**Our weekend guest posting feature gets underway with Joel's look at Kenny Dalglish's tactics, how they've worked, and what it'll take this summer to make Liverpool successful next season and beyond. You can get in touch with Joel on Twitter or through us at firstname.lastname@example.org.**
As a wise man once said, the formation doesn’t matter, it’s what the players are doing that matters. Since the return of King Kenny, we’ve certainly kept in lockstep with this adage, providing a welcome change from the archaic tactics used by he-who-shall-not-be-named. Rigidity has given way to fluidity, hoofing has returned to a more pleasing and effective pass-and-move game, and the squad no longer looks devoid of confidence. Many have termed Kenny’s formation has as a 4-4-2, since we have two in the center of the pitch, two wide midfielders, and two strikers. However, the midfield is far from a band of 4 across the width of the pitch and both strikers drift about, dropping deep when needed. Calling it a 4-2-2-2 is getting closer to an accurate description, with a pronounced split between the center midfielders and the wide players.
This might be getting a bit nitpicky, but the most accurate description of the formation under Kenny for me is 4-2-2-1-1. We use a back four of two center backs with full backs active in the build up, two players in the center of the park, two attacking midfielders a bit higher up the pitch, and two forwards. I split the forwards up as Carroll and Suarez have very different roles.
Breaking the formation down in more detail, there’s a clearly defined back 4, with two center backs and two full backs. Dalglish has looked to defend much higher up the pitch than Hodgson did, but without using an aggressive offside trap. Rather, the center back nearest the forward presses him and the other center back immediately drops off to cover. It’s an effective way to play, as you can put quick initial pressure on the forwards, forcing them to drop deeper to keep possession, but it also allows you to reduce the danger of off the ball runs breaking through an offside trap. Combined with the tenacity of the midfield in pressing the opposition, this backline strategy forces the opposition to keep a gap between their midfield and forwards during the build up, and forces the forwards back into our midfielders when they receive the ball. Essentially, one center back pressures early and tries to force the play back into our midfielders while the other center back and full backs drop off to cover any runs off the ball.
When we’ve been playing our best the past few months, both full backs have been pushed higher than the center backs and wide to the touchline in possession, as they look to provide early width to facilitate playing the ball out of the back. In attack, the full backs, aren’t looking to bomb down the touchline as soon as we have possession. Rather, they continue to provide width in deeper areas, providing outlets for attackers and allowing the ball to be cycled from side to side. Forward runs are made in support of the attacking players, coming when we have possession established. Johnson’s run forward for Maxi’s second against Fulham was a good example of this run coming from deep---possession's been established in the middle third and Johnson makes a run forward after moving steadily up the pitch from his full back position (seen below).
Next, we have the two in central midfield. What is striking is that the roles here are much more similar to the holding pair under Benitez in 08-09 as they are to the central pairing under Hodgson. However, the central pairing is not a creator/destroyer partnership, rather both players perform similar roles- blending both attack and defense together. The difference in Kenny’s formation is that one player sits deeper and plays with more discipline (Lucas) and the other is more involved higher up the pitch (Spearing). In attack, both players look to get involved, with one sitting deeper and looking to shuttle play from side to side, while the other looks to link up play between the attacking midfielders and the forwards. The major characteristic of this partnership is that both players interchange roles and positions, one player dropping behind to cover the other’s forward run. The main difference from the creator/destroyer partnership is that our CM pairing gets both players involved in the pass and move phase as opposed to one CM looking to pass the ball to the more creative partner to look for a pass.
The attacking midfield has generally been tasked with filling the gaps to facilitate the pass and move when in possession and providing cover for the full backs when defending. In the first picture below from the Manchester City match, you can see Raul (playing at LAM) on the ball and Kuyt (playing RAM) on the far side. The LAM here has dropped back to form a triangle with the LB and one of the CMs while the off side AM looks to provide width off the ball.
In the next picture, Raul has just switched play with a long ball to Kuyt. Now, Kuyt comes inside with the ball, looking to fill the gap between Lucas, Spearing and Suarez, while Raul has dropped into the space previously occupied by Suarez.
