Liverpool are just under two weeks away from their first Premier League clash of the season, and Jurgen Klopp can use this time to work on his new-look tactical setup.
It is a strange situation, with the first international break landing before the league campaign begins, but it is a reality clubs have been forced to accept.
“It’s really rare you have the perfect time to prepare for a specific game,” Klopp explained before the Community Shield, which served as an early season opener for the Reds.
“If you asked me how long would you like for pre-season, I would say ‘give me six weeks with the full squad, that would be great’.
“So we [were given] four weeks until the season starts, which will be slightly interrupted by international duties and all that stuff.”
It is an interruption, but Klopp added that he was simply “happy we can play at all” due to the safety measures across the globe, and unlike usual international breaks, the manager is at least boosted by fewer callups.
Only 12 first-team players have departed, with those representatives solely from Europe, as qualifiers in Africa, Asia and South America have all been, rather sensibly, postponed.
Liverpool will, therefore, continue to train at Melwood, and while Klopp will be without the core of his defence—Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are all on duty—it is arguably the “perfect time to prepare” for the season ahead.
For all intents and purposes, the Community Shield was another pre-season friendly, coming a fortnight before the start of the campaign against side whose 2019/20 season had only wrapped up four weeks previous.
But the roadblock Arsenal set out against the Reds was a warning for the months ahead, as though Klopp recently claimed he was “not sure if there can be a bigger target on our back than we already had,” every side will be looking to make things difficult for the champions.
It took a patient hour for Klopp to change things up against Mikel Arteta’s deep-sitting Gunners, but when he did, he pulled a surprise switch.
A struggling Neco Williams and a tiring James Milner were hooked as Naby Keita and Takumi Minamino entered the fray; Fabinho dropped to centre-back with Gomez shifting over to right-back.
Ahead of the back line, Liverpool moved to a 4-2-3-1 shape, with Keita and Gini Wijnaldum serving as a double pivot in midfield, Minamino on the left, Sadio Mane on the right and Roberto Firmino as the No. 10 behind Mohamed Salah.
While 4-2-3-1 is not a new system for the Reds, and in fact, it has been seen in some form every season since Klopp took over in 2015, this combination of players was particularly intriguing.
Sending on Keita and Minamino gave Liverpool two of their best players when it comes to working in tight spaces, while the altering of Firmino’s role allowed him to work his magic between the lines.
It took just 14 minutes for the change to pay off, as Firmino, Salah and Minamino combined to force their way through Arsenal‘s low block and onwards for the No. 18’s first goal for the club.
Prior to that double substitution, the Reds’ primary outlet was Robertson, and in that first hour, Liverpool attempted 17 crosses (one every three-and-a-half minutes), of which the Scot was responsible for nine.
After Klopp’s switch-up, only six more crosses were directed into the box (one every five minutes).
Five of those were from Robertson’s boot, but while previously it was effectively the only idea, instead the emphasis was now working through the middle.
It was not a 4-2-3-1 in the traditionally balanced sense; Minamino was more central than a typical left-sided attacker, while Keita was also able to push forward as Wijnaldum held more often.
Minamino’s tendency to drift towards the ‘D’ still gave Robertson the space to drive forward, and while in the opening hour there was a predictability to Liverpool’s approach, allowing Arsenal to suffocated the left, there was now a real variety.
Klopp and his backroom staff will have been working on these tactical tweaks since the Premier League took its enforced break back in March.
And while the likes of Van Dijk, Alexander-Arnold and Gomez being absent is a blow to their preparations, Liverpool can continue to work on this new system over the next two weeks at Melwood.
It is unlikely the Reds will change things drastically when it comes to their defensive efforts, and instead, this fortnight can allow the midfield and attack to develop new patterns of play.
Fortunately, of the six players furthest forward in Klopp’s 4-2-3-1 agaisnt Arsenal, only Wijnaldum is on international duty in September.
Keita, Mane, Firmino, Minamino and Salah have all been relinquished of their commitments away from Merseyside, as has Fabinho, who can take Wijnaldum’s place alongside Keita.
It would be no surprise to see this unit deployed in Liverpool’s planned pre-season friendly at Anfield, in the days leading up to the visit of Leeds on September 12.
Klopp can expect more sides to stifle the flanks in 2020/21, with it being a game plan that emerged more frequently against opponents both ‘big’ and ‘small’ in the second half of the title-winning campaign.
The response to this is, naturally, to funnel that industry and creativity through the central areas, with Minamino a linchpin within this new outlook.
“I don’t want to put, after one or two really good performances in the pre-season, massive pressure on his shoulders that there’s absolutely no need for,” Klopp stressed after the Japanese scored for the first time.
“We have a good football team and it’s difficult to come into the team anyway. But he is a player who is really useful for us, let me say it like this.
“It was not only the goal today. He is in between, he is really good in small spaces, his first touch is exceptional, then his decision-making between the lines is really quick. That helps as well.
“So, yes, he can be a real player for us—that was always clear.”
This will not be the case in every game, of course, but establishing a new approach in the 4-2-3-1 can give Klopp another option when he prepares for a variety of challenges during a ridiculously busy, shortened season.
It would also suit the qualities Thiago Alcantara would bring to Liverpool, if his expected switch to Merseyside from Bayern Munich comes to pass before October 5.
Thiago is a hugely flexible midfielder, but he was most regularly seen, and at his best, for Bayern as one of the two midfielders in a 4-2-3-1.
His assuring presence at the base of the midfield allowed Leon Goretzka to bomb forward, and this could be similarly true alongside Keita—particularly if, as it looks at this stage, Fabinho will be required to serve as fourth-choice centre-back at times.
When Fabinho is in midfield—which should be every game bar an injury crisis—Keita could even reprise the wide role he filled in previous iterations of Klopp’s 4-2-3-1, rotating in for Minamino.
For now, envisaging Thiago in any system for Liverpool remains little more than a fantasy, though, and the focus should be on the players already at Klopp’s disposal.
There are other options beyond those mentioned, with Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott chief among those, both having been left out of the England under-21s squad, which keeps them on Merseyside.
Heading into the season, it is a system that could also accommodate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, given he is rarely at his best in a natural wide role, and if he remains with Liverpool beyond the end of the transfer window, perhaps even Xherdan Shaqiri.
For now, though, Klopp can look ahead to the next two weeks working with the players whose qualities lend themselves best to this 4-2-3-1, and it could add a new weapon to the Reds’ armoury for 2020/21.