When Virgil van Dijk went down injured against Everton, many Liverpool fans feared the worst for their season’s prospects.
Not only was Van Dijk the best centre-back in the world, but he was (along with Alisson) the lynchpin of Liverpool’s approach to the vast majority of games over the past two seasons where they finished second and first with a total of 196 points.
Liverpool set up to be solid at the back, hard to score against, and then took just enough risks in attack that his world-class forward line could get him enough goals needed to win. It was an incredibly successful formula but it falls to pieces without Van Dijk.
Even with the Dutchman, Liverpool had begun to change this season as Jurgen Klopp attempted to stave off the complacency that always dogs serial winners like Liverpool. So the Reds were playing much higher up the pitch, pressing more intensely and trusting that Van Dijk and Alisson could handle whatever problems arose at the back.
But again, without Van Dijk that simply does not work. Liverpool cannot build off their defence without the dominant Dutchman. So, what does Klopp do? Why, build off Liverpool’s second-best unit of course: the attack.
Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino are one of the best front threes in world football (if not the best). The forwards all have a superb chemistry with each other and their skill-sets are delightfully complementary both to each other and, even more importantly, Klopp’s style of play. They are fabulous.
This summer, Liverpool signed Diogo Jota. A player who, at first glance, appeared to be a back-up to said front three. But peer beneath the surface and you start to realise that Jota’s profile is remarkably similar to that of Firmino and Mané when they joined Liverpool. Talented, yes, but nobody was tipping them to be a world-beater.
Put them into Liverpool’s system however and, well, Diogo Jota started his Liverpool career with seven goals in 10 games, including a devastating hat-trick away to Atalanta when he replaced Firmino in the starting XI. Now for the weekend’s big game with Manchester City, there was no way Firmino, the player Klopp once described as “always world-class,” was going to miss out. But how do you drop Jota after that hat-trick?
The answer is, you don’t.
You build from the front and play all of them. You unleash the whirlwind. Pull Firmino back into the No.10 role, free Salah to play up-front and put Jota in his spot on the right. “We wanted to use the skills and the power of the four up front in specific moments to cause City problems,” said Klopp after the game.
This shape makes Liverpool more difficult to defend, it makes their press more ferocious and makes them defensively robust, too, because it puts the two hardest workers (Mané and Jota) out wide, so it becomes almost impossible for Liverpool’s full-backs to get exposed by two-v-ones as the Reds’ wingers are always tracking back.
Furthermore, it makes Firmino’s inexplicable lack of goals much less of a problem as he is withdrawn into a facilitation role. He didn’t create a chance or have a shot at the Etihad but that didn’t hold the Reds back because he was a constant link between midfield and attack, making full use of his spatial awareness to make key well-timed passes and flicks that kept attacks moving.
Liverpool flew out of the blocks at the Etihad and torched the City defence repeatedly, opening the scoring with a penalty. City fought their way back into the game but they had to be operating at the peak of their powers to live with the ferocity of the Liverpool performance.
Most teams Liverpool play will not be as good as Manchester City, most will simply be overrun by the quality that Liverpool can put out — as Klopp confirmed when he said: “When you can do it against City then you can do it against other teams as well,” before adding: “It will not be our new, all-the-time formation, but there are moments when we might use it.
“Usually people know which system we play, that’s now water under the bridge.
“From now on we can play three or four different systems, which is good, and it worked really well. […] The other thing is that we all like to prepare a game in the way that we know exactly what the opponent is doing and Pep, I don’t think he knew we would play 4-4-2.
“It’s not important but it needed a while for City to adapt to it, that was the plan.”
So, don’t expect to see this cross between a 4-4-2 and 4-2-3-1 all the time, but it’s clearly a weapon Klopp is prepared to use in the biggest of games. And that is going to be absolutely thrilling to watch unfold as the Reds cock back and unload on their biggest rivals. A throwback to the ‘heavy metal football’ that Klopp made his name on. Perhaps not as successful as the juggernaut they had become, but certainly more entertaining.
Liverpool’s fabulous front three has become a Fab Four; here comes the fun (doo-doo-doodoo)!