However, the AM role is the most likely to have significant change next season. Depending on who is brought in, it seems quite likely that one of the AMs will be a more traditional winger who looks to be more direct in his play and put crosses into the box. The other AM will likely play much like this season- as a link player looking to connect midfield with the forwards using short passing and off the ball movement. As we have Johnson as an extra outlet in attack on the right, it seems likely that the LAM will be the winger with the RAM as the link type player.
As for the forwards, I don’t think the traditional big man/little man partnership is really appropriate, so I’ve split them into two separate roles. Suarez plays as a roaming support striker, buzzing about and looking to find space between the defense and midfield. Carroll plays more on the center backs, but does drop deep to open space for Suarez’s runs and to move the ball out wide- much more of a traditional target man style of play. The key difference between their roles is that Suarez is more involved in the build-up and moving the ball around the box than is Carroll. In this build-up to Carroll’s second against Manchester City, both Suarez and Carroll played one-twos with Lucas outside of the center circle, but once the AMs and full backs are in position to support the attack, their roles diverge. As can be seen in this picture, Suarez has drifted to the near side, setting up a triangle with Raul and Aurelio, and Carroll is on the far side, lurking outside the box on the defensive line. Suarez’s role here is to offer the short pass option or through ball to the near post with Carroll providing an option for the cross into the box.
So what about next year? It seems like Kenny will likely stick with this 4-2-2-1-1 as the primary tactical formation, but I can see 4-5-1/4-3-3 and 3-5-2 variations being used depending on the opponent.
At keeper, Reina will be back between the sticks, and that’s really all that matters. Nothing much to say about him as we all know he’s a top keeper. Brad Jones could be headed out, but I don’t think many of use particularly care about that. He’s not a bad player to have as a back up, but it seems that Gulacsi is just as much of an able deputy.
At full back, Johnson will be the primary RB, with Kelly and Flanagan as understudies. At LB, Konchesky seems nailed on to be on the way out, and with Fabio’s injury history, we’ll definitely be bringing in someone else. At this point, we don’t really know who is the top target, with Enrique, Clichy, Cissokho and Baines (dependent on Everton’s need for cash increasing) all seemingly on the radar. It seems likely that Fabio will stick around, as I doubt he’d be able to be sold to anyone, which would leave Fabio and Robinson as cover at LB, with Johnson also able to cover there.
Center back really depends on who comes in and who leaves during the summer. My hope is that Carragher begins to be phased out of a starting role and into a coaching one- while he still has a few more seasons in him, 2010-2011 should be the last season he should be in a primary starter. Skrtel looks to have regained his confidence under Kenny and Steve Clarke and should continue to be one of our primary CBs. If Agger isn’t sold, he should be saved for big games and limited to one match per week. In my view, Agger is still worth keeping around even if he only starts 20-25 games. As for Kyrgiakos, I’m not particularly bothered if he stays or if he is sold, as he’s a decent back up, but really should be limited to games against weaker teams or specialized tactical formations like the 3-5-2 variations we saw in January. From what I’ve heard, Kenny likes him as he is a good presence in the dressing room, so if he’s content to play a bit-part role, he’s probably worth keeping around. Kelly and Wilson should be phased into CB in the cups and against weaker teams as that’s where I think their future is- Wilson as Agger’s successor and Kelly as Carragher’s.
With only two real reliable players for starting roles, we should be bringing in at least one more player here. With early target Phil Jones likely to head the wrong way on the M62, we’re back to scouring the market for a suitable player. Gary Cahill is a possibility, but word on the street is that Bolton are looking for upwards of £20 million, so better value can be found elsewhere. Personally, I would love to see us make a move for Scott Dann- a solid defender who is comfortable on the ball. He’s been a solid presence at the back for Birmingham City the past few seasons, and his absence due to a hamstring injury coincided with City’s implosion and relegation. Plus, he’s from Liverpool and a Reds fan, so the Kenny effect will likely have a big influence on his play. As for long shots, Simon Kjaer, Mats Hummels, and Neven Subotic are certainly worth a look, but there’s been no word of their availability or if they’re even being looked at.
