Roy won’t stray from Rafa’s foundations

Talking Tactics: Season 2010/11 – Issue 1

One of the talking points of the summer for Reds fans has been what system and formation Roy Hodgson will play in his first season at Liverpool. His predecessor Rafa Benitez introduced the 4-2-3-1 to Liverpool, not to mention English football, while the ex-Internazionale, Fulham and Blackburn boss has always been an advocate of the 4-4-2, and its variations.

At Fulham, the most recent example of Roy’s work, it was either the basic, boring old 4-4-2 set-up, or its variant 4-4-1-1, which he favoured last season above anything else – particularly in their European campaign.

At Liverpool, Roy has room to negotiate various systems. He has better, more versatile players to mould a formation that fits and works best. The two attacking players that have arrived at Anfield this summer can cover up to six positions between them – Joe Cole can play on the left of a 4-4-2 or a 4-2-3-1, behind the striker in the latter, and on the right of midfield. Milan Jovanovic can cover each wide area, not to mention up forward. The options are endless. Added to Fernando Torres, Steven Gerrard, Ryan Babel, Alberto Aquilani, Dirk Kuyt, David N’gog and Maxi Rodriguez and Liverpool, somewhat all of a sudden, have plenty of attacking choices – a situation Rafa didn’t find himself in his later years, but that could be down to his disregard for Babel, and injuries to Aquilani, Torres and Gerrard.

The question must be asked, what personnel – and in what system – will Roy choose? If pre-season and our early Europa League qualifier is anything to go by, it looks like Roy won’t sway far from Rafa’s previous model of 4-2-3-1, but it could be termed a more conventional, and Hodgson-like in his persistence of 4-4-1-1.

Paul Tomkins wrote in Well Red magazine, regarding his meetings with Rafa Benitez and the subsequent insights that he learned:

“..Benitez was keen to pass on tactical insights: the deployment of subtly different midfield formations and roles, etc, in different games – when to the untrained eye it looked like the Reds were playing the same system – specific jobs at set-pieces, the united movement of the back four and so on.”

Considering 4-2-3-1 is such a close deviation to Roy’s preferred system, it must be considered that so too did Rafa deploy the formation, albeit subtly, during his tenure at the club – maybe more often than what was noticed from fans and viewers. Perhaps it was when Aquilani and Lucas Leiva played together in the centre of midfield; Rafa pulled back the wide men, leaving Gerrard and the front striker high up the field. Against certain opposition, it may also have been used – with or without the deep lying defensive midfielder that is Javier Mascherano.

With the imminent departure of Mascherano, however, we are left with only three senior players who can play in the centre midfield role (two more if you include Jonjo Shelvey and Jay Spearing). To play either formation, it’s important Roy brings in a holding midfielder, but one as close to the defensive tune of Mascherano isn’t necessary – that is if Roy goes for a conventional flat four in midfield. It also depends greatly on which player, Aquilani or Lucas, does he want partnering the new signing. A number of names have been knocked around, if a replacement was to come don’t expect it to be an ultra defensive player.

Rafa's 4-3-3-1 and Roy's 4-4-1-1 are very similar

Illustrated is the 4-2-3-1 Rafa model, and the arrows indicate a transition into the Roy model used while at Fulham last season. The formations are nearly identical – however Roy would be more accustomed to playing reserved centre midfielders (Kagisho Dikgacoi and Danny Murphy). Early assumptions, therefore, is that this is the setup Roy will use at Liverpool this season.

Defensively, nothing will change, except arguably the left back position if there are developments on some of the rumours that have been said. The image above illustrates Fabio Aurelio and his previous number twelve, while Emiliano Insua now looks set to remain at the club after all.

At centre back, Roy will be happy to continue with Carragher and Agger, while Glen Johnson at right back is a no-brainer. Regarding back-up, Danny Wilson, Martin Skrtel, Martin Kelly and Soto Kyrgiakos (if he stays) are more than adequate. Martin Kelly (and of course Jamie Carragher) will provide suitable backup for Johnson, although Roy may consider another new signing if the price is right.

In my opinion, however, the line-up above isn’t our strongest with the personnel we have in the squad at the moment. It just fits to suit Steven Gerrard’s preferance of playing behind Fernando Torres, but in that setup he could be more potent and dangerous on the right in place of Dirk Kuyt. “On paper”, Joe Cole could be a better fit behind the frontman, with Gerrard on the right and Jovanovic playing on the left hand side. Jovanovic is just as hard working as Kuyt, and also fantastic in wide areas, is a bigger goal threat and has much better ability when on the ball. Another alternative would be put Aquilani behind Torres, Cole on the left and a possible Mascherano replacement in midfield. However, this is just talk of putting more of our best attacking options in the same team; nobody can let Glen Johnson attack like Dirk Kuyt, regarding the right back as another – equally dangerous – attacker.

There’s still some time away until Arsenal roll into Anfield to raise the Premier League curtains for another nine months, but the side is still taking shape. It’s been a long hard summer, but the squad could come out virtually in tact and with some nice improvements. Roy may sign a left back and a centre midfielder, while the rumoured Liverpool investment could lead to a bigger addition to the personnel before the transfer window shuts.

Overall, the formation that Roy is likely to choose is very strong. We are in the right position at the moment, and have the right players for his preferred system to work. There is even less to worry about now with Torres and Gerrard confirming they will stay on for another season. Unless a striker joins, I think it is very necessary we keep David Ngog at the club. He’s a very talented young striker, and it’d be a shame to see him go before reaching his maximum potential in a Red shirt. I also want to see Dani Pacheco stay and compete for a first team place, while Martin Kelly is another player we must keep hold of to provide extra depth in defence.

The line up has accounted for Aurelio at left back. Seeing as it’s Arsenal, some players won’t be as attacking natured as they’d usually be, but nonetheless the players marked in yellow would be our main attacking outlets, while the players marked in blue would be more defensive minded.

  • Article by Kevin Coleman, editor of Back Page Football.
  • More from This Is Anfield

    Fan Comments