The trend in the last decade in the Premier League to play one lone striker up front has changed the way many managers approach the game.
The old traditional 4-4-2 tactic which would rely upon two tight and compact units of four (midfield line in front of backline) with two frontmen working in tandem up front has slowly drifted from popularity as the era of the lone striker and packed midfield was phased in.
The likes of Rafael Benitez, Arsene Wenger, Sir Alex Ferguson, and Jose Mourinho amongst others set trends with their formations and systems to the point where it’s oftentimes considered dangerous and counter-productive to play with two strikers up front.
What has tended to be preferred is the one man up top to spearhead the attacking play of three central midfielders and a winger on either flank, effectively making five across the midfield areas, one dedicated centre-forward and a solid back four.
There have also been those who have tinkered with this 4-5-1 or 4-3-3 dynamic – the likes of Roberto Mancini, Roberto Martinez and Brendan Rodgers most notably – opting, rather than pack to the midfield to the detriment of attacking armory up front, to play three at the back, with the wingers operating more as wingbacks switching from attack-minded wingers to defence-minded fullbacks.
This 3-5-1 has been deployed successfully by Martinez at Wigan prior to his move to Everton this summer, Mancini prior to his dismissal at Manchester City and by Brendan Rodgers at Swansea and now Liverpool.
However, the Reds manager seems to be inventing his own amalgamation of the two philosophies that predate his arrival at Anfield – by playing Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez up front in unison and three at the back, with a flexible and versatile five in midfield.
It was a topic open for discussion on BBC’s Match of the Day 2 on Sunday as Michael Owen discussed the chemistry and efficiency of the Suarez and Sturridge pairing which is proving to be the most dangerous force in the Premier League at present.
Where mangers like Wenger et al brought in a philosophy structured around space and the efficient use of it – the idea that a 4-5-1 or a 4-3-3 was the most effective means of covering the most amount of pitch space with eleven players – Rodgers seems to be breaking away from these ideas and superimposing his own on top of them.
Perhaps we will see now, should Liverpool continue to be successful with a 3-5-2, another tactical revolution in the Premier League – it’s a system that is heavily reliant on the wingbacks-come-wingers to occupy the channels effectively but with the emergence and strength of players like Pablo Zabaleta, Leighton Baines, Ashley Cole, Bacary Sagna, Jose Enrique, Rafael, and Glen Johnson you have the possibility of that coverage and quality to sufficiently fulfill the defensive and offensive demands of top level English football. There may even be an element of Gareth Bale’s transition involved somewhere along the transformation process.
That formation which is at present proving mighty successful for Rodgers and Liverpool could be a way of ensuring defensive protection both at the back and in central midfield areas where players like Lucas cover so well in that archetypal Claude Makelele role that has become so popular and influential, as well ensuring the midfield doesn’t get over run by teams who play with a central five as managers are wary of nowadays.
Then to compound all of that, you have the impact of two strikers working in tandem along with perhaps one playmaker in midfield, supported by the wingbacks wherever possible, combining to devastating effect as we saw in the Reds’ 4-1 victory over West Brom this weekend.
The problem of a lone striker is that they are easier to isolate and man-mark or even double up on from a defensive perspective but with two strikers, especially of the quality of Sturridge and Suarez, it’s very difficult to keep them both quiet for 90 minutes. If Liverpool continue in this vein of form with this system, Brendan Rodgers may well start to give other managers ideas – or, at the very least, something to think about on the drive over to Anfield.