In the center of the park, I expect Gerrard and Lucas to be the primary partnership. Lucas’ emergence this year makes him nailed on for a starting role, and Gerrard is still Gerrard. From the glimpses we saw of Stevie under Dalglish, it looks like he is willing to be a bit more disciplined than he has been in the past, and it doesn’t seem like a big stretch for him to worth with Lucas much in the way Spearing has been the past few matches. While Raul will also likely be playing at AM, he could easily fill in at CM if needed. That leaves Spearing and Shelvey as our other CMs, with Poulsen only worth a mention because he’s certainly on the way out this summer. I’d expect Shelvey to be primarily a substitute and to split time between CM and AM, with some starts in cup matches or against weaker teams. Spearing will probably a squad player, primarily filling in for injuries, but he’ll likely see time in specialty formations when we use more players in the center, like 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 diamond.
Already reinforcing this area of the squad with Jordan Henderson, we look likely to add at least one more player in the CM area- strong rumors of Charlie Adam moving from recently relegated Blackpool. While certainly excellent at set pieces and a strong passer, Adam’s fitness and stamina could be an issue. If Kenny can get him into shape and drop a few pounds, he’d provide more passing options from the center when Gerrard isn’t available or pushed forward/to the right. Additionally, it’s been rumored that we’re looking to pick up a young-ish defensive midfielder. Yann M’vila was the early big target, but it doesn’t look like he’ll be moving this summer. The latest whispers are that we’re looking at Blaise Matuidi from Saint Etienne. I haven’t seen much of him, but from what I’ve heard he would be a good pick up for the squad, providing a tough tackling presence if Lucas is unavailable or when two defensive midfielders are needed. For me, picking up a DM is a bigger priority than getting Adam, as I don’t feel confident in Spearing playing the sole DM role in the midfield if Lucas is injured. We’ve been lucky this past season as Lucas was essentially injury free, but we’d have been in trouble if he was out for a few games.
Picking up a winger-type player seems to be our priority for this summer, as we’re rumored to be chasing Hazard, Mata, Young, Downing, and just about every other good wide player in existence. While I have no idea who is going to end up at Anfield next season, Mata + 1 would be my realistic choice for new players. I’ve been drooling over Mata for a few seasons now (as I’d wager most of you all have been as well) and I think he’d be a boss player for us- able to play on the left, right or in the hole. With Kuyt, Maxi, and Raul likely to play RAM (with Henderson, Shelvey, Pacheco, and Gerrard also available), it seems that we’ll only go for one top wide player, but I’d like to see us get two- more options and more cover. Young or Downing would be solid pick-ups here, as they’d both be able to play on either side and are both good crossers. As for players on the way out, Jovanovic looks almost guaranteed to head elsewhere after a disappointing season- it seems like he was a case of bad timing as I think he’d have turned out differently under Rafa. Cole will hopefully be on the way out too, but may prove difficult to offload due to his wages. More in-depth analysis of the players for AM is not really worth doing, as we simply don’t know what is going to happen. In a general sense, Kenny is likely to play with one pacy player and one link player next season in the AM slots. It seems pretty obvious that getting players who can cross will make Carroll just that much more effective, so that’s where our priorities should lie with new buys for the AM slots.
Finally, with the forwards, it looks like N’gog is on the way out, so we should move for one player in this area. Obviously, Carroll and Suarez will be preferred up top, and Kuyt has shown again that he’s an able deputy in this position. Pacheco could be available to cover for Suarez, but I think it would be more beneficial for him to get loaned out to a PL side (Bolton seems to be en vogue these days). We could really go anywhere here, picking up a star player such as Benzema or Aguero or an older player with experience as cover (Raul?). Currently, it looks like we’re moving for Wickham to fill this squad slot, who would be a good pick up. The most accurate comparison of him from watching YouTube clips seems to be Dzeko when he was at Wolfsburg. He’d likely be able to fill in for either Carroll or Suarez as well as fit in a three forward formation. Much like at AM, there are plenty of options here, but we definitely need to pick up one player beyond Suarez, Carroll, and Kuyt to ensure proper cover for injuries.