Way back in January when Kenny Dalglish returned to his Liverpool throne, I speculated on how he would choose to set up his team. My theories were debunked near immediately when Dalglish started fielding a three man defence then the results of the transfer window forced a reshuffle and Steven Gerrard, whom most of my theories were based around, got injured, making his plans even more difficult to judge.
However, given his first proper chance to shape the squad as he wishes this summer, Dalglish seems to be heading back towards the lopsided 4-4-2 he used in his first spell as Liverpool manager.
The bolstered squad makes it difficult to pick out likely line-ups, which may well be pointless – with such a deep squad, at least in midfield, Dalglish is likely to rotate a lot. With this in mind, I have opted to instead look at how the system worked when he first implemented it and relate it to the players currently at Liverpool, using the successful 1989 FA Cup final over Everton.
First thing to point out is the basic shape. I have it down as a lopsided 4-4-2, but it could arguably be described as a 4-3-3, a 4-2-3-1 or a variety of other formations. It doesn’t really matter, a handful of numbers mean very little, especially when their point – to make a shape clearer – is rendered fairly useless by the fluidity regularly on display in Dalglish’s sides. The basic shape does however tell us a few things about the side: the standard back four is present; width is given through the left winger; the tucked in midfielder on the other side adds another man to the central areas, allowing Liverpool an easier way of controlling possession; and there’s two attackers to threaten the defence, one of whom can drop off to link play, adding yet another player to that central area. The differences of these roles depend on the players that occupy them.
Above all, the system depends on The Liverpool Way – the pass-and-move style first implemented by Bill Shankly then refined under Bob Paisley. Liverpool would pass among the defence look for gaps and if they couldn’t find any, give the ball back to Bruce Grobbelaar to start again. This meant all of Liverpool’s defenders had to be comfortable on the ball, which most of today’s side are. In fact, someone like Glen Johnson offers an attacking impetus far greater than what Steve Nicol offered.
To help move the ball up the pitch one of Steve McMahon or Ronnie Whelan would come deep to get the ball, give it back, spray it wide to the advancing full-backs or slot it through the midfield. The deeper positioning of the midfielders meant Everton’s midfield played higher up the pitch, so Peter Beardsley and Ray Houghton had more space between them and the defence to exploit. Their roles were pretty much the same as today’s pair, so any two of Liverpool’s huge assortment of centre midfielders could end up playing here.
Liverpool’s opening goal just four minutes in against Everton came from the movement of withdrawn forward Beardsley. He came very deep to get the ball from Nicol, drawing Kevin Ratcliffe up the field to make space for the advancing McMahon to attack, forcing Dave Watson to come across to cover and leaving John Aldridge to finish. The most obvious person for this role is Luis Suarez – he has the intelligence, dribbling ability and vision of Beardsley, but also the uncanny knack of sneaking up on unsuspecting defenders to win back the ball, while he’s also a better finisher capable of leading the line better than Beardsley did.
Another option for this role is Steven Gerrard, as he essentially played in this position behind Fernando Torres for the last few years of Rafa Benitez’s tenure, offering a more forceful option in place of Suarez. Gerrard may however be a favourite for the Houghton role on the right of midfield, another position he played in to much success under Benitez. This role would allow him to come inside and be involved in build-up play, but without the same need for defensive discipline that has hampered his performances in the centre of midfield. Jordan Henderson seems to be being groomed for this position too, having frequently played there for Sunderland. Although, currently, the player most reminiscent of Houghton is Dirk Kuyt, a bundle of energy who would also look to come inside behind the strikers or move up top to join them, while Maxi Rodriguez is a similar player.
The role of the left winger is difficult to analyse because John Barnes and, the likeliest equivalent, Stewart Downing aren’t really comparable. Both are effective (unless put in England shirts) but Barnes was more than just the conservative attack wide and swing in a cross-type that Downing is: he was a creative genius. Barnes had a quiet start to the game: 18 minutes in he swung in a deadly cross for Aldridge to head wide, and, in the 27th minute, he picked up a superb through ball by Whelan out wide to slither a ball across the face of goal. Other than that, he did little and only really started to influence the game when he came inside more, linking play and running directly at the heart of Everton’s defence. In this respect, Suarez would appear to be the closest thing Liverpool have to Barnes; he, too, being a creative genius.
The difference in the strikers does however suggest that the width Downing provides will be more important. Rush was simply a poacher, and a brilliant one at that, but it’s a role that has mostly died out in recent times. Aldridge was more of an all-round forward, and could be used as a makeshift target man at times, yet he wasn’t quite as effective at it as hulking colossus Andy Carroll is likely to be. With someone like Carroll up front, we can safely assume the winger’s crossing will be more important now than in 1989, although Barnes did show a glimpse of the benefits of this for Rush’s second goal, sending in a cross for the Welshman to head in. There’s also the option of Kuyt playing in this role, but as more of an all-round player than a target man, it would seem more likely he would be linking with Suarez on the left in a fluid trio than awaiting crosses from Downing.
Neither of Everton’s equalisers came from something of little relevance to today’s Liverpool. Stuart McCall first tapping in Grobbelaar’s spill after some quick passing from a long ball. It wasn’t particularly bad defending, and it certainly wasn’t anything to do with their shape. He then scored a volley from the clearance of a free-kick.
Ian Rush’s first goal wasn’t particularly relevant either – the goal evolving from a throw-in and Rush’s poaching instincts, but his second, as already outlined, was.
With such a wealth of options, it’s likely that Dalglish will be adapting his system throughout the season. However, many of his signings seem to indicate a return to this 4-4-2 – Liverpool owning a squad of players capable of playing in various ways within this framework.