The Liverpool team that barely beat Stoke City is not the side that we'll see two months from now. Rather, it was a starting point, a rough outline of what Brendan Rodgers wants his team to become after a string of summer signings. Liverpool don't look close to the flashy footballing machine he is trying to build quite yet, and Sunday was a wobbly step toward the ultimate goal, but Rodgers' vision for the future of this team is now more clear.
After a reported falling out between Brendan Rodgers and Lucas led to the Brazilian midfielder's exclusion from the squad against Stoke, Rodgers appeared determined to abandon the traditional defensive midfield role in his team. His initial tactical set up reflected a desire to replace the ball winning midfield archetype with more box-to-box athleticism, as he organized his team in a 4-2-3-1 formation to start the match.
The plan didn't work out, as Jordan Henderson and James Milner looked like shells of themselves at the base of Liverpool's midfield. It's rare for two box-to-box midfielders to succeed in a double pivot, as there has to be a near telepathic understanding between such players to determine who goes forward and who drops back at any given moment. Without much experience playing together, Henderson and Milner lacked that necessary connection and ended up crowding each other's space too often.
The 4-2-3-1 was also ill-suited to Adam Lallana's strengths. Lallana is at his best when he floats around the central attacking midfield, and he looked lost when asked to play wide left against Stoke.
Even though the first half didn't go as expected, the goal was clear: Rodgers wanted to fit as much athleticism and attacking ability into his team as possible. There were seven genuine playmaking threats in the starting eleven (Benteke, Coutinho, Lallana, Ibe, Henderson, Milner, Clyne) and a whole lot of energy. Rodgers has always preferred these types of players, and that dedication should become even more pronounced this season.
In the second half, Emre Can was introduced in a deep midfield position to free up Henderson and Milner, as Liverpool transitioned to the 4-3-3 formation. Can has enough playmaking ability to satisfy his manager's attacking vision, but against Stoke he served as more of a ball recycler, and he only attempted one long pass in his time on the pitch (pass chart).
The presence of Can in the midfield changed the game, as Liverpool saw more of the ball in the second half and generally looked more dangerous. But more importantly, the switch to a three man central midfield was a glimpse into how Rodgers will set up his team as the season progresses. The double pivot was worth a try, but three man midfield shapes are better suited to accommodate a side without a true defensive midfielder. That was on full display against Stoke, and should influence Rodgers' team selection for Liverpool's upcoming tilt with Bournemouth.
In the next couple of weeks, don't be surprised if Rodgers continues to experiment with formations in search of the best way to maximize his talent. This won't be an easy task for him considering all of the new faces in the team and plenty of question marks surrounding the futures of established squad members.
It should be apparent to Rodgers that Henderson and Milner play best in front of a third midfielder, but who will that third midfielder be? Lucas and his defensive midfield role look to be on the outs, and Joe Allen is hurt, leaving Can as the logical candidate to play behind those two as he did against Stoke.
There are valid questions about Can's ability to play as a deep midfielder at this point. His defensive awareness is still a work in progress, but he's already shown in his brief Liverpool career that he can pick out long passes, and that paired with his athleticism and strength should make him an attractive option to Rodgers for that position. Think of it as the general idea behind Steven Gerrard as a deep lying playmaker, with the difference being that Can still has legs. Or Liverpool could sign Asier Illarramendi, which works too.
Another minor thing to consider with any three man midfield is the horizontal positioning of Henderson and Milner. Henderson has played on the right of the midfield throughout his Liverpool career, but Milner is a better crosser and would provide Benteke with outstanding service from the right side. It might be worth trying out Henderson on the left side to see how he performs there.
In any case, there are a few three man midfield shapes that Liverpool might use. Rodgers leaned on the 4-3-2-1 "Christmas Tree" formation during the pre-season, but there is some concern that such a narrow alignment would lead to congestion in the middle and not enough wide service for Benteke.
Another option is the similar 4-3-3 set up, shown below.
This is a pretty attractive formation, as Firmino and Clyne form a daunting duo on the right and Henderson and Milner are encouraged to push forward through the midfield. The team is also set up well to press up the pitch. However, the left wing presents a bit of a problem, as Coutinho (like Lallana) is most valuable when deployed in the middle. If he were to play on the left as an inverted winger, left back Alberto Moreno would almost certainly have to come into the team to provide width on that side.
Below is the diamond formation, which Rodgers used to mount a title challenge two seasons ago.
The diamond checks a lot of boxes: Can is protected by shuttlers on either side, Coutinho is in the middle where he belongs, Firmino is in an advanced position where he can be a goal threat, and Benteke has attackers flowing all around him. Width is sometimes an issue in the diamond, but Firmino is more than capable of opening up space by drifting right, and Clyne and Moreno can always bomb forward down the flanks to support the attack. It's easy to envision this becoming the go-to for Rodgers once again.
Regardless of the formation that Rodgers ultimately settles upon, the interesting tactical decisions that he made against Stoke, which were concealed by a rather dull match, demonstrate the Liverpool that he's trying to build. He wants headline-grabbing players all over the pitch, athleticism and playmaking in abundance, a glamorous style of play.
It's been the plan for his whole tenure, and for better or worse, cutting ties with Lucas is a sign that he's ready to go all-in on his tactical vision. This is where Rodgers goes for it, and it's hard to know for sure whether that will lead to disaster or delight. At the very least it will give us something to talk about.