12 November 2018

Visualized: Liverpool 2-0 Fulham

Previous Match Infographics: Arsenal (a), Cardiff (h), Red Star Belgrade (h), Huddersfield (a), Manchester City (h), Napoli (a), Chelsea (a), Southampton (h), Leicester (a), Brighton (h), Crystal Palace (a), West Ham (h)

Match data from WhoScored, except average position from the SofaScore app. 

Why are Liverpool playing 4-2-3-1?

This is not a rhetorical question. I'm honestly asking. We almost never saw formation changes last season. 4-3-3 or bust, and a side built in that image, for that formation.

That hasn't been the case this season. We've seen 4-2-3-1 more often than 4-3-3 over the last month, but we've also seen a greater willingness to change the formation in general, as in the second half at Red Star when Liverpool switched to an eventual 4-2-2-2 when chasing the game.

Has it been because of the inconsistent attack? The misfiring midfield? Because of who's been available?

Yeah. A bit of all columns, I expect.

Because 4-2-3-1 isn't necessarily a "getting the best out of everyone" formation.

Yes, Liverpool have had midfield issues. Already. Oxlade-Chamberlain out for the season. Recent short-term injuries to both Henderson and Keïta. Fabinho has been needed, maybe sooner than Klopp had hoped. We've rightfully complained about the lack of creativity when Henderson, Milner, and Wijnaldum play together. Workmanlike rather than incisive. We've seen that Fabinho has been a stronger defender, better positioned, and a better passer from deep in the 4-2-3-1, with a double pivot midfield what he's most familiar with from Monaco. Changing Liverpool's formation has helped alleviate those midfield issues, if nothing else.

But, of course, it's not nothing else.

Liverpool's front three rightfully gets the headlines, both this season and last, but it's not just the front three. There were matches where they did all the attack: Roma, Porto, Watford, among multiple others. But there were matches where the midfield contribution was almost as important.

Even after Coutinho – with seven goals and six assists in the league – left in January, Liverpool continued getting help from midfield. Emre Can and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain combined for six league goals but, more importantly, 11 assists. Can and Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal and assists in the 4-1 win over West Ham. Oxlade-Chamberlain's goal against City in the Champions League. Even Wijnaldum's cruical goal at Roma, a hapax legomenon away strike which just about sealed the tie.

It can't always just be Salah, Firmino, and Mané. Whether they're off-form, or defenders can focus on those three with no regard for other attackers, or it's just one of those days. You need more than three. You need options.

Enter Xherdan Shaqiri. With two goals and two assists in his last five matches. With an eye for a through ball, an ability to run at defenders rather than just past them, capable of shooting from distance or setting up a teammate. A different type of attacker than Firmino, Salah, and Mané; a necessary fourth attacker who can conjure something when the other three can't or aren't. A much greater attacking threat than Wijnaldum, Milner, or Henderson. Or Keïta, at least so far.

Obviously, there are still issues. Liverpool's wins have been thorough, but none has truly made jaws drop and caused expletives to be uttered, even the four-goal performances against Cardiff and Red Star.

Salah has stuttered up top at times, more closely marked by the opposition's center-backs. His goal yesterday is evidence of a greater potential threat when storming down the flank, whether better positioned to get behind the back line or more capable of isolating a solitary defender. There's more room to run out wide, and Salah often needs room to run. That and he's less likely to be on the ball when the spear-head, with just 17 attempted passes and only 39 touches against Fulham, compared to 69 for Shaqiri, 62 for Firmino, and 61 for Mané.

Similar goes for Firmino, who's yet to even approach his peak this season. Dropping into midfield from the #10, his average position yesterday almost inside the center circle, obviously takes him further from goal. Where he's less likely to drag defenders away from Salah and Mané, where he's less likely to play the short, cutting, just-outside-the-box assist. But there were signs on Sunday, with five chances created, the most he's had in a match since the 5-2 win over Roma back in April. He didn't register an assist, but they were mostly dangerous chances: three of the five into the penalty area, one clear-cut chance for Salah, another nearly clear-cut for Robertson on the counter midway through the second half.

But, you ask, why doesn't Liverpool play Firmino up top, Salah out wide, and Shaqiri as the #10? They've all played those positions before.

My guess? Part of the reason for the 4-2-3-1 has been personnel, and part has been to fix underlying issues. But Liverpool have also used this formation against sides more likely to sit deep and defend. Salah, even if he's not thriving in this striking role, is more likely to stretch the defense from that position rather than out right. Shaqiri, with his eye for through-balls and ability in possession, seems more likely to create for the other attackers from the right wing when there are multiple defenders in front of him. See: his recent assists against both Red Star and Huddersfield. And Firmino is more likely to remain the first defender in this formation, better able than Shaqiri to cover more ground chasing opponents, to press from multiple angles.

It's obviously not perfect. Fluidity still eludes as often as not. We still expect more from Liverpool's attack. And Liverpool can still be exposed on counter-attacks, as in the long ball to Mitrovic leading to Sessegnon's clear-cut chance in the 24th minute, as in the move through Liverpool's underbelly that lead to Mitrovic's chance saved just before halftime.

But, on the whole, it's better than what came before. The narrow, too-closely-contested 1-0 win at Huddersfield in the 4-3-3 formation with Shaqiri in midfield. The dumpster fire first half at Red Star. Even the first half at Arsenal, although that's not a side that's sat deep like most others of late.

It's another arrow in Liverpool's quiver. And, so far, it's getting results.

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