I FINALLY got the hang of the Guardian tactical chalkboard thing this week. A gift from The Anfield Wrap’s very own Neil Atkinson. It feels like a game changer. I need never leave the homestead again. This Chalkboard is now the font of all (my) knowledge. One need only conjure an ill thought-out theory, twiddle with a few variables on the chalkboard template, and before one can say ‘Jordan Henderson completes more passes and makes more interceptions than the naked eye alone reveals’, it does its myriad calculations and vindicates any old footballing cod science. Holy fuck.
Armed and dangerous, I set forth on a half-baked theory testing quest. Lately I’ve had this feeling on me that the Dalglish/Clarke tactical axis have begun to see the tandem of Liverpool forwards Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez in a whole new light. The received wisdom was that one best uses Carroll as a battering ram of a number nine – the big man up top, more literally than metaphorically ‘on the shoulder’ of the last defender, ready and able to fling himself at the succession of crosses to order that Comolli spent over £50m acquiring this summer.
Likewise, Luis Suarez, the man bought to be the artistic foil to Carroll’s blunter intent, was initially visualised as more of a David Silva like playmaker, dropping off the vanguard of the attack, picking up the opportunities between the lines or making use of space on the flanks. Many a 4-2-3-1 was posited, in pre-season conjectures, with Suarez almost always a selection in the second attacking tier’s bank of three.
What no man reckoned on was what we tentatively saw signs of amidst the wreckage at White Hart Lane and most definitely bore witness to at home to Wolves and also again in last weekend’s derby victory. Rather than assuming the role as the ‘reference point’ of the attack, as its most advanced proponent, Carroll was instead cast in something of a supporting role to the man many thought would in fact supply his meat and drink, Luis Suarez.
Be they huddled in snugs of pubs, around microphones podcasting, posting on forums, or writing for mighty media organs, football people everywhere have all been discussing Liverpool FC’s recruitment drive over the summer almost entirely within the context of answering one pivotal question: ‘So, who’s getting wide to knock those crosses in for big Andy Carroll to head in?’.It’s been so oft repeated as a genuine criteria for LFC’s next phase of development that little time or column inches have been expended questioning the core assumptions within that enquiry. Firstly, there’s a presupposition that big Andy is the first name in Kenny Dalglish’s head when he wakes in the morning with his first 11 notebook and pencil at the bedside. Clearly that’s not the case.
Then there’s the simplifying of Kenny and co’s tactical masterplan to ‘Get it wide. Cross it. Big lump heads it in. 3 points. Go home.’ There is the further implied insult not only to Andy Carroll’s range of attributes as a footballer, but also to Luis Suarez, viewed not as the goal machine that his CV indicates he actually is, but merely as the artful assisting servant to the designated target man.
Amidst the debris and recriminations emanating from all of the red persuasion after the massacre at the Lane two weeks ago, was the odd ‘..and what the fuck was Dalglish doing playing Andy Carroll on the wings for?’. The same criticism was not echoed a week later in victory over Wolves, though Carroll was again to be seen making occasional (and this time effective) forays into wide positions.
Carroll was not suddenly becoming a winger, though, as his role appeared a much more diverse one than hitherto visualised by the majority. The mainstay of his new game seemed to be one of dropping off the front into those sacred areas ‘between the lines’ normally only reserved for the physically diminutive and fleet of mind and foot.
Not that we are witnessing his reinvention as a Geordie Jari Litmanen exactly, because his overall performance was more reminiscent in range and dimension of Emile Heskey’s stylings during his one proper season at Liverpool (2000/2001 season). For one year only Emile was an unplayable composite machine of a forward. He’d hold up the play with that Velcro chest of his, he’d flick it on with his head, he’d attack crosses, he’d run the channels and get vicious shots away, or he’d use his pace and strength out wide to get behind defences and supply others – such a tragedy for Houllier’s LFC that some mental obstruction appeared to prevent Heskey from ever reprising that one great season.
