Liverpool FC have been vulnerable at the back this season, despite a wealth of defenders in the squad. What is going wrong for Brendan Rodgers’ side?

640px-Colin_Pascoe_and_Brendan_Rodgers_wiki

The 221stAi??edition of the Merseyside Derby was an exhilarating game to watch, especially for the neutrals, and showed the thrills and spills of the Premiership. Having said that, the game was an example of defensive blunders made by both the Liverpool and Everton defenders, which explained the high score line in the end. Liverpool have only kept 4 clean sheets out of 11 games so far, and with the wealth of defenders in this squad, one would have expected Liverpool to shut out their opponents more often than not this season, but that hasnai??i??t really been the case.

3-5-2 formation: Forgotten after the Emirates nightmare?

Brendan Rodgers hasnai??i??t used the 3-5-2 formation since Liverpool were found out against Arsenal’s 4-2-3-1. Arsenal’s midfield simply decimated Liverpool in the middle of the park and the likes of Gerrard, Lucas and Henderson were chasing shadows all night. Arsenal drew the Liverpool midfielders out of their position and created yards of empty spaces for their full-backs in Kieran Gibbs and Bacary Sagna to exploit, which they eventually did, and ruined the night for the hundreds of travelling Liverpool supporters.

The 3-5-2 formation originated after the Euros in ’84. The world cup winning coaches of ’86 and ’90, Carlos Billardo and Franz Beckenbauer for Argentina and Germany respectively, used this system to devastating effect and negated the influence of teams employing the 4-4-2 formation. The 4-4-2 formation was adopted by almost all teams at that time and had only 2 strikers for the opposition defenders to guard. It was possible to decrease the number of defenders with only two centre forwards in the opposition. Billardo and Beckenbauer crowded the midfield in order to counter the 4-4-2 formation, and this change brought the new formation in football that was the 3-5-2.

Not many managers utilize the 3-5-2 formation as expertly as Marcelo Bielsa and Antonio Conte. Both these managers have achieved a high level of success with this formation. Conte’s Juventus have enjoyed two years of stunning success in Serie A, securing back-to-back domestic league titles. Bielsa gave Chile a new identity in world football through the 3-5-2 formation and his successor Jorge Sampaoli is following the same blue-print left behind by Bielsa and it was evident in the energetic, high-pressing game played by Chile in a 2-0 win against England at Wembley last week.

Liverpool’s problem with the 3-5-2

The role of the sweeper is to cover the central defenders. Ai??Brendan Rodgers has opted to play Martin Skrtel in that position and despite him being pretty comfortable in that position, he couldnai??i??t stop Arsenal from scoring as the midfielders failed to track Cazorla and Ramsey. Toure and Sakho mainly play as the stoppers, on the right and left respectively. While both Toure and Sakho have the pace and necessary physical attributes to play as the stoppers, Liverpool havenai??i??t exactly benefitted from it, and neither have they kept clean sheets.

The 3-5-2 formation is flexible, unorthodox and mostly dependent on the wing-backs. The wing-backs get more of the ball than anybody and they are usually the outlet. Without Johnson and Enrique, it is tough for Rodgers to utilize the 3-5-2 effectively. That was apparent at the Emirates, as Rodgers readily admitted; Liverpool was beaten by a better Arsenal team. It was rather tough on Jon Flanagan to be thrust into such a high-pressure game, and he was ultimately dominated by Gibbs and Cazorla on the left.

Sagna vs Cissokho

Sagna exposed Cissokho’s vulnerability at left back

Aly Cissokho is not your typical modern day full-back. He is not very good going forward; he doesnai??i??t have great feet and is a liability, especially when he plays against the bigger sides. Sagna simply exploited Cissokho’s weakness and gave a torrid time to the on-loan Valencia man. The failures of Cissokho and Flanagan had a severe impact on Liverpool’s performance. Liverpoolai??i??s midfield didnai??i??t play well, Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva didnai??i??t have much of the ball and consequently Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge were left frustrated without any service from midfield.

Bottom line is, you need very good wing backs for the 3-5-2 to flourish, and Liverpool canai??i??t try out that formation in the absence of Enrique/Johnson.

Changes in formation yield mixed results

Rodgers has reverted back to the 4-4-2 and the 4-2-3-1 formations against Fulham and Everton respectively after playing three defenders at the back against Arsenal.Ai?? The Liverpool defenders had a good time of it against a struggling Fulham side who hardly managed to conjure up opportunities against a bright Liverpool at Anfield. Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel literally had a walk in the park as they were hardly troubled by the Fulham attack.

Skrtel and Agger vs Fulham

Skrtel and Agger vs Fulham

Rodgers surprised everyone by starting Jon Flanagan at left full-back in a crunch game against bitter rivals Everton in the Merseyside Derby. After his average performance against Arsenal at the Emirates, Flanagan to his credit handled the pressure really well and made some crucial tackles in what was an open game.

Flanagan

The only blemish in Flanagan’s performance was when Lukaku headed in the third Everton goal, but having said that, one would have expected Skrtel or Agger to mark Lukaku. Coleman and Barkley never really tested Flanagan on his weak side, i.e. on the left, and were guilty of drifting inside too much in the game. Flanagan negated their influence as much as possible and wasn’t shy in bombing forward either. Rodgers has often heaped praise on Flanagan’s performance in training, his general attitude, and one wonai??i??t be surprised if Flanagan starts the next game in the left full-back position at the KC stadium after his solid performance in the derby.

Lukaku versus Agger and Skrtel was a disaster waiting to happen, especially after the former’s brilliant performance gave West Brom the double against Liverpool last season.

Lukaku

Lukaku won most of his duels against Agger and Skrtel

Mamadou Sakho would have been better suited to handling the giant Belgian after his man of the match performance for France against Ukraine in the play-offs. Rodgers preferred to go with Skrtel and Agger as his centre-half combination and both of them found it very arduous to handle the explosive Belgian. The three goals which Liverpool conceded resulted either directly or indirectly from set pieces and it is safe to say that both Skrtel and Agger had a very poor game.

Below is a statistical comparison of all the centre-halves to have featured for Liverpool this season.

Martin SkrtelKolo ToureDaniel AggerMamadou Sakho
Appearances10977
Goals1000
Passing Accuracy (%)90.88484.791.5
Duels won (%)62.854.465.958.6
Aerial duels won (%)61.443.265.264.3
Recoveries58392142
Tackles won (%)82.485.755.690
Clearances92584048
Blocks13413
Interceptions219618

The current Liverpool squad has aAi??crop of talentAi??defenders. They are experienced, versatile and are ever present for their country. Therefore, it is imperative for Rodgers to pick his centre-half combination as the situation demands, in order to get clean sheets. Mamadou Sakho and Kolo Toure might get the nod against Hull City this weekend after the Agger-Skrtel combination failed to click at Goodison park.

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