The first 8 mins of this press conference with Brendan Rodgers after their 2-0 defeat to Arsenal offer a pretty fascinating tactical discussion of why he prefers 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. The three central midfielders in Rodgers’ 4-3-3 operate with one deep lying holding midfielder that controls the tempo of the game and two more advanced central midfielders in front of the holder (what Rodgers refers to as a “1 and a 2” in this press conference.) This system loosely forms a midfield triangle. The job of the two more advanced midfielders is to make a lot of vertical runs forward to join in the attack but also to quickly retreat when the team loses possession. Therefore the two advanced midfielders must have the capacity to do a lot of running so the holding player isn’t left to try to break up a counter on his own. The midfield triangle is expected to move forward and backward as a compact unit.
A 4-2-3-1 by contrast employs two deeper lying holding midfielders (what’s called a double pivot) playing behind a more advanced attacking midfielder. In this formation, the triangle in the 4-3-3 is flipped. In the 4-2-3-1 the attacking center midfielder is responsible for linking play with the two wingers/wide forwards and the center forward. The problem Rodgers sees with this formation moving forward into attack is that the two deep lying midfielders end up moving the ball horizontally side-to-side to the outside backs rather than advancing the ball up the field since their is only one attacking midfielder linking play between offense and defense. In a 4-3-3 the two more advanced midfielders offer more options for moving the ball vertically up the field. With the extra man linking play between defense and attack, teams can move up the pitch more directly with forward passes rather than knocking the ball side to side.
Liverpool’s game Sunday against Arsenal showcased a fascinating tactical battle between the two systems. Rodgers’ Liverpool set out in his favored 4-3-3 while Arsene Wenger employed a 4-2-3-1. With the injury to Lucas Leiva, Rodgers was again forced to use Joe Allen as the deep lying holder with Steven Gerrard and Nuri Sahin in the more advanced midfield roles. For Arsenal, Mikel Arteta and Abou Diaby operated deep in the midfield as a double pivot while Santi Cazorla played in an advanced role just behind center forward Olivier Giroud. In the end it was Wenger who won out, Arsenal emerging 2-0 winners at Anfield. The big issue for Liverpool was on the defensive end where they struggled to stop Arsenal from countering. One of the problems that can arise when playing with just one holding midfielder rather than two is you have one less player helping the back four break up counter attacks. With Joe Allen operating centrally in front of the back four by himself, Cazorla was able to get into open pockets of space either side of him and in front of the Liverpool back four. Michael Cox discusses how Cazorla’s ability to get into these pockets of space was the deciding factor in the game on his Zonal Marking blog. A two holding midfielder system is more effective at restricting the space an opposition attacking midfielder has between the defensive and midfield lines. Another major defensive problem for Rodgers was that Diaby was able to use his powerful dribbling ability to get in behind Gerrard and Sahin. In the press conference Rodgers harps on how in the 4-3-3 it’s crucial for the advanced midfielders to be able to make defensive recovery runs and suggests perhaps Sahin wasn’t quite up to the Premier League pace in his first outing and failed to keep Diaby in check. With Diaby advancing past Sahin and Gerrard with the dribble, Allen was left with the unenviable task of trying to deal with him and Cazorla simultaneously. He was forced to pick up Diaby on the ball, leaving Cazorla unmarked in space in front of the Liverpool back four. Cazorla is an incredibly clever player and gifted passer and will pick apart any defense given the kind of space he was allowed by Liverpool.
Rodgers also discusses how important it is for his defense and midfield to stay compact when they move forward in possession. A compact defense and midfield is important in any tactical system but this is especially true for the 4-3-3. When a defense fails to push up in possession this creates large gaps between the midfield and back four. Then, when the team loses possession, they become prone to counter attacks that stem from the opposition advancing the ball into these gaps and running with pace at the back four. The two holding midfielders of a 4-2-3-1 can cover more ground side to side to stop a counter than the one holding midfielder in a 4-3-3 so defenses in a 4-2-3-1 can keep a slightly deeper line. In Liverpool’s 4-3-3, Allen is left largely on his own to break up counters and obviously can’t cover the full width of the pitch alone. The back four has to get close to him so the opposition can’t exploit the space on either side of him. Liverpool failed to do this and were made to pay with Arsenal’s first goal (you can see the footytube highlights here). Gerrard gives the ball away cheaply in the attacking third. Arsenal play a short outlet to Podolski and Allen is forced to step to him. Liverpool’s center backs Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel fail to push forward (it’s actually pretty shocking how deep they are) and Cazorla is left with acres of space between Allen and the center backs. Podolski plays a simple ball into Cazorla who is left with 25 yards of space to dribble into before playing a ball at the 18 to Podolski for an easy finish. Rodgers says this goal was evidence the side still are transitioning to a new style of play and suggests he may need to tweak the tactics while they become more comfortable playing in a 4-3-3. Interestingly, before Gerrard gave the ball away, Liverpool’s buildup play looked just the way Rodgers would have wanted. Allen received the ball at his own 18 from Reina, played a beautiful forward ball wide to Glen Johnson who spotted Gerrard making a bursting run through midfield. With three quick, proficient passes Liverpool had advanced the ball well into the attacking third- unfortunately Gerrard’s attempted pass for Suarez let him down.
The press conference shows Rodgers is a thoughtful tactician with a strong idea of how he wants the game to be played and what type of players he wants in his system. As long as the club show some patience and give him time to put in place his system, I think Rodgers will be a fine manager.