Preface: What is Liverpool’s 3-4-3
Following a string of poor results, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers opted to switch to a 3-4-3 formation (which really plays like a 3-4-2-1 at times) with four flat midfielders. A 1-0 loss to Basel in the Champions league, where the Swiss club deployed a 3-4-3 as much out of necessity rather than desire, was the apparent inspiration for Rodgers shift in formation. So what makes the 3-4-3 special? Well, nothing really. Simply, it deploys three center backs, four midfielders (which in Liverpool’s case lineup in a mostly flat line, as opposed to a diamond), and three players in-front of the flat four. Though Rodgers has tinkered with his formation, he has favored playing Sturridge centrally, Couthino wide left, and Lallana wide right in his front three. His flat four often features Sterling furthest right, Henderson and Allen in the middle, and Moreno furthest left. At center-back, Skrtel plays in the middle (who will be suspended for their game with Arsenal), Sakho on the left, and Can on the right.
Liverpool went on a 13-game unbeaten streak following the shift and subsequent gelling of this formation. Why has it had success? Emre Can and Mamadou Sakho have provided excellent distribution from the back, Jordan Henderson has sat deepest and occupied the role Steven Gerrard used to inhabit, and Liverpool’s wing-backs have been extremely aggressive in joining the attack and overwhelming the opposition with numbers around the box. When allowed easy possession, Liverpool build from the back forward and dictate the pace of play.
The Swansea and Manchester United Blueprint
After a string of quality results and impressive performances, Liverpool’s formation began to show cracks in a 1-0 win against Swansea. Gary Monks side largely stymied Liverpool’s attack and dominated most of the game, while not taking advantage of their opportunities to score. Liverpool eventually found of the winner off a deflected clearance. In their most recent game against Manchester United, Liverpool were strangely enough largely second best until the sending off of Stevan Gerrard, which seemed to energize the side and give them some fight. Despite the admirable effort, Manchester United, like Swansea before them, dominated most of the game and exploited key areas of the pitch.
How did they do it? Employing a 3-4-3 formation with a largely flat midfield has a few obvious flaws. First, its success depends on, among other things, distribution from the back three forward. This had been a success in previous results but Swansea and Manchester United pressed Liverpool’s back three and forced them into turnovers. The lack of cohesion at the back disrupts the midfielder’s flow and cuts off the supply going forward. Effective pressing also keeps Liverpool’s wing-backs from bombing forward in attack. Second, a back three and flat four leaves loads of space for the opposition to exploit on the wings of the defense and between Liverpool’s backline and midfield. Juan Mata’s master-class against Liverpool saw him exploit this space. Simply put, press them high, win the ball in midfield in dangerous areas, exploit the enormous amount of open space in the middle and out wide. If Liverpool are not allowed to steadily build from the back and enjoy the comfort that provides, their stability cracks along with the effectiveness of the 3-4-3.
Press from the front, Ozil, Coq Block
This season, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger have favored a more cautious approach against the big teams. The Gunners have chosen to concede possession in favor of defensive stability. While I’m not advocating for a full scale deviation from that game plan, its important Arsenal do not allow Liverpool to ease into their possession and tactical setup. Swansea and Manchester United showed that opponents must take the game to Liverpool and force them into errors. A front three of Alexis Sanchez, Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck (or Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain if healthy) is ideal for employing a high press from the start. The front three must close down Liverpool’s backline and give them no way out. The speed of Alexis, Welbeck, or Ox is also vital in exploiting the available space in the wide areas. Great pressing teams press from the front all the way to the back. As Juan Mata showed, one doesn’t have to be a speedster to beat this Liverpool back three. It’s about timing and anticipating ahead of your opponent, knowing where the space will be before it opens up so when that pressing pays off with a turnover, the player is already in position to attack.
Given the space Liverpool afforded Swansea and Manchester United, Mesut Ozil will be a key man in masterminding Arsenal’s approach. The Gunners most recent game against Newcastle showcases what an important player Ozil is for the side. He is the eyes, ears, and brain of the team. His absence against Newcastle saw Arsenal miss their tactical leader and the side often picked the wrong pass or rushed into attacks before totally sputtering out in the second half and retreating into their own end to see out the win. Ozil pulls all the strings and if Liverpool leave the same amount of space open as they did against Manchester United, Ozil will punish them with the killer ball.
Apart from Ozil, Francis Coquelin’s ability to break up play and force interceptions will be a key attribute. Simply put, if Arsenal can nick the ball from Liverpool anywhere on the pitch, space is everywhere. No Arsenal player is better at taking the ball off the opposition than Coquelin. Stats wise, he has been the Premier League’s best defensive midfielder in 2015. This calendar year, he has 95 tackles or interceptions, the next closest player is Daley Blind with 63. Coquelin is averaging 3.6 tackles per game, 3.1 interceptions per game, and 3.1 areal duels won per game. Ozil makes Arsenal tick going forward while Coquelin allows everyone the opportunity to tick.
The formula to beat Liverpool’s 3-4-3 formation has been laid down by their last two opponents: press them high, they’ll make errors, Arsenal will exploit those errors with all of the available space around the back three affording them room to operate. However, this method is somewhat antithetic to how the Gunners have been achieving results up to this point. Tactics and game plans must be adaptable and malleable. Wenger’s critics have often accused him of being stubborn tactically, of only wanting to win his way. Arsenal’s evolution in style in the latter half of this season serves as an answer to those critics and hopefully foreshadows another progression against Liverpool. Arsenal have all the tools to beat the back three and the blueprint is there, all that’s left is to execute.