Everything is connected. Everything is related. The system works because it is the perfect system for the opponent and the players are effective in their roles, not because any one player grabs the game by the scruff of the neck and carries the team to victory.
In defense, three central defenders comprehensively negate Stoke's solitary target. Carew is the outlet, the bullseye for long balls, and they are a largely agrarian side lacking guile. They lack the pace on the wings, the touch in the center, the skill to play football from the back. Hoof, hold, attack. Look for onrushing midfielders sprinting ahead on the counter. Look for an opposition defense stretched by their own increasingly frustrated attempts to break through. Stay tight and counter.
It seems somehow familiar.
Still, Stoke, though simple, is generally an effective side. They're good at what they do: Rugged, direct attacks launched over the middle without the benefit of natural width, hoping for the best. Hoping that if Plan A doesn't work a grafted free kick or long throw will salvage a point here and there over the course of a long season.
Setting out with three in the back, then, with the tall Kyrgiakos tightly man-marking Stoke striker Carew while Agger and Skrtel provide immediate support as needed and Lucas and Aurelio interchange in front of them, both aware of their defensive responsibilities, gives Stoke no outlet for their natural game. They are grossly out-manned at their only possible point of attack, and must hope for a lucky break that leads to a throw, leads to a set-piece. Leads to something. They never get that lucky break.
A central box of four midfielders, supplemented by wingbacks in the wide areas, heavily outnumber Stoke's midfield. If the five men so commonly credited with providing a man advantage in the myriad 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 variant systems can outnumber their less astute 4-4-2 brethren, here there is no match in a possession game based around a minimum of six players passing and moving in midfield. Liverpool use their advantage to hit 61% possession while putting Stoke under exceptional pressure any time they get the ball and attempt anything more creative than pumping long-balls to the heavily outnumbered Carew.
Still, it is a plan in large part reliant on Stoke. Or at least on Stoke's shortcomings and their inability to compensate for them within the course of the match. For if there was a skilled, speedy winger to dink the ball to wide over the top, it might well stretch Liverpool's three narrow defenders and open up room for Stoke's lonesome striker. But Stoke don't have that player, or if they do they have not prepared to use him in such a manner.
So Liverpool is free to ping the ball around at will, building their attack, and all Stoke can do on the occasions they do reclaim possession is pump it over the top. To a tightly marked Carew. Whence it comes right back at them.
The attack relies on those six men in midfield--in a single striker system, most of those who will join the attack are necessarily part of the collective bossing possession--as well as quality hold up play from an industrious Dirk Kuyt, looking as good as he has at any time this season. It is even supplemented by the outside central defenders, Skrtel on the right and Agger on the left, both willing to provide an emergency outlet as Liverpool builds their way into the attacking zone. Beyond simply providing an outlet, though, they also often move up the pitch, forming a portion of the base of midfield and allowing one of Lucas or Aurelio to push fully into the attacking third while maintaining a defensively solid quartet in the middle of the field. It is an efficient accordion--or domino--action, with one of the three central defenders moving forward into a temporary defensive midfield role as the ball enters the final third, allowing one of Lucas or Aurelio to join the attack without worrying about a hole being left if Stoke breaks quickly.
The defense shifts from a central back three to a quintessentially South American defensive quartet, a pair of center backs with a pair of volantes camped in front of them, and suddenly at the back Liverpool looks much like a modern 4-2-3-1 defending the most dangerous central areas of the pitch against fast breaks. The six man midfield, meanwhile, has given the wingbacks enough time to advance through their possession, and with the ball then sent out to the left or right, as many as five Liverpool attackers are able to flood the box and hunt for crosses.
In the course of the match, if for example Skrtel and Kyrgiakos have stayed at home behind Lucas and an advancing Agger, then in front of that you will have, at the end of a well built move, Kelly delivering the ball from wide on the right while Kuyt, Gerrard, Meireles, Aurelio, and Johnson all attack the box. Or Johnson will deliver from wide while Kelly runs for the far post from the opposite side. In fact, on a number of occasions towards the end of the first half and early in the second Liverpool's attacks manage to look exactly like this, and while the Liverpool players settle in their roles and push ahead, Stoke appears completely overrun by the attackers flooding their box after long stretches of build-up play have worked Liverpool en masse into the final third.
Once Suarez and Shelvey come on, and with Liverpool having gone up 2-0, the team clearly takes to a much more defensive 5-3-2, but until then it is a masterful example of just how useful a formation with three defenders can still be on occasion in the modern game. It makes it exceptionally difficult to break down for a team with a single central target and little natural width; it allows six men in midfield and an even greater numerical advantage in possession; and it encourages wing play and whipped in crosses more than most other modern systems whose wide men--the fullbacks--start from deeper.
