It's taken about, oh, half a season for Liverpool to look anything like the free-flowing, attacking side that should've won the Premier League last season, but if Monday's 4-1 dismantling of Swansea is anything to go by, they might've finally gotten back to their best.
This match was easily their best league performance of the season, and one that might actually imply better things to come. For much of this season, Liverpool have looked completely broken. They started off as a nominally attacking team with forwards that couldn't score, one trying to get intelligent, focused defensive positioning from a bunch of defenders with all of the discipline of a fifth grade class on the last day of school.
Offensively, they were caught between playing the style that suited them so well the previous year but without the services of the two players who made it work—the departed Luis Suárez and the injured Daniel Sturridge—and trying to adapt to the new reality with a more static striker in either Mario Balotelli or Rickie Lambert. Defensively, they hoped that new signings like Dejan Lovren, Alberto Moreno, and Javier Manquillo, thrown in with Martin Skrtel—the one consistently good defender on the roster last season—could solidify what was even then a shaky defense as well as provide more impetus on both sides of the ball with improved play at the full back positions.
Instead, Liverpool have looked like a mess. Balotelli and, to a lesser extent, Lambert didn't offer the off-ball movement, interplay, and general versatility of last year's strikers, which made the team look like a collection of individuals each going it alone with little coordination. What was once an attack like a collection of whirling blades, all constantly flying inside and out, any one of which could inflict the fatal blow, now resembled a quiver of dull arrows, shot one at a time towards goal, easily thwarted by the most rudimentary of shields. Coming into the Swansea match, the team that last season averaged 2.5 goals per game was scoring at less than half that rate.
Muddling through a dud of what was supposed to be at least another Champions League-qualifying season and sitting squarely in the middle of table in December meant manager Brendan Rodgers felt the first serious heat on his position as coach since he's been in charge. In this environment, he tried something drastic. Instead of the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 formations he'd used for much of the season, Rodgers reverted to the 3-4-3 he implemented during much of the last campaign, with one significant twist: in the central attacking position, he played Raheem Sterling.
This version of the 3-4-3 first reared its head in the Reds' rivalry match against Manchester United. Sure, United finished the match 3-0 victors, quite easily slicing through Liverpool's defense, but there were some definite positives. For one, like in so many of United's recent wins, they were fortunate to walk away with all three points. Liverpool were not out-played as badly as the scoreline suggested, and but for David De Gea's Stretch Armstrong flappers, would've scored at least a couple goals. What the new formation gave up in patient possession and tempo control, it more than made up for in dangerous counters and good looks on goal.
Each successive match lent more support to the idea that Rodgers's tinkering could work. Both the 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal and the 1-0 win against Burnley demonstrated the Reds' less-than-fortress-like defense and inability to consistently finish their chances, but nevertheless, there was improvement. The team was a lot more dangerous in attack, creating good scoring on the break, with intricate one-twos and through balls, and on set pieces. Liverpool threatened defenses in all phases of attack, something they couldn't say for much of the season.
Monday's clinic against a fairly good Swansea team is what should really give hope. The entire front three of Sterling, Adam Lallana, and Philippe Coutinho played brilliantly, the midfield looked very solid and controlled the match when in possession and without the ball, and the defense didn't find itself caught out of position so regularly (hey, small steps).
Rodgers is an attacking coach, so the look of the team going forward is probably what most excited him. Even though he didn't manage to score, Sterling was still the key factor to everything Liverpool did in the opponent's half. He offered a quick option behind the defense by testing the space behind center backs with his speed, combined with and switched places with the other members of the front three, which dragged the Swans' defenders all over the place, and did a better job of making his chances count when he did find himself in the box with the ball at his feet. (Again, he didn't score, but he did hit the woodwork twice.) With his dribbling, movement, and passing while in central positions, Sterling has been doing a fairly convincing Sturridge impression these past handful of games.
The biggest beneficiary of the new system has been Adam Lallana. Monday was his best match in Liverpool's colors. He scored twice and was overall the game's best player. The 3-4-3 allows the former Southampton attacking midfielder to line up a little narrower than the winger role he's been relegated to for most of his time at the club, which allows him to exert more influence over proceedings. Lallana is a creative player but he's neither a traditional winger no a central playmaker. He's at his best drifting around, dribbling past markers, hunting for space wherever it may be, and playing the ball to teammates who've found the space his looping runs have opened up.
Here's a map of all of Lallana's touches, via WhoScored.com, in Liverpool's December 6th match against Sunderland, where he played on the right side of a 4-2-3-1:
He stayed pretty much on the wing, coming more centrally every now and then.
Now, here's a map of his touches in the Swansea match, where he popped up all over the pitch:
In this setup, Lallana is free to come inside from the touchlines, secure in the knowledge that one of the wing backs will push up to provide width, and to jaunt all around and through the attacking third, knowing Sterling and Coutinho will compensate by making collaborative runs of their own. Should any of these front three be asked to support Balotelli in the middle, for instance, they'd know that their positional discipline would be more of a factor, since Balo wants to always be at the center of things, only content when he has the option to shoot himself or to flick a backheel off to a supporting player's run, most likely for them to feed the ball back to him for a shot. That team would have to work for Balotelli. This team allows all the forwards to work for each other.
As improved as the front three have looked, there would be no way to facilitate the forwards' roles without the midfield. Against Swansea, Rodgers started with Jordan Henderson and Lucas Leiva in the center of midfield, and the two played formidably. Often in formations with a back three, central midfielders unfamiliar with the particulars of the formation get confused about their role. They either play as auxiliary defenders, too nervous about exposing the back three when the wing backs push forward to support the attack, or they play as attacking midfielders, pushing higher up the pitch than they should and leaving the team susceptible to counters.
Leiva and Henderson had no such problems. Throughout the match, there was a clear delineation between defense, defensive midfield, midfield, attacking midfield, and the forward line. There was usually at least one player present in every layer of the field, which preserved the correct amount of spacing as well as offering a simple passing option to the player on the ball. Manchester United, for instance, have at times struggled when playing with their back three formation, with either no support for the forwards, causing them to drop too deep to pick up the ball, or too many men too far up field, leaving defenders or a lone deep-lying midfielder exposed to be pressured and dispossessed without cover.
(We should also mention that Liverpool's best 3-4-3 performance came with both of Steven Gerrard's nonfunctioning legs parked safely on the bench. Possible coincidence, but probably not.)
Liverpool's defenders also finally put on a better display. Moreno and Manquillo look a lot better as wing backs, since they are both practically wingers anyway. Mamadou Sakho's greatest strength—his passing—is well suited to carrying the ball a little further up the pitch and finding a teammate, Emre Can too was able to use his both his passing and the defensive abilities honed in his regular position in defensive midfield to good effect in the back three, and Skrtel wasn't asked to do much more than stand around and clear the ball away when it came close to him. This was a complete team performance, something Liverpool have rarely mustered all year.
The good thing about this wide-open (at least in terms of positions 3-7) season is that even now, halfway through the year, there is still so much to play for. There's no chance Chelsea or City fall out of the top four, but the next two Champions League spots are anybody's. Whichever of the UCL hopefuls play the best in the new year will earn it.
Though Liverpool have had a pretty disappointing first half, armed with their new formation, there's no reason why they can't still push for the top. They'll need to improve on their finishing, find their strongest defensive combination, and hope Arsenal and United don't strengthen too much in the January window, but continue playing like they did against Swansea and this season can still end up a success.