Liverpool’s encouraging 2-0 victory over Napoli came as Jurgen Klopp changed his team’s lineup for the third time in four matches.
For most of his time at Liverpool, Klopp has used a 4-3-3 scheme with great success, which gave his team a good balance at both ends of the pitch.
The Reds’ struggles this season led to the boss departing from his tried and trusted scheme last month and his arm was forced due to injuries to some of his key attacking players.
But in Tuesday’s win over Luciano Spalletti’s team, Klopp admitted he was “back to basics” with his team’s set-up, in a form that offered Liverpool increased strength and defensive cohesion.
Here we take a look at the three different schemes Liverpool have used in recent weeks and how the Reds are likely to approach their last three matches before the mid-season World Cup break.
4-4-2 Failure in Forest
Liverpool switched to what the players and manager called a 4-4-2 system for the first time after a chaotic 3-3 draw with Brighton in early October.
The immediate results were mostly positive: four wins out of five, including a 7-1 defeat of Rangers and a 1-0 victory over Man City.
But the injury sustained by Diogo Hota in the dying embers of the last game will put Klopp in a dilemma in the coming weeks. Without Hota and Luis Diaz, who also remains on the sidelines until the end of the World Cup, Liverpool are deprived of two main options for playing on the left flank of the attack in this system.
The next game was a 1-0 home win over West Ham, and Darwin Nunez scored in first place, but without him, Hota and Diaz against Nottingham Forest, Liverpool hardly created any chances in open play, despite several golden moments from standard positions.
Average positions against the forest
Klopp called this system 4-4-2, but the average positions of the players in all the matches where they used this scheme showed that it is more like a 4-2-3-1 with Roberto Firmino. right behind the striker, whether it’s Salah or Nunez.
With three key forwards against Forest, as well as the late departure of Thiago and the unfamiliar deeper role of the returning Curtis Jones, Liverpool struggled to create strikers and also proved too vulnerable to counterattacks.
A disappointing performance and result at the City Ground, as well as the return of Nunez, forced Klopp to change his system in the next match.
Switch to diamond for Ajax and Leeds
When the Reds traveled to Amsterdam four days later to face Ajax, Klopp decided that the best way to use Firmino, Salah and Nunez was a diamond formation.
Salah and Nunez were both deployed closer to the center, with Firmino right behind them, in a role that was not too different from the false nine position he was used to playing under Klopp.
The Liverpool manager has made it clear that he does not want Nunes to be located on the left flank of the attack, believing that this system will allow all three of his strikers to play roles in which they are comfortable.
Average positions against Ajax
In the match against Ajax, it was a move that paid off: Salah and Nunez scored goals, and Liverpool saved by zero, winning 2-0 over the team of Alfred Schroeder.
The following weekend Klopp chose the same form, with the same three strikers, but this time the Reds faced serious problems, suffering their first home defeat of the season.
Jesse Marsh’s team from Leeds, which was ranked 19th in the standings before this game, could break through Liverpool’s midfield at will.
Average positions against Leeds
From the average positions in the two games, the gap between Liverpool’s 9th number Firmino and their 3rd number Fabinho should be noted.
With Liverpool’s two eighth numbers tasked with covering wider areas of the pitch more often, Firmino and Fabinho did a good job of defending the central areas against Ajax, but struggled to do it with the same effectiveness against Leeds.
Where will Klopp go then?
Back to basics against Napoli
Having just come off defeats from two teams at the bottom of the Premier League, the Reds’ Champions League match with Napoli, a European team in good shape, had all the signs of a game that would cause Klopp’s team even more problems.
Before the game, the team did not particularly inspire the fans either: James Milner and Curtis Jones went into midfield and attacked.
Klopp said before the game that the idea was to build a 4-3-3 system, with Jones on the left of the first three, Salah on the opposite flank and Firmino in the center.
Nevertheless, the performance turned out to be much more solid than many expected. For most of this season Liverpool have found themselves too open when deploying a three-man midfield, but in this game they have done a much better job of closing those gaps, as Klopp explained at full-time.
“Compactness makes a big difference,” he told BT Sport.
Average positions against Napoli
“All of a sudden we have problems in the right places and it’s hard to play against us. If you see what Napoli is capable of at the moment, it was a really good game from our side, in our position, at our moment, with a few problems.”
The inclusion of Ibrahima Konate as a central defender undoubtedly made a difference, while Klopp also highlighted Jones’ good work at both ends of the pitch.
In the second half, Nunes replaced Jones, and it was his cameo that led the Reds to victory. Liverpool don’t have too many options on the left flank of the attack, but both Jones and Nunez have proven that they are more than capable in this position, and at the post-match press conference Klopp also named Fabio Carvalho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain as two players who can fulfill this particular role.
So, are 4-3-3 back for good?
Diaz is expected to return from injury before the end of the year, and although Hota’s recovery may take longer, Klopp himself hinted that his team might take a different look at her after the World Cup.
In the meantime, however, given the improved cohesion against Napoli, it’s hard to imagine Klopp sticking to the same pattern against Tottenham this weekend.
If Konate is able to play again, one would expect him to start playing alongside Virgil van Dijk again in defence, and Andy Robertson will return instead of Kostas Tsimikas on the left flank of defence.
If Jordan Henderson returns after the knockout that caused him to drop out of the game with Napoli, we will probably see the midfield of Fabinho, Henderson and Tiago, who worked so well together last season, but this season are struggling to cope with the same lofty tasks.
Nunes may well take a place on the left in the top three, next to Firmino and Salah at the top.
If the Reds perform well again in the 4-3-3 system against Tottenham and Southampton before the break, there is every chance that Klopp is preparing to use this form in the second half of the season.
Klopp hopes that, having temporarily moved away from him last month, his team has regained its defensive momentum in this scheme.
“This is the system we played most often, this is a system that we are familiar with,” he said at his post—Napoli press conference.
“When we play well, we can defend very well in this system, we didn’t do it often when we played it recently. That’s why we had to change a couple of things, give the guys new things to think about.
“It’s always on the table for us, it doesn’t mean we’ll play it from now on all the time. In attack, this is obviously not a problem, in fact there is no difference with the diamond, but in defense there is a big difference. We have to figure out what’s best for us, depending on which players are playing.
“We’ll see what we do against Tottenham, this system has never gone beyond. We needed to change a little bit, give ourselves momentum and feel the defense again in a new way.”