It is, however, still a system with weaknesses. Against a team that themselves play with width one will be faced with the risk of pinned back wingbacks and a resulting de facto five man back line, making for an exceptionally defensive side. That in turn will lead to an outnumbered midfield likely to lose the possession battle while the single striker becomes increasingly isolated. Conversely, insisting on pushing the wingbacks forward in such circumstance, attempting to dominate the midfield battle no matter the consequences, will only leave the central three increasingly in danger of being pulled apart as they attempt to cover vacant wide areas.
With the proliferation of single striker systems the problem more often than not with three center backs became that you either had too many defenders committed to protecting against that single central man, or you had too few defending against a side that could effectively use the wings to deliver crosses to that central man. The issue has never been that a central three is too many men committed to defense on the whole, since most systems commit at least four players almost exclusively to defense as part of either a flat back line or some form of stacked defensive quartet of center backs and holding midfielders while the fullbacks rush forward. The problem is that as sides look to exploit three central defenders it inevitably leads to the need for the wingbacks to defend to a greater degree, and so sooner or later one decides that a four man back line can do the job just as well as what has suddenly become a five man back line, and then a central defender is swapped for a player pushed forward somewhere else. But against a side unable--or simply unprepared--to properly exploit a three center back system, it can actually be quite advantageous, contributing to an even stronger position in the midfield battle.
It certainly worked a charm against Stoke, a side unable to cope with a striker man marked by Kyrgiakos, supported as he was by two additional center backs while the wingbacks stayed high up the pitch to support both possession and defensive pressure from midfield. It worked against a side that wasn't set up to effectively stretch the wings and force Liverpool into a catch-22 where they either defended with three and got picked apart, or defended with five and lost that advantage in midfield. It worked against the agrarian lumpers of Stoke--it worked wonders. But it's probably not the long term answer.
Even assuming that every side faced had the same deficiencies as Stoke, one imagines the eventual goal for Liverpool is to have both Suarez and Carroll in the starting lineup. The problem then becomes that you either have to drop Suarez into an attacking midfield role in place of Gerrard or Meireles, or switch to a two man front as Liverpool did towards the end of the match. In the latter case, despite the braying of clueless pundits the world over, an extra striker doesn't always make things more attacking--it certainly didn't make Liverpool more attacking against Stoke, and with good reason. The system Liverpool used to such great effect for the bulk of the match was a system that thrived on possession, on pass and move and overloading the midfield while slowly shifting the entire team forward and looking to overwhelm an opposition defending in numbers with numbers of their own. With one man up top, it meant there could be six men in midfield, and the time afforded by that allowed Liverpool to move forward as a unit and flood the box with attackers once Stoke was pushed back against their own goal line. On the other hand, two up top would have meant--did mean, towards the end--that Liverpool would lose the time provided by that midfield advantage and be forced to play a more direct game through the two strikers, a tactic more suited to a counter-attacking underdog than a dominant home side. Perhaps two strikers sounds more attacking on the surface, but the match against Stoke saw one striker and four or five players attacking the box to start, and then two strikers but only two or three players able to attack the box to end, which just goes to show it's about finding the proper balance for your side's players and the opponent, and not about how many strikers are on the pitch. It also goes to show that the most effective attacks can come from first effectively controlling areas other than the final third.
In the end it seems that it's always about balance and team, and the way that the defense supports the transition and possession informs the attack. Yesterday, then, Liverpool--whether it was down to Kenny Dalglish or Steve Clarke's specific tactics on the day--got it absolutely, brilliantly right. It won't work against everybody--in fact, it likely wouldn't work against Chelsea, though the self-evidently more defensive 5-3-2 Liverpool finished the match with and that could be used while looking to hit them on the counter might actually have some merit on Sunday, even if the resulting concession of midfield would mean nervy moments and a lot of long balls. It probably isn't best suited to Liverpool's best eleven at present in any case, either. But sometimes, something like what was seen yesterday will be the right formation to get the job done due to the opponent and available players.
Nobody knew this Liverpool had it in them to approach a match like that, and it was an absolute tactical master-class. A perfectly balanced, perfectly modern twist on the 3-4-2-1 with a focus on dominating midfield possession, one that completely nullified Stoke's ability to do anything at all. In the glow of such victory, it's hard not to wonder if with the right personnel in defense--perhaps with a ball playing center back on the right to match Agger on the left, and with a new Sami Hyypia in the middle to clean things up--such a formation might, with enough practice, have the flexibility to be more generally useful in modern football. Especially with the way the defensive side of the team transitioned to a very Brazilian stacked quartet once the ball reached the final third. Still, the personnel probably isn't there to make it work week in and week out right now, both in that there's an absence of a second Daniel Agger at the back, as well as the presence of a certain Luis Suarez at the front. But for at least one night it was a thing of beauty, and once it started clicking, Stoke didn't know hit them.