This Liverpool side may be a few games from an unlikely title victory but there are still developments and improvements to come for Brendan Rodgers' sparkling side. Although the midfield diamond may have only appeared since the beginning of March, it can be key to victory in the final four games and instrumental in successful seasons in the future.
Rodgers turning to the midfield diamond was both inspired and pragmatic. It isn't easy to depart from a 433 formation that has shocked troublesome opponents. Five goals against Arsenal and a clean sheet along with four goals against Everton testify to its effectiveness at home. Away from home, Tottenham and Stoke City both conceded five goals. Why did Rodgers change from such a winning combination in midfield and attack?
In the game at Tottenham, Liverpool had Lucas Leiva as the controller flanked by Joe Allen and Jordan Henderson (a goal and an assist) ahead of him. Steven Gerrard (scored a penalty) was the conductor from deep with Henderson and Lucas in midfield away to Stoke. Liverpool's strongest attacking line-up in a 433/4123 would undoubtedly place Gerrard, Henderson, and Philippe Coutinho in midfield with Luis Suárez, Daniel Sturridge, and Raheem Sterling as the front three. While that formation and front six was deployed in big Anfield wins against Arsenal and Everton as well as away to West Ham and home to Tottenham Hotspur, five of Liverpool's last seven games have featured a 442 diamond from the outset.
At St Mary's, Brendan Rodgers introduced the midfield diamond in a 442 formation. What added to the intrigue was the inclusion of Allen in midfield at the expense of Sterling. It was a natural move as Sterling was a wide player who (at the time) appeared to have no clear role in the midfield while Sturridge and Suarez would always start in attack. Gerrard operated at the base, Henderson and Allen started in the two central slots, and Liverpool's Coutinho fulfilled his role in the hole according to his shirt number and nationality. Such a move made sense against a team noted for its furious press, energy in midfield, and predilection for possession.
There were a few natural consequences of a 442 diamond facing a 433. Liverpool would enjoy a 4 versus 3 advantage in midfield and that extra man theoretically should enable Liverpool to hold possession, provide greater defensive assistance to the single pivot if necessary (unless the central pair are spread attempting to defend the flanks thereby exposing Gerrard to overloads in the centre), and provide an extra passing option if a midfielder is pressed. Coutinho's dribbling ability, sharp turns in possession, and excellence in through balls would be able to find SAS to Liverpool's benefit. Although the game was won by three goals to nil, Liverpool's new formation encountered a few problems.
Even though Arsenal and Everton held possession, Liverpool were in control of the game and the plan was exactly to invite the sides forward to open up space on the counter attack. Possession does not always equal control but Liverpool have managed to hold control of games with tactics that prioritise possession and cede it respectively. Against Southampton, Liverpool were finding it difficult to spring counters, defend the flanks, and hold possession. It was a game that Liverpool found difficult to control as they have experienced against Southampton in the past. However, Southampton only had a couple of shots on target (although they did hit the post), were a goal down before the twenty minute mark, and couldn't play their favoured through balls of their own.
Sturridge and Coutinho struggled in the game but it was Sterling's introduction a few minutes before the hour mark that surprised many. The youngster changed the game in an unfamiliar role behind the strikers and his first significant contribution was to score the goal that enabled Liverpool to breathe with greater ease. His intelligent run onto Suárez's perfectly weighted pass settled the game and he was a composed presence. Liverpool now had two options for the highest point of the diamond and Rodgers enjoyed a comfortable scoreline against a historically troublesome foe even if it didn't convey a somewhat even game.
Coutinho did not start in the following game against Manchester United but it was Raheem Sterling's effervescent performance in a high pressing side that confirmed his suitability as a ball carrying ten. He occupied opposing midfielders to the advantage of his team and his distribution and positioning belied his inexperience in the position. Advantage Sterling? Not quite. Coutinho started in the hole and sparkled in in victories over Cardiff City and Sunderland. A pattern was emerging. Henderson and Allen were guaranteed to start as shuttlers, Gerrard would start as the defensive midfielder, and Rodgers had two contrasting options in Coutinho and Sterling for the number ten position. The diamond is unusual for the Premier League but Liverpool could choose between 433 and 442 diamond in one game. Allen, Henderson, and Gerrard could play in midfield while Coutinho or Sterling could join SAS as a front three.
