In the wake of Saturday's match against Stoke, much was made of the draw representing a complete tactical failure by Kenny Dalglish and Steve Clarke. The key failure in that larger breakdown was meant to be the deployment of three centre backs in a formation nearly identical to the one which had defeated Stoke at Anfield a year earlier, as in the eyes of many those three centre backs represented an overly defensive approach when facing a club with so little attacking intent. It wasn't, however, a failure of tactics. If anything, it was a failure of personnel.
That reality may not leave Dalglish blameless, but it does go some way to discrediting those who would embarrass themselves by calling for his head using such a contrived and faulty justification, one that suggests that the person making the argument has little understanding of football. Superficially, the suggestion that three centre backs was inherently too defensive has a similar ring to the similarly faulty—but all too common—suggestion that sides deploying one striker are inherently less attacking than those that deploy two. In both cases, the labels given to where players set up is convenient shorthand, but it hardly tells the whole story.
After all, Stoke often start their matches with Jonathan Walters alongside Peter Crouch in attack, and nobody is ever likely to mistake them for an attacking club. Meanwhile there are countless examples of sides deploying a lone striker who through possession allow time for four or even five players from midfield and the fullback positions to flood into the box in support—including the Liverpool side that ended last season on a high note, tearing apart opponents as diverse as Fulham, Birmingham, and Manchester City.
Yet hardly a weekend goes by without some commentator suggesting that a side with one true striker could be made more offensive if they simply were to shuttle on a second. It is, in short, an outdated outlook, and almost laughably so when one considers how the best—and often most attacking—club and national sides set up.
Similarly, starting three at the back doesn't have to be more defensive than any other common formation. In particular, against Stoke three at the back is a perfectly reasonable way to defend their height, their aerial threat, and tendency to hoof—or throw—it into the box. Especially given that neither Lucas Leiva nor Jay Spearing was available to Kenny Dalglish on Saturday.
The reality is that almost all sides deploy three or four players almost entirely concerned with defence. Sometimes that means two centre backs and two fullbacks; more often these days it means two centre backs and two holding midfielders. Sometimes there's a single holding midfielder and one fullback who's noticeably more defensively minded than the other, leading to an imbalanced formation. In any case, while there is certainly flexibility in how a manager decides to combine the talent he has on hand, the vast majority of the time the final number of primarily defensive players falls within that same range.
Given Liverpool's lack of options in midfield and the particular threat posed by Stoke, three centre backs and Jose Enrique filling a role not too far from what he would have in a four-man backline was simply an unusual route to reach a similar answer. It wasn't inherently defensive, not with Charlie Adam and Steven Gerrard sitting in midfield in front of the trio and almost entirely absolved of any defensive duties.
The problem then was execution, not tactics. The problem was that the players on the pitch tasked with providing the cutting edge didn't do so. Blaming the three centre backs or Dalglish for deploying them is akin to those who would blame Lucas for all the club's failings in past years when in reality there were six or seven other players on the pitch responsible for providing the attacking impetus who simply weren't doing enough. With four midfielders largely free to directly support Dirk Kuyt while Glen Johnson and, increasingly as the match progressed, Jose Enrique spent almost all of their time in Stoke's half, there should have been enough firepower on the pitch to at least cause Stoke more of a problem than they did.
Especially when one considers that Liverpool had 69% of the possession, giving those midfielder plenty of time to get forward, it is almost inconceivable that Kuyt often cut a largely isolated figure in and around the Stoke penalty area. That by the second half Liverpool had three players on the pitch primarily concerned with defence wasn't the problem. The problem was that the four men in midfield offered almost nothing in attack.
If one wants to lay the blame for yesterday's dire draw at Kenny Dalglish's feet, the way to do so is not to blame the tactics—which, given personnel limitations and Stoke's preferred method of attack were entirely sensible. No, if there is blame to be attached to Kenny Dalglish it is for the squad's failure to execute, which is a failing that can be traced back to last summer's transfer window, last January's panic-buy of a striker who is still struggling to fit in, and some questionable early-season man-management.
Last season when Dalglish deployed three at the back against Stoke, Steven Gerrard and Raul Meireles played in direct support of Kuyt. And on that day, the winning margin was provided by Meireles from a Gerrard rebound. This time around Jordan Henderson kept things neat and tidy behind Kuyt while Stewart Downing drifted further and further out onto the right wing in one of the least effective performances by a Liverpool player this season. There's little excuse for the £20M pound man Downing's continuing irrelevance, but in the case of Henderson there's a argument to be made that both he and the club would have been far better served had he switched roles with Gerrard on Saturday.
Even if that change had been made, however, the drop off between Downing's effectiveness against Stoke compared to Meireles' in a similar role last season can only be depressing for any fan who watched the tail end of last season with hope for the future. Some might call the choice not to raise his salary to match incoming recruits like Downing, Adam, and Henderson—and the way it resulted in the player feeling marginalised and unwanted beside a wave of new midfield signings in a European Championship season—poor in retrospect, but that would be to ignore that for a many it was a decision that seemed horribly misguided even at the time.
And if Downing on current form is a massive downgrade from Meireles in the formation Dalglish had little choice but to employ given the dearth of midfield steel, then this season's Dirk Kuyt compared to the one that ended the last as Liverpool's top scorer is also cause for concern. Kuyt, after all, has always been a streaky player; a form player. He's either bundling awkward goals home twice a week while blundering around the pitch indefatigably or he looks as though he wouldn't be out of place starting regularly somewhere in the third tier of English football. And when it comes to his form, there's an argument to be made that Kuyt has never fully recovered mentally from being benched in favour of Jordan Henderson in the early going without the young Englishman having to prove he deserved the starting spot.
The tactics against Stoke made a lot of sense, and given the talent he had on hand on Saturday the only real cause for complaint is in the roles of Henderson and Gerrard. Still, it may be fair to wonder if Dalglish has effectively utilised the talent available to him when one looks at the bigger picture that is his entire first year back at the club. Those are the mistakes he needs to learn from—an entirely sensible formation deployed in a dire draw against Stoke isn't.