Some football teams, like refined hairstyles, require several draft versions before they can find the way to their ultimate destiny. The gamut needs to be run from dad to bad to better to what have you gone and done that for? and back down again. The grimacey process is what unearths ideas that can later be combed through and brought to the fore with that well-earned panache.
The Samuele Allardicci's of the world will claim that football is really just about taking a #2 to the sides, a #3 to the top, and remembering to tip 10% on the way out the door. And while that remains fair, it is in no way romantic. In no way fun. For a club as steeped in thrilling romanticism as Liverpool is, shouldn't that chase for fun be a requirement?
Like a teen experimenting with a hair dying kit (ours came out orange), Brendan Rodgers has publicly draped himself in plenty of muck during his time managing Liverpool Football Club. It is absolutely maddening at times. Yet he still manages to coax nugget after nugget of tactical brilliance to the fore. The light catches his teams just right, and before you know it we are all smitten - that's Liverpool? Wow. They, like... grew up, no?
You force yourself through Brendan Rodgers Presents: Steven Gerrard - Defensive Midfielder, because suddenly you look up and the Reds are hitting 100 goals scored on the season, and you're shitting in second place. You despise how the back 3 gets sliced open until you realize it covers up flaws and encourages forgotten strengths better than Gustave H. teaching an aquatic aerobics class. And on Monday night against Newcastle, Reds fans, Rodgers provided supporters with yet another nugget he's been threatening all along: the nueve falso.
Post Newcastle, Rodgers was characteristically effusive in his account,
"We play him in that false nine role. He's not a traditional No. 9 who's up there, stood, static.
'That's why when we get a number of players in who can work off his qualities, that's going to make us a real threat.
'I ask him to get on the move and get defenders out of their positions.
'His cleverness and movement at the moment is world class. It's then important that we've got men running in off that."
The plan rolls off the Northern Irishman's tongue and sends more shivers up our spine than when Bastian finally caught on that Fantasia was absolutely real, and he obviously better get a move on if he's to stop The Nothing! But more revealing than the what of Rodgers' description is the when: 4th November, 2012. Those comments came after scraping a winning draw 1-1 at St. James' Park. The forward in question was Luis Suarez.
Now, there are key differences between Philippe Coutinho's fledgling turn as the false 9 at Anfield, and Suarez's rendition in St. James' Park. For starters, Suarez never played a pure version of that role. Not in November of 2012, nor in any other games for Liverpool. The 9.5 descriptor that BR would later come up with was much more accurate. Suarez was always the ultimate goal scoring threat, regardless of where he ran or where he feigned to run. By comparison, Coutinho's performance fell much more in line with the famed withdrawn forward role.
Rodgers was, however, being forthcoming in describing the context around Suarez and what is needed from that context for the ploy to be effective. Ideally, the withdrawn central forward becomes part of the attacking midfield in possession, acting as bait for defenders. Once defenders disrupt their angles tracking a position that all of their instinct tells them is the biggest threat, gaps appear for other runners. The central threat is no longer a direct threat in the sense that Suarez forcefully presented throughout his time in Red. However, being a threat-once-removed is a role that fits Coutinho's natural nous like a glove. It is also more akin to the carousel that The Dark Lord Ferg described heading into the 2011 Champions League final against Barcelona.
Things need to break positively for Liverpool during this season's run in, and the possessional chemistry flashed against Newcastle may be the way to make this tactic tick. It is the latest nugget pulled from the muck: Brendan Rodgers' nueve falso needs NONE OF THE STRIKERS!!!!!
On paper it is simple: Philippe Coutinho as the nominal central forward, Sterling and Ibe as his gunners, H.A.L. as his foundational midfield 3, and all of a sudden Liverpool start to get a bit Guardiolish. The flash against Newcastle showed Lucas shielding, covering, and playing subtly excellent passes; Sterling focusing on tormenting one mark every chance he got; Allen ticking and tocking and nicking and knocking; Henderson relentlessly bursting onto everywhere with his everything; Ibe violently cutting inside or out at full sprint; and Sexinho sitting there ordering caipirinhas for halftime with that foot-volley right boot of his. Fowler, we even had the classy-but-physically-past-it RB, and the out of his gourd Spanish burner at LB.
No, it was nowhere near Barcelona in 2011, and it is unlikely to ever be that considering our league and lack of the historically seismic footballing force that is Lionel Messi. But it sure as shit was a nueve falso with chops, folks, and don't let anyone tell you different. It is the end of the season, and this was supposed to be the plan along, right? This matters.
To this point in the season, the absurdly talented youngster Brendan Rodgers has most often called upon to play out of his comfort zone has been Raheem Sterling. At Anfield on Monday, Rodgers shifted that responsibility to Philippe Coutinho - that feels important. With so many column inches having been spent on the Jamainglish delight for things outside of those white lines, relieving the kid of some responsibility on the pitch could be a wise way to keep his keel even.
The knock on effect of having a flank mate for the second game running was also palpable for Alberto Moreno, that other left-sided flier for whom the 343 system had run its course. Each of Lazar Markovic, Jon Flanagan, and Javier Manquillo should be perking up at the tactical developments of late, and the opportunities it may present. It gives Adam Lallana yet another angle from which to eviscerate our trousers. Mamadou Sakho's down, but so long as we got Deja-... Nevermind.
If the style of the 343/361 has been phased out with the shifting crowds, then Rodgers needs to ensure that the principles unearthed during this spell stand like a rock. Principles that slot right into that 433 he loves to describe, but has never quite been able to commit to full time because reasons. A lot of those reasons have been out of his control, some have been of his own making.
Look at his reasons now: a midfielding midfield, incisive wide runners as goal threats, and scrumptiously talismanic central playmaking to bring it all home. That is a foundational combination of things that the best players in this team are best at (and Dejan). And it was stumbled upon at the peak of a demonic plague of injuries and suspensions. Or, put in a way we are more accustomed to around here, it's the footballing equivalent of finding a $20 GroupOn for a $400 facial & frock combo at the Fox & Jane. Right? How do you not, Brenny?