While this may appear to be a footnote, Joe Allen's work in the midfield diamond has been commendable and his displays against Southampton and Man United were notable highlights. Initially, Allen's inclusion was the main development of the midfield diamond but in retrospect, the Welsh international was always going to thrive in a three man or diamond midfield. His addition was welcomed as Henderson would have an energetic partner in midfield who is excellent in positioning himself to recycle the ball effectively in order to retain possession. Both could offer Gerrard defensive protection and shuttle across to assist their fullbacks who operated in their respective sides of the pitch. Yet, the developments of the diamond related specifically to the roles of Coutinho and Sterling.
Opposition managers could be certain that if Sterling and Coutinho appeared on the team sheet before the game, 433 would be the formation to expect on the field. Liverpool's victory over Manchester City shattered this tactical assumption and in a season of tactical versatility by Brendan Rodgers, this was unexpected so late in the season. Coutinho's redeployment from attacking midfield to central midfield was the big change. The Brazilian midfield tyro has played in a midfield three alongside Henderson and Gerrard but hasn't played in one of the two central midfield slots in a 442 diamond formation.
When we see Coutinho and Sterling in the same side, most would think that our formation would be 433. Usually in a diamond formation, it is either Sterling or Coutinho as the attacking midfielder. It helps Rodgers to have one on the bench to freshen things up and have an attacking substitution that he trusts to make an impact. However, both started in the diamond for the first time this season. Coutinho operated on the right sided central slot (where Henderson usually operates) and Henderson moved to the left (presumably to assist Flanagan defensively when required).
While Rodgers was always likely to spring a surprise against Man City, who would have expected it to be feature both our star youngsters in a midfield diamond? The only tactical low point was Rodgers failing to reinforce the midfield earlier than he did. It shouldn't have taken Sturridge getting injured for a midfielder to come on but Coutinho's defensive contribution was exceptional, especially when it came to winning the ball back through pressure and tackling (an underrated quality of Coutinho). His technical quality and vision is much heralded but he has a determined and relentless attitude to his work off the ball. Coutinho struggled quite a bit with stamina when he first came to England with the intensity of the game in the Premier League and he faded a little. Sterling did too but they were the best players on the field.
The goals were a reward for their play and the stats reveal something interesting. Most tackles? Coutinho. Six out of six. Most dribbles? Sterling. Six out of eight. At 21 and 19, those players offer quality in attack, defensive capability in the tackle and press, and tactical flexibility for a manager who doesn't think in straight lines. When the diamond was introduced, the players who were perceived to be first choice in a 433 eventually featured in a 442 diamond. Rodgers takes Liverpool through uncharted tactical lands (usually to exploit the attacking power of Suárez and Sturridge) but also introduces players to new roles on the field. Henderson is no longer moved around from his best role in central midfield that benefits the team in numerous ways offensively and defensively, Gerrard is playing in the "Pirlo" role with growing confidence, Coutinho is a genuine and defensively reliable central midfielder and virtuoso attacking midfielder, and Sterling is a genuine number ten option and effective on both sides of a front three.
Liverpool can now perfectly flit between the side's most attacking 433 formation and 442 diamond in the flow of a game without even making any personnel changes. Coutinho, Gerrard, Henderson midfield three and SSS front 3 could morph into a diamond right before an opposition dugout's very eyes. Before there's time to react it could be too late. Of course, Henderson and Sturridge are unavailable against Norwich but Liverpool's tactical switches will be interesting to see in the remaining league games. Looking further ahead, Liverpool's transfer policy for Rodgers may require players to be versatile or intelligent enough to find roles in both systems.
A tactical plan B that can still utilise the strengths of the existing players on the field is probably the most dangerous secondary plan available but it is rare for any side to possess to separate plans that seem equally effective. Liverpool's 433 and 442 diamond appear to be excellent formations to start with and turn to. Liverpool and Brendan Rodgers offer more than relentless attacking questions. The tactical flexibility and unpredictability in midfield ensures that Liverpool will be a formidable opponent in the next few weeks and beyond.