Football tactics are a complicated matter. As with statistics, it is tempting to try and boil a complex and intricate system down to a simple sentence, i.e "majority possession is good!" or "two strikers is more attacking than one!" or a series of numbers, like "96% passing" or "3-4-2-1". And in both instances, this kind of thinking makes useful analysis and conclusions difficult to come by.
It is interesting how this relates to the football meta-game at large as well. Less than a decade ago, with Barcelona and Spain dominating, possession was the name of the game, and the simple number of successful passes made by a team or player in an outing was enough to garner claims of dominance. Liverpool's own Jürgen Klopp helped usher in the era of the aggressive counter-press not long after, and more recently, with Chelsea and Juventus on the rise, perhaps a return to Italian-style defensive solidity is on the cards. Certainly back threes have been more prevalent this season than in any year since the turn of the millennium.
Since Klopp took the reigns at Anfield, the Reds have mainly trotted out an aggressive counter-press from a 4-3-3. When the favoured XI is hale and healthy, this has been a resounding success. Liverpool raced to the top of the table while leading the scoring charts, despite lacking a recognised striker. As injuries started piling up at the start of the year, however, things took a drastic turn for the worse. The Reds had never been a stout defensive outfit under their German manager, but when the goals dried up, that lack of solidity at the back started to bear consequence.
The club's lack of quality depth was certainly part of the problem, but the unwillingness to adapt tactics to the personnel on hand exacerbated it. With Sadio Mané at the AfCoN and Adam Lallana injured, Klopp's 4-3-3 lost its two main penetrative threats, and Roberto Firmino shuffled out wide meant Divock Origi had to play a complicated false nine role for which he, despite all his talent, is currently poorly suited to. Jordan Henderson's mobility and passing range was sorely missed, and the Reds butted their heads against defensive walls for over a month, winning only one of their opening ten matches in 2017.
Against West Ham on Sunday, Liverpool won by more than two goals for the first time this year, and produced 11 shots on target for only the second time this season. With Mané and Firmino missing through injury, Klopp opted for a diamond formation, playing his two strikers in their preferred roles — alongside a partner — and allowing Philippe Coutinho to sit deeper, with plenty of movement ahead of him to ping passes at. The end result was exactly the uplifting outcome Reds fans wanted before it all comes crashing down around us at Anfield this weekend.
Certainly, caveats abound. West Ham were abysmal, playing a bold, Z-shaped back five that let Daniel Sturridge in for the opener. The defensive work was still shaky, and in addition to a penalty shout seconds before Coutinho blasted home Liverpool's third, the Hammers produced excellent chances on both 0-0 and 1-0. And, of course, 90 minutes is a tiny data set that doesn’t lend itself to drawing any sort of conclusions about the future effectiveness of a gameplan.
What a much larger sample tells us, however, is that Klopp's first choice line-up is a fantastic fit for the German's preferred 4-3-3. It also reveals how utterly ineffective that set-up becomes when only a few key pieces are missing. Thus, in order for long-term success to be plausible, either injuries and suspensions cannot be allowed to occur, adequate back-ups must be found for the key players that make the formation work — a tall task even if the Reds do qualify for the Champions League on Sunday — or Klopp must show greater flexibility in his tactical dispositions depending on which personnel he has available or the particularities of the opposition.