Liverpool beat Chelsea on Sunday and showcased a whole new way to play their 4-3-3 system. Two players, in particular, change everything.
Yes, Chelsea had ten men, but the way Liverpool played the second half on Sunday was fantastic. That’s despite their system still being a very obvious 4-3-3. Two players, however, allowed them to play in a new way – Fabinho and new £20m signing Thiago.
The old ways
Liverpool’s usual 4-3-3 is built around their attack and their defence. There are two athletic, sweeper centre-halves in between a prolific full-back duo. Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold provide width and creativity as Liverpool push up the pitch.
Then the front-three is arguably the best in the world. Roberto Firmino moves about to create space as a centre-forward and the two wide players use pace and direct running to attack the opposition goal.
So how does the midfield fit in? Well, really, they’re support players. Fabinho is an aggressive holding midfielder who looks to break up play and counter attacks – Liverpool paid £39m so he could shield an exposed defensive duo. Then the other two midfielders go where they’re needed.
They might cover the space the full-backs leave. They might bomb on past Firmino. Or they may stay in the middle and keep things tight. It all depends on where the others are.
And so Liverpool have won the Champions League and Premier League by playing through full-backs and wingers, essentially.
And the new
Things changed against Chelsea, though. Thiago came on for the injured Jordan Henderson and with Fabinho already in defence, the feel was different.
For one, they played through the middle with Thiago. The Spaniard had 88 touches in the game, more than any other midfielder or forward, despite only playing the second half.
The result was a highly possession-based system. That’s new for Liverpool but the advantages were obvious. They never looked panicked against a very deep defence and were perfectly comfortable biding their time and knocking it about.
Thiago was effectively in the holding-role, meaning he was able to move from side to side in his own space. He was always available and a permanent passing outlet.
Usually, that would have left Liverpool vulnerable to counter-attacks. Thiago isn’t a defensive midfielder, after all, and his job isn’t to break up play. Fortunately, Fabinho was in defence.
Fabinho played centre-half exactly as he plays defensive-midfielder – stepping out, winning tackles and breaking up play. That’s incredibly high-risk as if he misses a tackle, the opposition are through. He’s the covering centre-half, after all.
Now, Fabinho did miss three tackles and there were a few shaky moments. But on the whole, it worked. He won four interceptions – as many as the rest of the team combined – and four tackles, the most in the side.
Such an aggressive defender means Thiago doesn’t have to break up play quite as much. He did manage a tackle and interception of his own, however.
And while it is high-risk to have Fabinho stepping out like that, the advantages going forward are just too good. Liverpool looked so comfortable in this system, so patient and in control. They didn’t need to play out wide and instead, the Reds could move the ball about in front of a team with absolute comfort.
That’s with Thiago only being at the club for two days, too. Once he’s fully settled, things will only get better.
This was all against a good Chelsea team, too. Liverpool won’t face many better counter-attacking units all season and if they can look this comfortable against the Blues, it bodes well for lesser teams.
Yes, this was the same 4-3-3 system that Liverpool usually play. But Thiago and Fabinho, together, allow them to play it in an exciting new way.