Liverpool 2-0 Stoke: Dalglish switches to a three-man defence

February 3, 2011

The starting line-ups

Raul Meireles and Luis Suarez scored the goals as Liverpool eased to victory.

Kenny Dalglish named an interesting team, with Luis Suarez on the bench and Dirk Kuyt upfront alone.

Tony Pulis played a 4-5-1 shape – John Carew made his full debut.

First, it’s difficult to know how much to read into this Liverpool system. The use of a three-man defence is extremely unusual in the Premier League – this was the first time a true three-man defence has been used in 2010/11 by any side (drawing a distinction between three- and five-man defences), and in that respect, it was a very interesting decision.


On the other hand, there’s also a feeling (as Liverpool journalist Paul Tomkins put forward last night) that the formation was used primarily because Dalglish wanted to get more height in the side. This wouldn’t be the first time this season  a manager has done something specific to deal with Stoke’s threat from set-pieces – when Manchester United played them earlier this season, Sir Alex Ferguson played Patrice Evra on the left of midfield, in order to get more height in the side with the use of John O’Shea at left-back. It wasn’t indicative of a long-term strategy – Evra hasn’t played at left midfield since, and Dalglish might not play three at the back after this.

As it turned out, the height wasn’t as important as one might have expected. Rory Delap was only a substitute, so Stoke possessed little threat from throws, whilst Pulis’ side didn’t win a single corner.

Formation match-up

The game was interesting, however. Pulis chose to use a 4-5-1 rather than a 4-4-2 formation, which, as discussed before, often gives the side with a three-man defence a bit of a problem – they’re overstocked at the back (3 v 1) which is fine defensively, but leaves a shortfall somewhere else on the pitch. Liverpool had the benefit of Daniel Agger being comfortable on the ball and able to move into midfield successfully, whilst Martin Skrtel did similarly with less impact.

Liverpool were effectively using four central midfielders in addition to two wing-backs, and they dominated possession (although any side playing any formation generally dominates possession against Stoke). Steven Gerrard and Raul Meireles played reasonably high up the pitch, which pushed Salif Diao and Marc Wilson back, and opened up the rest of the central midfield zone for Fabio Aurelio and Lucas Leiva to patrol, with only Dean Whitehead sporadically closing them down. As a result, they kept possession easily there, with both Aurelio and Lucas ending with an 89% pass completion rate.

Lack of chances

The forward pass was sometimes more difficult, however, and both Gerrard and Meireles came deep to pick up the ball, leaving Dirk Kuyt isolated and lacking support. For his part, Kuyt had an excellent game and held the ball up very well throughout, but that hold-up play has to be combined with midfield runners, and in the first half Liverpool were too slow to get up the pitch towards him, and took until the 36th minute to test Asmir Begovic.

Defensively, Liverpool were simply better prepared for the game in terms of tracking runners and knowing their individual roles. Communication was good between the wing-backs and the back three, with Glen Johnson and Martin Kelly passing on the responsibility of the Stoke wingers at the correct points. When it was the reverse situation, Stoke looked baffled when it came to dealing with wing-backs – their wide midfielders tracked Johnson and Kelly very deep and Stoke often ended up with two right-backs or two left-backs. Kelly had a better game than Johnson – but then he was on his natural side and could overlap more comfortably, whilst Johnson kept coming inside into the centre of the pitch where Liverpool had enough players already. When playing this system, the wing-backs do need to stay wide to stretch the opposition.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Stoke were pretty poor, and had a similar problem with a lack of support for Carew. He competed well with the Liverpool back three, winning six from 10 headers, but couldn’t do it all on his own. Stoke’s real area to exploit was in their own full-back position – with Liverpool playing no natural wingers, they had time on the ball and space in front of them – but too often they simply hit the ball long, summed up by Danny Higginbotham’s chalkboard.

by Guardian Chalkboards

Second half

Liverpool produced relatively little early in the second half, though Meireles gave them the lead when he smashed the ball into the net following a blocked Steven Gerrard free-kick.

Suarez’s introduction for Aurelio pushed Gerrard deeper and made Liverpool 3-4-1-2, with Suarez upfront with Kuyt, and Pulis responded by going 4-3-3, with Ricardo Fuller on the left and Jermaine Pennant on the right either side of Carew. This was the correct move to try and counter a three-/five- man defence as it results in one of (a) the centre-backs being drawn wide, (b) the wing-backs being pushed back or (c) neither, and the players being left unmarked.

However, it wasn’t a particularly brave 4-3-3, with Pennant still expected to track back and help out defensively. Telling Pennant and Fuller to stay high up against the Liverpool defensive line on the touchlines for the final 20 minutes would have been a much more interesting approach.

Suarez got a goal on his debut from a ball over the top (and thanks to a terrible offside line) to seal the victory.


The new formation worked well for Liverpool – although they rarely looked certain to break the deadlock at 0-0, they were clearly the better side. The specifics of the formation are less important than the news that Dalglish is willing to change his tactics and strategy to suit individual opponents.

Stoke were disappointing – Pulis left it late to change things, and they didn’t test Pepe Reina until the 80th minute.

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