Liverpool began the 2018-19 Premier League season on fire. The club has been resurgent under Jürgen Klopp’s management, who led Liverpool to the Champions League final last season and to the summit of the Premier League this season. But it is no secret that Liverpool haven’t been at their best in 2019.
Jürgen Klopp’s side have adopted a more reserved approach this season, in contrast with the “heavy metal football” Klopp is famous for. The club won 17 of their first 20 Premier League games in 2018-19 and Klopp’s pragmatism and tactical flexibility have been applauded. Their results have dipped since then, and one reason for that may be Liverpool’s change in formation.
Liverpool have tended to play a 4-3-3 under Jürgen Klopp. Playing with three central midfielders enables the famed attacking trio of Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino to stay high up the pitch when the other team has the ball, as the seven outfield players behind them are all capable defensively. Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have also thrived, as one of the three central midfielders (often James Milner) will be in position to cover for a marauding full-back if Liverpool lose the ball. The width provided by Robertson and Alexander-Arnold allows the front three to play more centrally, and to get into goalscoring positions.
When Salah, Mané and Firmino have been on form, this has been a recipe for success. The trio combined for 91 goals in all competitions in 2017/18, and this season’s combined total of 53 goals (so far) is still impressive, but they’d need to start scoring far more often in order to approach that mark again this campaign. This is important because Liverpool’s first choice midfield in a 4-3-3 is some combination of Georginio Wijnaldum, Jordan Henderson, James Milner and Fabinho. All are accomplished players, but none are regular goalscorers. Liverpool’s success when playing a 4-3-3 relies on Salah, Mané and Firmino to score a boatload of goals. Sadio Mané has been in incredible form lately but in Liverpool’s last ten games Salah and Firmino have scored just three goals between them.
Xherdan Shaqiri was signed from relegated Stoke City in July, and made his first Liverpool start against Southampton in September. This was the first game in which Liverpool trialled a 4-2-3-1, with Mohamed Salah playing as a central striker. Mané, Shaqiri and Firmino were positioned behind Salah, and Liverpool found themselves 3-0 up before half-time.
Liverpool continued to experiment with this formation in 2018, and per whoscored.com they won ten of the eleven games in which they employed a 4-2-3-1. It was during this period that Shaqiri’s best Liverpool performances came, and their use of the 4-2-3-1 also coincided with Mohamed Salah’s best goalscoring form this season and the team winning nine league games in a row. This begs the question, why did Liverpool revert back to a 4-3-3?
A Return to the 4-2-3-1?
Formations are not static or rigid, and creative players like Salah and Firmino will drift into space regardless of what their nominal position in the formation is. But, a 4-2-3-1 formation does seem to suit Liverpool better than a 4-3-3 for a number of reasons. Shaqiri appears to fit a 4-2-3-1 far better than a 4-3-3, and has scored six league goals despite playing a limited number of minutes. This change also might help Salah and Firmino to recapture their best form given that they both performed well in the formation earlier this season.
A 4-2-3-1 may also suit Liverpool’s midfield better than a 4-3-3. As mentioned above, Liverpool’s central midfielders don’t score very often and in a 4-2-3-1 the central midfielders have fewer attacking duties than in a 4-3-3 as there is an additional attacking player in a central role. Jordan Henderson and Naby Keïta are both struggling with injuries at the moment, leaving Milner, Wijnaldum, Fabinho and Adam Lallana as Klopp’s potential central midfield options. Fabinho and Wijnaldum had an excellent partnership at the base of Liverpool’s midfield when playing a 4-2-3-1 earlier this season, while Adam Lallana is more comfortable playing as part of the ‘3’ in a 4-2-3-1 than as a central midfielder in a 4-3-3.
Put simply, when Liverpool played a 4-2-3-1 earlier this season it meant that they could field their best eleven players (subject to form and fitness), in positions they were more comfortable playing, and in positions that they play better in. Liverpool have begun to stutter and falter, but a shift back to a 4-2-3-1 could help Liverpool succeed in their title challenge.