THREE at the back. It’s not something that’s particularly popular in football now is it? It’s very 1990s, writes PHIL BLUNDELL.
Roy Evans was a big fan of it — it nearly won us a title in the mid 90s and England had a crack at it at Euro 96 and the 1998 World Cup. It’s something that has become pretty much obsolete in top-level English football nowadays. That is, until we had a bash at it last season. We used it in the league from December last year away at Old Trafford, and then we got rid of it after the home game against Manchester United in late March with the results it yielded being generally good.
To put it very simply, it was the only time last season that we actually looked like a good football team.
By my reckoning we used the formation in 15 league games and we got 33 points. A very basic way of extrapolating that is 83 points over the course of the season, so it’s clear to see we did lots of good things over a period of roughly 40 per cent of the season.
People will obviously question who you played in those 15 games. Well we played twice against Manchester United, Arsenal at home, Manchester City at home, Southampton away, Spurs at home, and Swansea away.
We played eight games against last season’s top 10 — you can’t say it was a soft set of fixtures.
It also saw us reach the FA Cup semi-final and, while I may be biased when I say this, outplay Chelsea over 210 minutes in the League Cup semi-final before being undone by a set piece (which are irrelevant to formation). In the 15 games we kept eight clean sheets. A team who had spent months being mocked for defending atrociously actually did some good defending.
If you consider that we played 15 games with three at the back, it means that we played 23 games with four at the back. In those 23 games we got 29 points. Basic extrapolation again gets you 47 points over the course of the season. 2.2 points per game versus 1.26 points per game. The difference was staggering.
Liverpool were at their best last season with three at the back. I don’t really know how Rodgers stumbled upon this, nor do I really care, what I care about is how quickly and happily he abandoned it.
He watched as we stunk out Selhurst Park in November and realised that things had to change. There was an interview about him sitting up all night drinking tea, eating toast, and using kitchen accessories to figure out what he wanted to do.
At this point Liverpool had played 12 games, had 14 points, had a negative goal difference scoring 15 and conceding 18, and were looking a serious, serious mess.
Something needed to change. The midweek after that we went to Sofia and played slightly differently against Ludogorets using Steven Gerrard in the hole, while the next two league games at Anfield saw two gritty clean sheets against Stoke and Sunderland (but only one goal) and then we moved on to Old Trafford.
We’ll ignore the farce that was Brad Jones playing in goal (currently warming the bench at new club Bradford, lads — reckon they might only have signed him because he’s called Brad and drives a Ford), we went in with a back three of Dejan Lovren, Martin Skrtel and Glen Johnson, who was replaced early on by Kolo Toure.
Alberto Moreno and Jordan Henderson were the ‘wing backs’, Gerrard and Joe Allen patrolled the middle of the park, while Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana played off Raheem Sterling. We might have lost 3-0, but it was far away our best performance for months. That David de Gea was man of the match told you everything you needed to know.
Over the next few weeks it evolved, and we ended up with Mamadou Sakho and Can being integrated to play alongside Skrtel. Can and Sakho were able to bring the ball out from the back as their ability allows, Moreno didn’t have the same level of defensive responsibility, which he clearly struggles with, and Jordon Ibe and Lazar Markovic both had spells at right wing back that were encouraging. Ibe in particular looked more of a player there than he has done when playing 15 yards more advanced.
Lucas protected the back three admirably and defensively we were tight. Clearly, we didn’t have a striker and were having to play Raheem Sterling there as a makeshift one, but a major failing of the Liverpool side had been fixed with some outside-the-box thinking.
Gradually however, players that had been important to the system started to get injured and it wasn’t quite what it started off as. Sakho, Lucas, Markovic and Ibe picked up knocks and Lallana and Sterling ended up sharing the wing-back duties — a waste of both players.
We struggled in two FA Cup games at home against lower league opposition granted (Manquillo was a wing back in one in mitigation), but both of them were eventually disposed with.
By this point we’re away at Swansea. We spawned a fortunate 1-0 with a very lucky ricochet and all the talk was that Gary Monk had worked us out.
That talk accelerated six days later when United came to town and we lost 2-1. The first half an hour saw us dominated — Fellani stood on Emre Can and won absolutely everything, Ander Herrera was magnificent and a Juan Mata goal left us 1-0 down and looking really up against it. The cries that it had been rumbled grew louder.
To our credit we grew in to it before half time and Lallana should have levelled before the break putting a sitter wide of De Gea’s right-hand post. I don’t need to remind you about what happened 40 seconds into the second half, but whatever plan or formation the manager had gone for second half was up in smoke before we had even seen it.
Arsenal a week later is an odd one. I remember us playing three at the back, but the “average positions” on Opta make it look very much like a flat four with Emre Can at right back. Either way, we got snotted and at Blackburn in the cup four days later it was a very evident back four. The three was gone.
At this point Liverpool sat in fifth place, had 54 points and a positive goal difference of nine. Five points behind United in fourth, we were very much in the mix for a Champions League place.
And then, inexplicably, we rewound and went back to a set up that resulted in, as mentioned earlier, played 12 games, 14 points, a negative goal difference scoring 15 and conceding 18, and left us looking a serious, serious mess.
Why would you go back to that? Gerrard sat anchoring ahead of Lovren and Skrtel with a lone striker hadn’t worked for the first three months of the season, why would it suddenly work now?
Just why did we do it?
Throughout the spell of three at the back there were murmurings that it was a temporary fix, something that would only remain for a short period of time. That was a nonsense. Had it been worked out? Who knows? You don’t throw something out the window because it was ‘worked out’ over the course of 135 minutes.
Maybe you feel that opposition sides are managing to exploit particular weaknesses in it. That’s fine. But fix them. Acknowledge that some players got injured and it wasn’t quite the same without them. Put a plaster on, don’t amputate.
You don’t switch back to a system that had been abject for three whole months to the point where you decide to completely rip it up and play in a way as different as could be. You just don’t. In no walk of life, would someone go into work, fix a problem, and then a few months later revert to what needed fixing in the first place. It’s nonsensical.
After that switch back to a four-man defence we got eight points in seven games, winning two games, beating one side who got relegated, and one who stayed up on the last day of the season. If what we had was broken, then we did the footballing equivalent of going to see Dr Nick off The Simpsons.
We did a couple of shows in New York at the weekend, and one of the points I was pretty big on was that Brendan Rodgers doesn’t really know what he wants, what his identity is, what his stamp is, what he is as manager.
Playing three different formations a game at the back end of last season would be a big indicator of it. I think his head has gone to the point where he doesn’t know what he wants. A man who was very firm in how he wanted his team to play, is now so far at the other end of the spectrum he’s unable to stick with a formation for an hour.
As it is now, Rodgers is trying to save his job. Throughout his three seasons there are two things he can hang his hat on — the Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge counter attacking super power, and the three at the back. Suarez is no more so what he’s got is a formation and setup that was good. It worked.
Look at the players we’ve got now — who isn’t at their best in a 3-4-1-2? Make your way through and have a look. It really is so obvious that it’s hurting my head even thinking about it.
It’s horses for courses. Basic horses for courses. You need an identity, Brendan. Go back to how we played our best in the last 12 months. Because this four at the back just isn’t happening to the extent that if you stick with it, that’s you and a big club done.
Play your Get Out of Jail Card.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda-Photo