Joseph Kavaloski analyses how Liverpool’s fullbacks provided width in Jurgen Klopp’s 4-3-3 system.
Rather than adding further depth to each fullback spot in the summer transfer window, Jurgen Klopp decided to persevere with Nathaniel Clyne, James Milner, and Alberto Moreno as Liverpool’s wide options in the back four. This decision was much to the chagrin of many fans, but it has not had a material impact on the Reds’ performances thus far in 2016.
Obviously, having a solid player in each position is paramount for a team hoping to launch a top four challenge. However, these two spots are even more important in Klopp’s ultra-aggressive tactical system. As a result, the two fullbacks are expected to be almost box to box defensive players that can do everything for their side.
Unlike last season’s favored 4-2-3-1 formation, Klopp has implemented a 4-3-3 system to start the campaign. In a 4-3-3, there are traditionally two wing players on either side of the striker that help add width to the attack. In Klopp’s system, the front three are virtually interchangeable and drift throughout the attacking third. Sometimes this means that there are gaps of space left on the wings that the fullbacks are required to then fill.
When there is room vacated by a run from one of the front three attacking players, Milner or Clyne has to fill that space. In essence, the fullbacks become the wingers in the attacking system. It is not surprising that Milner and Clyne have created eight and six scoring chances respectively – stats which are comparable with Spurs winger Erik Lamela who has created nine.
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Being an integral part of an attacking system while also having significant defensive responsibilities is a very difficult role to excel in. Each fullback is often pushed far up the pitch, leaving significant space behind them in the event possession is given away. As a result, there is a lot of pressure on the Liverpool fullbacks to be accurate in their passing and deft in their touch so that possession is not squandered.
Milner’s passing accuracy of 88% is an accurate reflection of the excellent job he has done at left back. Clyne, on the other hand, has only completed 74% of his passes and at least one of these misplaced passes has directly led to a goal for the opposition (Burnley’s Sam Vokes).
Due to the attacking mindset of Klopp’s tactics, it is important for each player to be smart on the ball, but it is even more so for the fullbacks. Clyne and Milner rarely have any defensive support when in attack, and if they are the ones to make the mistake, opponents will most likely be exploiting the space left open behind them.
The fullbacks have a razor thin margin of error as Clyne learned against Burnley, and this is a product of Klopp’s ultra-aggressive attacking system. Usually, there are at least five players looking to push forward into attack, leaving only one midfielder to assist the back line. Plus, both fullbacks are expected to become makeshift wingers in certain situations, further weakening the Reds’ defense.
This leaves only two center backs and a holding midfielder to cover in the event of a counter attack. Both of Burnley’s goals were a direct result of how the lack of numbers at the back can lead to the Reds conceding too many easy goals. Defending is obviously important, but the Reds are notorious for pushing numbers forward and this can leave the defense woefully exposed. It is not a coincidence that each of the three goals conceded against Burnley and Spurs originated from the wings on counter-attacks.
Having to push forward and operate practically as wingers while also needing to provide cover at the back is an extremely difficult task. Clyne and Milner are well-known for their tremendous fitness levels, and this will need to be on display throughout the season if the Reds hope to begin working past their early season defensive woes.
Well-rounded fullbacks are always a hot commodity in modern football, but their importance is even more emphasized in Klopp’s unique system. The position needs a reliable player that can be a jack-of-all-trades technically while also having a tremendous positional awareness. Many fans may look at players such as Sadio Mane or Roberto Firmino as Liverpool’s most important players, but the two fullbacks should not be overlooked.
Clyne and Milner have tremendously important responsibilities at both ends of the pitch combined with razor thin margins of error. The Reds will need each of their English wide players to continue their excellent support in attack while building on their strong defensive performances against Leicester if the team hopes to challenge for a top four spot.
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