The 3-4-3 formation that Brendan Rodgers has leaned on over the past month has evolved in response to injuries, squad rotation, and fluctuation of form. The iteration that was used to overwhelm Sunderland at the Stadium of Light may be the best version yet.
Markovic Steps Up:
Lazar Markovic had been most effective playing on the left wing up until this match, but with Rodgers keen to include in-form Alberto Moreno as the starting left wing back, Markovic was forced to play on the right.
Without Raheem Sterling or Adam Lallana available, it was vital that he made his mark on the game, and he responded with his best performance as a Liverpool player, as he used his explosiveness to terrorize Sunderland's defense.
It was clear early on that Markovic was simply too quick for Sunderland. In the 3rd minute, he latched onto a pass from Philippe Coutinho and burst past Wes Brown, who hacked him down in the box. Referee Craig Pawson refused to grant the penalty, but the threat from Markovic was already apparent.
Markovic scored his first Premier League goal minutes later, beginning the scoring move in his own half. He stuck with his positive forward run, and was rewarded when Fabio Borini bungled the ball onto his feet for a clear look on goal.
Then there was this. Whatever you want to call it -- volley, karate kick, magical flying Lazar -- it was brilliant and it almost resulted in the the goal of the season for Liverpool. What's important to note here are the qualities on display that demonstrate why Markovic has the chance to be something special. He starts the play out of the picture before exploding forward to hit an improvised athletic jump shot with impeccable technique at the edge of the box. Not many players can do that, especially not at age 20.
Markovic was more than attacking sizzle in this one, as he harried Sunderland players throughout the match, often winning the ball back in key areas. In this instance, his possession win led to a decent shot on goal for Steven Gerrard.
Gerrard Pushed Forward:
Speaking of Gerrard, the key improvement to the 3-4-3 that we saw against Sunderland was his inclusion in a position where he wouldn't weaken the central midfield. Pushed forward into a free attacking role, Gerrard had minimal defensive responsibility and therefore made a positive contribution. It helped that he was subbed off before he tired in the second half.
Henderson and Lucas Dominate Midfield:
With Gerrard preoccupied in the attack, Jordan Henderson and Lucas were able to build on their budding central midfield partnership. Both players were excellent at controlling the midfield, but Lucas was especially impressive. He made six successful tackles and repeatedly snuffed out Sunderland's attempts to play the ball out of their defensive zone.
Lucas also displayed his ability to accurately recycle the ball to the team's creators, passing the ball at a 90% clip as seen in the above graphic.
Can Shows His Versatility:
Emre Can played the first half at center back and the second as a right wing back. Neither position is natural for him, but he excelled at both.
To have a center back who can play a ball like that out of the back is game changing, and Can's performance didn't dip when he was shifted to the right wing into another semi-unfamiliar position. Like Markovic, Can represents the future of Liverpool, and against Sunderland that future looked bright.
Liverpool's tactics were successful for the most part, but a couple of personnel decisions were puzzling. First, Mario Balotelli was strangely overlooked in the starting lineup. He played better than Borini once he came on, which cemented his case to have started in the first place. Also, Rodgers elected to bring on Dejan Lovren instead of Javier Manquillo in the second half, toying unnecessarily with a back three that had firmly shut down Sunderland in the first half.
Overall though it was a positive result backed by a positive performance, and Rodgers' decision to move Gerrard forward to preserve the Henderson-Lucas partnership proved to be astute. With Sterling set to return against Aston Villa, it will be interesting to see how the 3-4-3 formation continues to evolve.