Carroll’s more aquiline impression of Heskey was not the only retro feature of Liverpool’s attacking play in the Wolves match. Suarez in his very own slippery style very much aped the movement and intent of (whisper it) Michael Owen in his 1999-2003 pomp. If Carroll was the forward dropping deep, primed for the flick on, then Suarez was assuming the Ian Rush/Michael Owen position on the toes of the last defender, ready to utilise pace and guile to escape into those prized positions where the offside trap has failed and that last tango between striker and goal keeper is danced.
Watching the YouTube show reels of Carroll at Newcastle there is plenty of evidence of him profiting from a deeper role. The boy can whip a cross in for sure (we saw a peach against Wolves), and his aerial prowess lends itself to the flicking-on of the ball and the knocking over of his marker. By working more outside the box he is also ideally placed to be coming onto the sort of balls that he can despatch with venom back in the direction of the goal with interest, as witnessed in the Anfield demolition of Man City last season with that mighty bludgeon of a 20 yarder to open the scoring.
For Suarez the Owen role is heaven sent. He has the freedom to run where he likes, improvise all over the shop, and use his pace where it’s most effective. Suarez is clearly a different player to Owen but there are echoes of the fallen hero’s golden age in Luis’ magnetic attraction to the goal and unquenchable thirst for getting in behind defences.
The 4-2-3-1 formation (or 4-5-1 in old money) is the current strategy du jour sported by fashion conscious coaches the world over. TV tactics board pundits and football video gamers covert it even more. 4231 looks particularly lovely laid out on a marked up green board because it gives the impression that your team is setting up with 4 attackers, which feels slick, expansive and sexy.
The truth is 4231 is not inherently a statement of free flowing attacking intent. It is a hark back to a more Italianate tactical age where defence, simplisitically speaking, was always revered as the best form of attack. 4231 is not much more, nor less, than what used to be routinely spoken of as a 451, which in turn was a more cautious take on a 442.
The difference between 442 and 451? In the 451 (or 4231) the second striker often isn’t (a striker that is). He’s what we’re now calling a Tresquartista, or attacking midfielder, in common parlance. To be fair to modern innovation, there is a nuance with 4231 that differs from 451. The older system sought primarily to pack the midfield and even-out any overly testing contest. The 4231 also starts from this conservative premise, but by (theoretically) committing more attack minded players to the midfield flank positions it tells itself (or its tactical proponents at any rate) that it is ideally geared towards switching congested midfield defense into all out 4 pronged attack. In reality, the older fashioned 451 set ups had this in mind too, but just didn’t boast about it quite so much.
In looking to modern Liverpool and an intended 4231, most experts were tending to see LFC setting up with Carroll as the ‘1’, supported from deeper positions by Suarez and 2 wide men. The problem with this is that in 451’s (sorry, 4231’s) most coaches expect that when the ball is lost that the ‘attacking 3’ behind the main striker drop back to add numbers into a 5 man midfield.
Fine in theory, but that blunts the goal threat of a player like Luis Suarez if cast in the midfield/attack supporting role (behind the single striker). The system is asking him to do too much in areas of the pitch where he isn’t going to be hurting teams. In the second tier of 3 (in a 4231) he’s too often stuck behind the ball getting stuck into midfield battles that really shouldn’t be his affair.
During this weekend’s derby it was clear that Kenny had viewed the evidence of the Wolves game as being a marker towards the profitability in pairing Suarez and Carroll in the more traditional little ’n’ large juxtaposition once again. It clearly is an experiment worth repeating, but whether it’s utilised in a 442 (or the 433 variant) or with Carroll effectively making up one of 3 behind Suarez as the ‘1’ (in a 4231) will depend on the demands of the varying tests that lie ahead.
The ‘Heatmaps’ on those Guardian chalkboards are showing, post Everton, that Kenny has perhaps altered the close season question of choice from ‘who will Liverpool use to supply Andy Carroll?’, to ‘how will Andy carroll and others best service Luis Suarez?’.
The emerging truth is that it is possible that we’ve all been looking in the wrong direction, and that Dalglish may just have pulled off something of a blissfully simple tactical masterstroke that could serve to not only take the pressure off Carroll but also to correctly harness the squad’s most potent attacking instrument, Suarez. Either way, the evidence from the Wolves game and again at Goodison hints that with the Luis-Carroll combo, Liverpool could well be through the looking glass and heading towards Champions League qualifying wonderland.