Tactics Tuesday: Liverpool’s 3-5-1-1

It takes a truly maverick manager these days to break with the entrenched idea that a formation must include 4 defenders. Fiddle with strikers and midfielders, the current dogma goes, but that backline of 4 is untouchable. Perhaps several years out of the professional spotlight gave new Liverpool boss Kenny Dalglish just the right outsider outlook to break with convention and start a 3-5-1-1 (a modified 3-5-2) against Stoke City and, more impressively, defending EPL champions Chelsea. His willingness to experiment landed Liverpool a dominant 2-0 victory over Stoke and a remarkable 1-0 triumph over Chelsea.

Perhaps anticipating that Chelsea skipper Carlo Ancelotti would tweak his formation to get newly acquired striker Fernando Torres into the lineup without sacrificing either Didier Drogba or Nicolas Anelka, Dalglish unleashed a stroke of genius that was the perfect counter to the 4-3-1-2 Chelsea unveiled.

The teams' basic shapes, along with Liverpool's key midfielders


To begin with, Dalglish’s formation meant each of Chelsea’s strikers was always marked by a center back—a bit of simple math perhaps inspired by the genius of former Chile manager Marcelo Bielsa (employ one more center back than the opposition has strikers). Additionally, Dalglish’s formation also matched Chelsea’s numbers in the middle, but it was the outward runs of Steven Gerrard and Maxi Rodriguez that won the match.

With the central midfield heavily congested, there was room to spare on the wing, though Chelsea didn’t seem to acknowledge the extra space.  Liverpool, in contrast, almost seemed to ignore the middle. Observe that Chelsea’s passing chalkboard is just as dense in the middle as on the wings.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Liverpool clearly made an effort to push down the flanks. They were rewarded when Gerrard drifted to the right, curled in a cross, and Meireles latched onto the service at the far post.

In Defense

Here is the true genius of a 3-5-1-1/3-5-2: what appears to reflect blatant attacking football is actually extremely conservative. The 3-5-2 was originally an attack-minded formation, but, in recent years, it’s almost solely been used by teams with a pack-it-in mentality. Liverpool, to the delight of neutral fans, wasn’t wholly in the throes of the latter mindset. But after they scored, they did drop almost everyone behind the ball—evolving into a virtual 5-4-1 that would make even Jose Mourinho raise an eyebrow in appreciation.

Implications for the USMNT

The 3-5-2 was a perfect match for Liverpool’s needs against Chelsea. The question is, does Bob Bradley have the right personnel to make this shifty and deceiving formation work for the USA? First of all, it wouldn’t work with Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey as the wingbacks. Donovan probably isn’t big enough to deal with opposing fullbacks and Dempsey doesn’t have the speed to constantly shift from defense to attack throughout a match. Both these USMNT veterans would need to take on more central midfield or attacking roles (see diagram).

Ironically, such a formation might lend itself to a player on the fringe—Jonathan Bornstein. Many may not remember that he wasn’t originally a fullback; he began his career as a striker. Bornstein’s fast, can play defense and possesses the ability to attack. He’d make a nice left wingback in this formation. On the right, why not consider an FFG fave, Stuart Holden? He’s full of hustle, not afraid to support the attack, and currently leads the English Premier League in tackles attempted.

A 3-5-2 would force Bradley to rethink some personnel decisions, and likely push Donovan and Dempsey to more central roles

What do you say, gringos—is the 3-5-2 an insanely perfect fit for the USA? Or is it ludicrous to even consider such a formation?

3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Blake Owen says:

    Holden as a wingback would be a really intriguing experiment. His industry and defensive acumen would couple well with his pinpoint crosses.

    But I don’t think I’d like to see a 3-5-2 as a base formation, though it’d be great to switch to it late in matches against teams using two strikers – assuming the US is ahead at that point.

  2. Stephen says:

    Thank you for noting the change in play under Dalglish. It has worked out well for the Reds as they are able to incorporate their best 11 (except Lucas) since they are stacked with defenders that are in form as of late. My favorite 3-5-2 formation was Englands 98 WC team.

    • bensten says:

      Yes, it seems like the perfect setup for Liverpool’s current personnel. It would be interesting to go back and watch some footage of the 98 England squad and compare.

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