far narrower three man line than Liverpool have used (or that I would like to see used) but beyond the occasional Sam Allardyce three-at-the-back system (which barely counts, since it would likely be because Chris Samba was thrown up front, leaving three defenders covering his sizeable hole) not many Premier League teams have given it a try.
At this point I would like to point out that new coach Steve Clarke is likely to have had a huge influence on the excellent displays from Carra, Soto, Agger and Skrtel over the past two games in this formation and if so deserves just as much of the credit as Kenny Dalglish.
Under Rafa Benitez Liverpool did, the odd time, try to implement it – one time which sticks in the memory was a very good team performance against Newcastle, where Jan Kromkamp and Stephen Warnock were the wing-backs, of all people. The consensus appeared to be that playing three in central defence meant one was wasted when teams only played with one striker – three on one is unnecessary and can leave you overrun in midfield. Again, and here is the key point, the right personnel is what makes this system such a good one. Somebody like Agger, who is so comfortable in possession and tactically aware, is able to push up either through the centre or down one of the flanks, to make up the numbers in the middle of the park and swing the balance back in favour of your side.
And so to Liverpool; is it a possibility in the long term? Yes and no.
It is, because we’ve already shown it can work. And it is, because we have the players to do it with and, importantly, it allows us to utilise the remaining players in the squad to the best of their abilities. We don’t have real wingers at Liverpool, and I don’t like them anyway. In this system, true wingers become obsolete; the wing-backs fill their void in attack and the attacking midfielder and forward(s) are able to play with and around them, creating attacks in a variety of methods instead of just endless crosses, hoping one of them lands on or near an attacker.
But it is both unlikely and unrealistic to expect a team to keep one formation for every game of a season, especially a manager like Dalglish who has proven before that he will switch a team or a formation to suit each game – whatever gives his side the best chance of winning.
Another reason I think it could be: Micah Richards. I have him down on my “list” of signings for Liverpool – deride me if you will – and according to reports he was one of the players we looked at during the January transfer window. For me, Richards would be an absolute monster of a player for us in this system. On the right side of a three or in the middle (assuming Carragher on the right for constant shouted positional guidance!) Richards would offer the ability going forward that Agger gives on the opposite side, the comfort on the ball and the goal threat in attack, a great aerial ability at both ends of the pitch – and with Kyrgiakos out of contract in the summer that is a skill which will have to be filled, Andy Carroll or no Andy Carroll – and, crucially because no other Liverpool defender really has it, an abundance of pace. Until now Richards has been switched between right-back and centre-back at Man City, crucified because of his ‘poor’ positional sense and revered because of his physical prowess. Again, the extra man cover in defence will aid significantly in this regard until such time as his positional maturity increases, as it does with all talented young defenders. Our own Martin Kelly – another destined for greatness in the centre of defence in my eyes – seems to be the exception to this rule, rarely caught out of position in his 24 games for the Reds to date.
Not that the next name is likely to be a transfer target for Liverpool in summer but Jack Rodwell is another who would, long term, excel in this kind of role.
Liverpool’s next game is against Wigan Athletic at Anfield and it will certainly be interesting to see if Dalglish sticks with the three man defence or resumes with a ‘conventional’ back four. Either way, it will likely neither signify a preference nor a reluctance of King Kenny for one system or another; at this point he is likely to be largely picking teams based on what he has available to use.
But I for one am delighted to have witnessed two very good Liverpool performances utilising the three man defence, and hope to see much more of it in the future.