With Jurgen Klopp conceding that Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Man City was not the last time he will use his 4-4-2, Jason Hughes believes Thiago and Naby Keita could benefit.
Klopp’s decision to field a 4-4-2 system, which quickly sprang into a 4-2-4 when the Reds regained possession, raised pulses and eyebrows in equal measure prior to kickoff at the Etihad.
The 4-3-3 has been a staple of the German’s tactical approach over the last few years, and a change in shape for a trip to a top-six rival is virtually unprecedented.
However, the manager’s gamble paid off and the system provided Liverpool with a solid defensive shape that allowed them to counter-attack at speed, with Klopp’s new-look front four threatening to run riot during the game’s opening exchanges.
Nevertheless, with the Reds struggling to feed their forward line in the second half, there is cause to argue that Klopp should turn to former Bundesliga duo Thiago and Keita to strike the balance between defence and attack in the double pivot.
Defensively stable but thwarted in midfield
The success of Klopp’s tactical gamble was demonstrated by the extent to which City’s attack was nullified throughout the game, with the hosts registering just two shots on target and creating only two big chances, including a dubiously awarded penalty.
For context, in their previous four visits to the Etihad, Liverpool conceded 5.75 shots per game on average.
In fact, this latest meeting saw Guardiola’s men record their lowest number of non-penalty expected goals at home to Liverpool during the Spaniard’s reign.
Their total of just 0.63 represents a significant defensive improvement for the Reds, with previous visits seeing the home side registering tallies between 1.06 and 2.47.
The switch to a 4-4-2 therefore provided Liverpool with a solid defensive platform, characterised by tireless pressing and the intelligent cutting off of passing lanes to prevent City playing penetrating balls into the final third.
Meanwhile, the system also allowed Liverpool to field their exciting attacking foursome, and while the forwards were perhaps not at their clinical best, they were nevertheless able to find space repeatedly throughout the first half, posing a serious threat to City’s back line.
However, as the game progressed Guardiola’s side increasingly cut off the passing lanes into the front four and Liverpool became unable to pass effectively through the midfield, with Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum often finding themselves without a forward passing option.
This pattern was evidenced by the fact that Liverpool recorded just 21 successful passes into the final third during the second half, having made 38 in the first half, and increasingly resorted to speculative long balls, of which just 12 out of an attempted 40 were successful.
Therefore, while both Henderson and Wijnaldum put in immense performances, showcasing their tireless work rate and tactical nous, Klopp may choose to pair one of them with a different type of midfielder in order to truly unlock the attacking potential of his front four.
If the 4-4-2 is to become a regular weapon in Liverpool’s arsenal then striking the balance between defensive solidity and progressive play in the midfield will be key to its success, particularly against teams who seek to stifle the Reds’ attacking threat.
Whoever Klopp deploys in his double pivot must be able to meet the physical and tactical demands of the role, however they must also be able to play quick, penetrative passes in order to utilise the front four’s counter-attacking ability and negate the numerical disadvantage in the middle of the park.
The player perhaps most suited to this specification is Thiago, who starred in a double pivot for Bayern Munich last season.
Thiago‘s progressive passing was amongst the best in Europe during this period, recording 13.68 progressive passes per 90.
The Spain international’s ability to play line-breaking passes from deep would add a different dimension to the Reds’ midfield pairing and could be key to creating chances for the front four to wreak havoc on opposition defences.
Furthermore, while the Reds’ No. 6 may not boast the engine that Henderson and Wijnaldum do, his defensive contributions in the Bundesliga last season suggest that he possesses the tactical awareness required to fulfil his defensive duties in the double pivot.
For instance, Thiago won 2.3 of his 3.4 attempted tackles per 90 last season, a figure that would have been the sixth-highest in the Liverpool squad.
The Spaniard also made 2.3 interceptions per 90, more than any Liverpool midfielder.
Thiago’s combination of defensive nous and progressive passing could therefore allow him to slot into Klopp’s 4-4-2 upon his return to fitness, in doing so allowing the Reds to play through the centre of the pitch more effectively.
Another midfielder who has the skill-set required to thrive in Klopp’s new tactical setup is the enigmatic Keita, who regularly featured in a similar 4-2-2-2 setup at RB Leipzig, where he arguably produced the most consistent form of his career so far.
Keita’s rare ability to ally supreme skill on the ball with intelligent pressing could see him flourish in the all-action role that Henderson and Wijnaldum were tasked with at the Etihad.
The Guinea international undoubtedly possesses the intelligence and aggression required to quickly break up play in the middle of the park, creating counter-attacking opportunities for the front four.
Keita’s front-footed defensive style is showcased by the fact he won 3.3 tackles per 90 in the league last term, second only to Adam Lallana in the Liverpool squad.
While this willingness to press high would have to be tempered whilst playing in a double pivot, Naby’s impressive ground duel success rate of 65 percent suggests he knows when to press and when to drop off.
Crucially however, Keita is also able to break defensive lines with his ball-carrying ability, an attribute that could be key to breaking down teams who seek to cut off the passing lanes into the front four, as City did.
The Reds’ No. 8 completed 2.5 dribbles per 90 during the 2019/20 Premier League season, the highest figure achieved by any Liverpool player who featured in five or more games, boasting a success rate of 86 percent.
If Klopp continues to field a double pivot, then Keita’s ability to bypass the opposition press could therefore be key to negating Liverpool’s numerical disadvantage in the midfield, allowing them to release the front four on a more regular basis.
A new lighthouse
With Fabinho likely to be required to fill in at centre-back at times this season it may be that Klopp turns to the 4-4-2 system more regularly in the absence of his midfield ‘lighthouse’.
If this is to be the case, then the energy and discipline of Henderson or Wijnaldum will continue to be crucial to the system’s success.
However, with opposition teams likely to try and cut off obvious routes into the front four, Thiago’s line-breaking passes or Keita’s press breaking dribbling could the key to unlocking Liverpool’s new-look attack.
The caveat there, of course, is fitness – but with both returning to action and likely primed for a focal role after the international break, it may not be long before Anfield sees Thiago, Keita or both in the 4-4-2.
* This is a guest article for This Is Anfield. If you’d like to contribute a piece for consideration please see this page. Follow Jason on Twitter, @Jason_Hughes66.