Published on 20th September
Despite their 2-1 win over Ludogorets Razgrad on Tuesday, Liverpool, for the 2nd game in a row, looked at times slow and ponderous in possession. The ball was often played in front of Ludogerest’s back four between Liverpool’s 3 creative and 2 holding midfielders in their 4-2-3-1 formation. As a result, Mario Balotelli was left isolated and had to do the majority of the work on his own against 2 centre backs, just like he had to do in Liverpool’s 1-0 home defeat to Aston Villa on Saturday.
For almost 82 minutes, Liverpool toiled against the Bulgarian champions, who defended well and had chances of their own; hitting the post only 10 minutes before Liverpool’s opener scored by Balotelli, his first goal for the club.
It was a change in formation however, that led to a change in Liverpool’s fortunes. The change from 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 diamond and the introduction of a 2nd striker in Fabio Borini to play alongside Balotelli suddenly gave Liverpool more pace and incentive in attack. Passes were played quicker with purpose, there was more movement from the two strikers and the change also allowed Liverpool’s two fullbacks, Alberto Moreno and Javier Manquillo, to push further up the pitch.
The diamond formation is a system that Liverpool used to their advantage in the latter part of last season, where Liverpool won 11 games in a row. They system allowed manager Brendan Rodgers to play both Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez up front, which was crucial to Liverpool’s attack as the pair scored a total of 55 goals last season, and with the creativity of Philippe Coutinho and Raheem Sterling in behind, Liverpool became a dangerously quick attacking team. Home thrashings of Everton, Arsenal and Tottenham followed and the 4-4-2 diamond was a important factor in Liverpool’s success.
Now, with the injury of Daniel Sturridge and the departure of Luis Suarez, Liverpool are having to play without either of the ‘SAS’ for the first time since 2012. Balotelli was signed and played upfront with Sturridge away to Tottenham, once again in an effective 4-4-2 diamond as Liverpool won 3-0. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the match was the performance of Raheem Sterling who played behind the two strikers. The 19 year old excelled playing centrally and with his movement and quick turn of pace with the ball, the Englishman proved that he is not only a winger but can be deployed as a clever attacking midfielder.
However after the recent international break in which Sturridge was side-lined for three weeks, Rodgers opted to start with a 4-2-3-1 formation against Aston Villa and Ludogorets instead of perhaps sticking with the diamond and taking a risk by playing a second striker in either Borini or Rickie Lambert.
Although Liverpool should still have had enough quality through Balotelli, Sterling, Coutinho, as well as debutants Lazar Markovic and Adam Lallana, who suffered from a disjointed pre season due to injury and will eventually find their feet and find a place in the team, their passing was slow and Liverpool never looked like scoring.
Balotelli benefitted from the introduction of Fabio Borini and the change of system in Liverpool’s win over Ludogorets. When playing alone up front, Balotelli was left isolated and had to face two centre backs on his own. When he was introduced, Borini added lots of movement to Liverpool’s attack and he dragged one of Ludogerest’s centre backs away from Balotelli, who scored his goal after being left one on one against a centre back in the box. Borini may not be the most gifted striker but his energy and movement frees up Balotelli to do what he does best, score goals.
Behind Balotelli and at the tip of the diamond, Sterling has the ability to receive the ball, quickly turn and then drive away at pace. When Sterling is on the ball, the whole team plays quicker. Sterling, who started his Liverpool career on the wing, is now deemed to be more effective in a central position, even for the England national team.
In midfield, Jordan Henderson has thrived on the right of the diamond. Against Aston Villa and Ludogorets, Henderson was played in the deeper holding midfielder position, which restrained him from bursting forward. Henderson has become a vital part of the team, as indicated by his recent appointment as vice captain, his ability to press high up the pitch and his tendency to make dynamic busts from midfield are key to Liverpool’s success. When playing in a defensive midfield two however, Henderson has little impact on the game, as he did in the World Cup when playing in that position.
The only thing about the 4-4-2 diamond is that Liverpool often look vulnerable at the back. It was no coincidence that Ludogorets had their best chances on Tuesday when Liverpool changed system. With only 1 holding midfielder and with two offensive fullbacks, the two centre backs are often exposed. Liverpool were criticised for being too open last season, so it is a risk that Rodgers would have to take.
Ultimately, at the moment the 4-4-2 diamond suits Liverpool. With no Sturridge and with Lallana and Markovic regaining match fitness, it is a system that gets the most out of Liverpool’s players. On Saturday, Liverpool will travel to Upton Park to face West Ham United. It is a match that is perhaps more suited to the more physical Rickie Lambert than Fabio Borini and Lallana could be picked ahead of Coutinho to play on the left side of the diamond.
It is a game that Liverpool will seek to win if they wish to make up for last weekend’s disappointment and the diamond will give them the past possible chance to do so.