MICHAEL T Nevin is away. Words which should strike fear into the heart of hoteliers around the world. Michael T Nevin is away. He is drinking your booze. Swimming in your sea. Wearing your slippers.
Instead you’ve got me, Neil Atkinson, writing more about the Reds (these Reds, those Reds, our Reds) and using the first person endlessly. If Mike was about he might write this about the fact that we suddenly haven’t got enough songs so we have to sing songs that are solely about lads who don’t play for us anymore, but he’s away so I can cut loose.
We all need a holiday. And while I was away Brendan Rodgers was still Liverpool manager. Remember those days? A lifetime ago that was. Before Liverpool had played Aston Villa. Before Liverpool had played Sion. Two games in which Liverpool each created more chances than they did against Kazan, but that’s a separate point in a sense.
Before those two games I was, as we all do, sitting off contemplating the Reds. Wondering about how they set up. This was back when there was a back three, remember that? A back three. Crazy days. I don’t particularly like back threes. So I was thinking about how else you could set this squad up.
Very few things are original in football. Most shapes are slight variations on others, there’s not always enormous difference and many are difficult to represent numerically now. Formations and shapes change and shift during games and are dictated by approach and attitude.
This Liverpool squad is spine heavy — a ton of lads who like to be in the centre of the pitch — but a fair few who can also function in wide areas. And I was thinking, pina colada in hand, of Ancelotti’s AC Milan team we vanquished in 2005 and who vanquished us in 2007. I was thinking, we can rip that off. We’ve got the lads to rip that off.
The forgotten man of that AC Milan side in 2005 is Crespo. Everyone remembers Kaka. Everyone remembers Shevchenko. But Crespo scores two goals in a European Cup final and loses and isn’t really part of any story. There are tons of reasons for this, but it is partially because Crespo was playing in a front two in an era when football tended to move more to a front man rather than a pair.
Crespo and Shevchenko weren’t really a pair either. Two nines running round, supplied by a pure 10, supported by a physical midfield three who shuttled across the pitch. If we must write it down — 4-3-1-2; not quite a diamond, not quite as defined as that.
While Crespo was the forgotten man of 2005 being a loanee from Chelsea in a front two, the forgotten man of AC Milan from the first half of the decade is Rui Costa. Sometimes played behind a two, sometimes alongside Kaka behind a one, Costa was a lovely footballer. Mean people would perhaps say he too often decorated a game rather than dominated it, but some football matches could do with more decoration.
By 2007 Costa was no longer there and in general Milan would often look to go a bit more solid — adding Ambrosini in, pushing Seedorf forward closer to Kaka and playing with only one up top. A centre midfield three with a bit more steel, more protection for Pirlo, built around Kaka’s exceptional quality.
Liverpool have, in two games under Klopp, probably played variants on all three of these shapes, which are slight variants of themselves. So I wish I’d written this piece back then when I was on holiday, because I’d look great, but we are where we are.
We pretty much went to the 4-3-1-2 shape after Benteke came on against Kazan for Coutinho. Benteke and Origi with Lallana behind. The key is the midfield three. It was flatter for the midfield three than the diamond Rodgers felt he had to get rid of after Sturridge got injured on England duty in 2014. Milner and Emre Can were, like Seedorf and Gattuso shifting from the centre into wide areas with the other making up a midfield two alongside Lucas.
That Milan side of 2003, 2005 and 2007 is crammed with all-time greats. We aren’t comparing personnel here, but positional use and positional comfort. That three suits Emre Can and Milner. It suits Lucas. It suits Lallana to be one behind two. It suits Benteke to be in a pair, but he can do a job alone. It should suit Sturridge and Henderson. It suits the full backs as well.
Coutinho is the question mark. And it is here, in the cold light of the comparisons I avoid for everyone else because they aren’t fair, we can see that the player isn’t Kaka. He’s a world away from Kaka, not in terms of quality, though it has been too easily forgotten how sumptuous a footballer Kaka was, but in terms of a list of proportional strengths and weaknesses, whether or not Coutinho measures up.
Kaka was a one in two-and-a-half games merchant. He was the top scorer in the 2006-07 Champions League campaign. He was devastating in opposition penalty areas, he was a pure final third player. His pace over five yards was remarkable — I remember Cristiano Ronaldo-esque running away from Manchester United in Old Trafford, leaving players for dead.
He did his work up the pitch. Kaka didn’t decorate, he didn’t dominate — he destroyed. Whereas Coutinho wants to dominate. He wants to be on the ball. Kaka didn’t win his battles as Coutinho does. He didn’t keep it ticking over or attack from deep, he didn’t go looking for the ball.
We talked about it on Monday and we will talk about it on CityTalk later; what Klopp does with Coutinho could well end up defining his Liverpool side until at least Christmas and probably until the start of next season.
There’s a bold move which can be made when almost everyone is fit; a move which sees the midfield three Liverpool have played in Klopp’s first two games include Coutinho. It may even be that Liverpool’s most important player of 14-15 finds himself impacting some games from the bench; Firmino or Lallana behind a quality front two with graft behind them and him getting 30 minutes to sprinkle some stardust.
When Klopp arrived there was plenty of talk about Liverpool going to the 4-2-3-1 he pushed at Dortmund. Instead, we can already see a manager looking at his squad and trying to get them to do what comes naturally to them.
It’s early days but this looks to suit the squad. This could, of course, be a short-term fix — until the manager can go into the market for the pace and quality from wide areas he may want. However he has had a holiday, too. Maybe he’s trying to protect legs, maybe he thinks he need to do things a little differently in this league now.
Time will tell, but with these Reds, perhaps there’s another reason to think of AC Milan 2005.
Pics: David Rawcliffe-Propaganda Photo