The signing of Henrik Mkhitaryan, Christian Eriksen or any similar player would have been aimed at improving Brendan Rodgers’ 4-2-3-1, moving further away from his earlier preferred 4-3-3.
Henrik Mkhitaryan, of Shakhtar Donetsk, had been strongly linked with a move to Liverpool FC this transfer season. Before Mkhitaryan, it was Christian Eriksen (currently with Ajax) who was being scouted by the club. Both players are primarily central attacking midfielders who can also be deployed in somewhat wider positions, but at the same time are not proper wingers. Liverpool have lost out on the Armenian midfielder, but it is clear that the club are seeking a player in the Mkhitaryan/ Eriksen mold. Going forward, we will look at what such a signing tells us about the tactics manager Brendan Rodgers is looking to deploy in the coming season.
Brendan Rodgers’ shift from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1
In his days as Swansea City manager, Brendan Rodgers’ teams would feature proper wingers like Scott Sinclair and Nathan Dyer. The front four of Danny Graham (14 goals), Sinclair (8), Gylfi Sigurdsson (7) and Dyer (6) were the primary reason for their strong first season in the Premier League since 1983. Wayne Routledge, another winger, was regularly used off the bench or to rotate the squad. The team would line up in a 4-3-3, where the Leon Britton – Joe Allen partnership worked like the gears of a Swiss watch, ticking away passes with immaculate precision. Britton generally played slighter deeper than Allen, and Sigurdsson was left free to help create goals and assists up front.
When Rodgers joined Liverpool FC as manager in 2012, he tried to replicate his Swansea City system. He brought in Allen and Fabio Borini, two players he had worked with in the past and was therefore confident of fitting in. Ideally, Lucas Leiva should have taken up Leon Britton’s defensive role, Allen would have resumed his Swansea duties, with Gerrard providing the forward thrust like Sigurdsson. Ahead, Rodgers would have pictured the front 3 of Sterling/Borini-Suarez-Dempsey to do what Dyer-Graham-Sinclair did for Swansea. Unfortunately, things don’t always go as per plan. Lucas and Borini were unavailable for large parts of the season due to injury, and Liverpool lost out on Clint Dempsey on deadline day of the transfer window. The 4-3-3 experiment was fairly downhill from there, with Allen being forced into a more defensive role which did not suit him too well, Stewart Downing not being able to provide nearly as much attacking threat as Dyer or Sinclair, and none of the other central midfielders (Jordan Henderson, Nuri Sahin, Jonjo Shelvey) forming a partnership with Allen like the one he had with Britton. The early months of the season were marked with inconsistent performances and inability to beat so-called ‘smaller’ clubs like West Brom, Sunderland and Stoke City. With Sterling, Downing and Suso being unable to provide what Rodgers was able to extract from the Swansea wingers, Rodgers started playing a more narrow game rather than an expansive 4-3-3. This was the beginning of his soon to be frequent use of a 4-2-3-1 formation.
By winter, Rodgers had correctly judged that sticking with, and strengthening, a 4-2-3-1 setup made more sense than, say, bringing in proper wingers and effectively disturbing a team where players are just getting comfortable as a unit. Improving the system with the addition of players who can bring in more goals and more creativity made more sense. He brought in Coutinho and Sturridge, and stuck to a 4-2-3-1 from then on in. So much so that Sterling, the player most like the kind of wide-men Rodgers had employed in the past, saw a severe drop in his first team chances after these two came into the scene.
Where Mkhitaryan would have fit in
In the 4-2-3-1 based high possession football that Rodgers will be looking to employ in the coming season, there is no need for proper wingers. In attack the wing backs will bomb forward to provide the width, while the 2 center backs have to spread out somewhat; Lucas moves in deeper to create a makeshift 3-man defensive team. Essentially the team will be playing with a very high line, and will try to keep most of the play in the opposition half. In such a scenario, the opposition will often get compact and the final third can become fairly crowded. And what is often needed to unlock such defenses is a touch of unpredictability in attack. This is where Suarez was such a key player last season; his runs and dribbles helped create a bulk of the attacks and goals for Liverpool. While it is a good idea to have a Suarez-like player, ideally each of the front – 4 should have the ability to add their own bit of creativity and incisiveness to the attack. This was evident in the improvement in the team when Suarez went from being the sole provider of this creativity (in the first half of the season) to having two more contributors in the shape of Coutinho and Sturridge alongside him.
Henrik Mkhitaryan, being an attacking midfielder with the ability to both create and score goals, would have comfortably slotted into any of the 3 attacking positions behind the striker, possibly forcing Downing onto the bench. His addition would have made an already creative attack better.
For Rodgers to successfully play his brand of tiki-taka like football, it is important to defend from the front. That is, the front 4 need to be able to have a good work rate, and should be able to close the opposition down early. Again, Mkhitaryan would have fitted in well, as he is known for his solid work rate and defensive contribution.
Knee-Jerk Buying or a Plan B
What Liverpool do in the remaining transfer window will have a huge bearing on their 2013-14 season. After sorting out the Suarez mess, Rodgers will now have to decide what to do now that he has failed to bring in Mkhitaryan. Identifying and bringing in an alternative quickly might sound like the logical step, but any hasty ‘knee-jerk’ purchase could end up hurting the club. At the moment there are very few attacking midfielders who are not major gambles and are yet feasible purchases for Liverpool; Ajax’s Christian Eriksen seems to be a choice, but one has to think there must be a reason why rumours linking him to an Anfield move have died out.
Rodgers is not a rash buyer; he has never gone for a complete overhaul of the first team. Even in this window, where he has been most active, signings like Iago Aspas, Luis Alberto and Kolo Toure have been more about strengthening the squad than to bring a major shift in the first team. These purchases have also been made to accommodate for exits from the squad like Jamie Carragher (who retired at the end of the season) and Jonjo Shelvey (who has joined Swansea City).
If Suarez sticks around, Rodgers may want to go ahead and bring in a wide-player; not to replace anyone in the first team, but more to give a viable plan B to the manager. With a player like Christian Atsu (linked with Liverpool earlier) and Sterling on the bench, he may find good use for a 4-3-3 system.