So far, Liverpool have deployed a 4-3-3 formation. This is not much different to what Klopp used last season. The basic idea is, when we have the ball, there is 1 CDM and 2 CMs who push forward with the RW and LW cutting inside to open up the space for the fullbacks to overlap. Moreover, when Liverpool press high up and fail to get the ball back through the ‘gegenpress’ the team falls into a 4-1-4-1 shape which provides 2 walls of 4 to increase the solidity of the team and provide cover on the wings as well. As soon as the ball is won back, the 2 wide players can push forward quickly along with 1 of the 2 CM’s usually.
However, there’s a lot of in-game transition and depending on the opponent we’ve used the 4-4-1-1 (Vs Villarreal last season at home) or the 4-3-3 but a false 9 instead of an out and out striker. I’m a huge fan of the false 9; it came into prominence most recently during the ‘tiki-taka’ era at Barcelona with Messi destroying teams with the false 9 complimenting his movement and intelligence greatly. Firmino is a natural ‘9 and a half’ and the reason he’s played in the false 9 in all big games is he gives the front 3 more fluidity and unpredictability; along with his relentless pressing and high stamina, he’s the perfect Klopp type forward. Last season due to the lack of pace in the attack Klopp used Origi and Sturridge to provide that pace but now with Mane providing that pace and trickery Klopp can use Firmino up front making him indispensable to the side.
This season LFC have tried to mix things up in attack, sometimes trying to exploit the space behind the opposition’s defense (especially when the full backs are forward) with Mane’s pace and balls over the top to him and sometimes using the movement, creativity and guile of Firmino, Coutinho and Lallana. Henderson struggled against Arsenal in that defensive midfield role, he was poor defensively but 2 weeks on and against Spurs he was tremendous in that role completely stifling Spurs central threat which is why they were forced to go wide more often than not, which is also why their goal came down the flanks.
Leicester have largely used the same tactics they did last season, a traditional 4-4-2 with some brilliant tactical tweaks.
Firstly, last season Leicester’s front 2 had a proper goal poacher in the form of Vardy, he doesn’t track back much, he likes to run in behind the defense and use his pace to run through on goal; his finishing is exceptional too but he has great strength for a slightly diminutive figure. Their other striker, Okazaki is a ‘9 and a half’ just like Firmino. Okazaki’s main responsibility is to press the opposition, try to win the ball back, run into channels and attract defenders to create more space for Vardy to run into and try to nick a goal every now and then. Like Firmino, Okazaki is much more effective and useful than people notice; they do the dirty work that allows others to do the scoring and assisting etc. Leicester did buy the exciting striker Ahmed Musa but the reason he hasn’t started much this season is because he’s a very similar type of striker to Vardy and if he starts up front with Vardy, they lose the hard work and tracking back of Okazaki and instead have 2 strikers that do the exact same thing which doesn’t always work.
Leicester’s winning formula last season was fairly simple, but absolutely brilliant. When the opposition has the ball in the middle of the park the wingers tuck into central midfield to force the opponents to go wide and draw their fullbacks. When the opponent’s full backs get the ball and reach near the box, the wingers go and press and try to win the ball. As soon as the ball is won back, the wingers now move up the field with speed and with all the empty space and Vardy staying forward, a long ball is played into space so he can utilize his pace to get in behind the defense.
The essence of this attack is to sit deep and make your wingers play like central midfielders, even when the opponents approach the final 3rd on the wings because the central area is too congested, the Leicester players sit on the edge of the box and try to draw the opponent as further up the pitch as they can before hitting in the counter. The reason this is so effective defensively is that, when the ball goes wide the wingers and full backs cover, if a cross comes in, both their CB’s (Huth and Morgan) are tall and strong and they can clear easily and help start the counter. If somehow the opponents do find some space centrally near the box, the 2 defensive midfielders try to win the ball back with a tackle, if the ball goes beyond them; the back 4 is present to pick up possession anyways. Their backline is usually very deep too so there is no space for the opposition to run in behind. The main way teams are forced to attack is play the long ball and as I mentioned before, Huth and Morgan deal with those long balls 9/10 times. It’s very simple in plain view but is devastatingly effective especially with the pace they’ve got on the counter.
One thing people tend to overlook is the contribution of Marc Albrighton on the left wing, people are always talking about Mahrez but Albrighton does a job similar to the one Milner did on the right wing at Manchester City. Albrighton isn’t the flashiest of players, nor does he score and assist tons, but he helps out a lot defensively for a winger, he also runs up and down the left flank for 90 minutes non-stop and was ever present last season starting 34 of the 38 games.
Leicester are in between the types of team we were up against in the form or Arsenal/Spurs and Burnley. They will definitely not camp in their own box and give us 80% possession but they won’t play end to end football either. It’s a tricky game for the Reds and unfortunately for us both Mahrez and Vardy play on Leicester’s right side which means they’ll be naturally targeting our left side just like Burnley and Tottenham did. Teams aren’t targeting our left side only because of Milner playing at LB but instead there are 2 more factors. Burnley targeted our left because they wanted to exploit the imbalance in the back 4 as well as the embryonic understanding between Klavan and Milner, and they did a great job doing that. Spurs targeted our left side because they wanted to put Lovren (who’s naturally right footed but playing as a Left sided CB) under pressure and Kane was involved in a wrestling match with Lovren for 90 minutes. There is also another big factor, Gini Wijnaldum. While Lallana has made playing in the central midfield role look easy, Wijnaldum has really looked out of his depth, he’s not a player who’ll sit deep and play sideway passes nor will he pick out forward runs with genius through balls. He’s a player who likes to stay around the opposition’s penalty area and make late runs to score, somewhat like Lampard. Now that he’s playing much deeper where he’s visibly struggled, coupled with the ever-changing left side of Liverpool’s back 4, it’s natural the teams will target the left side.
Liverpool’s creativity and guile of front 3 is ineffective against teams like Burnley, they need someone like Mane who will make countless sprints as well as cutting in, going wide, crossing, shooting, basically being multi dimensional. Playing Sturridge out wide isn’t a solution; he comes deep to pick up the ball and doesn’t run in behind the defense.
It’s hard to predict what Liverpool will do to unlock the Leicester’s defense but I’d put my money on what they’ve done in the first few matches this season (except Burnley); which is use Mane’s pace to cause havoc along with Firmino and Coutinho finding pockets of space to run into unmarked and create shooting opportunities for themselves and others. Watching Leicester play this season, I noticed that Mahrez puts in a less intense defensive shift compared to his teammates as well as occasionally looking uninterested in tracking back so if Liverpool could exploit his slight lack of defensive desire, there could be some space for Liverpool to exploit.
It’s obviously hard to say who SHOULD start up front but I wouldn’t be surprised if Klopp goes with Firmino up front, with Sturridge/Origi coming on if needed after the hour against a slightly more tired Leicester midfield and back 4.
Personally I’ve mentioned that I’m a big fan of the false 9 and I think we should take advantage of the lack of presence of it in the Premier League, it’s not something teams in the PL are used to facing so we should try to use it as much as possible until it becomes more predictable. All teams in Premier League go with 1 natural Striker up front but Firmino make us more unpredictable and that works in our favor.
Prediction: I’m an optimist, I always somehow predict Liverpool to win and I’ll keep on with it, predicting a 2-0 win if we play our cards right but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it ends up a draw.