The aftermath of Virgil van Dijk’s injury in the Merseyside Derby has been extensive. From the scrutiny of VAR official David Coote, through to analysis of Jordan Pickford’s previous recklessness. No matter which side of the discussion you’re on, there is no denying that it has blown Liverpool’s and the rest of the Premier League’s season wide open.Embed from Getty Images
One of the biggest questions being asked is where do Liverpool go from here? Jürgen Klopp now has two fit senior centre backs in Joe Gomez and Joël Matip (along with makeshift defender Fabinho) at his disposal. However, none of these options come close to the influence and calmness that Van Dijk gives the Reds’ backline. One suggestion that has been brought up is a switch to the formation that made Klopp a Borussia Dortmund legend. The 4231.
To say that Klopp is familiar with the 4231 formation is a huge understatement. He built one of Europe’s most exciting teams of the last decade using it. In a seven-year spell in front of the Yellow Wall, Klopp’s men won two Bundesliga titles, a DFB-Pokal and a had a memorable run to the Champions League final in 2013. Jürgen’s team in that final looked like this:
This team was beaten in dramatic fashion by fellow compatriots Bayern. Nevertheless, their impression and impact on football was felt throughout Europe. It was because of this team and the style of their play that Gegenpressing became a common and well-known concept in every football fan’s mind.
The team set up with Łukasz Piszczek as the more attack-minded full back, with Marcel Schmelzer operating slightly more defensively but still possessing an offensive threat throughout. This is not dissimilar to Liverpool’s current full back situation. While Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold both have a very high offensive output (31 goals and assists combined in the league alone last season), Alexander-Arnold is seen as the more attacking of the two. Robertson, however, is often left as the covering full back, using his pace to cover for the two central defenders.
The two centre backs, Mats Hummels and Neven Subotić, both offered different strengths to the side. Hummels was the more assured, ball playing defender. Whereas Subotić was tasked with the more traditional responsibilities of a central defender. It is yet to be determined as to who Klopp will choose as his first choice pairing at the back. But with Matip’s injury history, it’s possible that the duo that performed so well in the victory away to Ajax will continue to develop their partnership.
Both Gomez and Fabinho are more than comfortable on the ball. They enjoy driving forward into midfield, as does Matip to great effect. This is of huge benefit to the Reds. It allows them multiple options when playing out from the back, especially when trying to beat the press.
In the middle of the park were two high energy defensive midfielders in Ìlkay Gündogan and Sven Bender. Both, however, were tasked with very different responsibilities.Embed from Getty Images
Bender was the all-energy, endlessly pressing midfielder, who would provide cover for the attacking full back duo. This is a role that Jordan Henderson could thrive in. The captain provides the energy, defensive positioning and tactical awareness for this position.
Gündogan was instructed to be the ball-playing midfielder, always available for the pass, winning the ball back and the distributing it to the attacking quartet ahead of him. Step forward, Thiago Alcântara. Everything that Klopp asked of Gündogan is everything that Thiago excels at. In his first two games at Liverpool, the Spanish international boasts a 91% pass accuracy rate. Meanwhile, his tackle success rate in his last season in Germany was 67% – higher than any Reds midfielder managed last season.
The attacking quartet of the Dortmund team was exhilarating. With a young Robert Lewandowski spearheading the attack, supported by the exciting talents of Mario Götze, Marco Reus and Jakub Błasczcykowski, the team would average 2.35 goals a game in their title-winning 2011/12 season.
However, unlike the similarity of players in the full back and defensive midfield positions, Liverpool’s attack operates considerably differently. Whereas Dortmund had Lewandowski playing as a traditional, goal-scoring number 9, Liverpool’s central attacking player is Roberto Firmino. A converted attacking midfielder tasked with supporting the more potent wide duo of Sadio Mané and Mohamed Salah as a false 9.
A traditional, goal-scoring striker is perhaps the one thing that the Liverpool squad lacks. The closest player to that skillset would be Divock Origi. A player that has seemingly fallen far down the pecking order, relegated to Carabao and FA Cup minutes.Embed from Getty Images
One benefit this system could bring is hiding Firmino’s recent attacking shortcomings by playing him in the number 10 position behind a striker. This would allow him to focus on what he shines at – pressing the defence and receiving the ball from deep and transitioning it forward. Firmino has lacked the killer edge in the last third for a while now. Taking that attacking burden from him might allow him to stop overthinking his play.
It could also potentially benefit Liverpool’s attacking reserve – all of who were subbed on in the 1-0 win in Amsterdam. Takumi Minamino, Diogo Jota and Xherdan Shaqiri have an abundance of talent. But they are not always given the significant game time to showcase it (this is something Klopp seems to be changing in this hectic season).
By losing a central midfielder and adding another attacking option to the starting XI, it will allow one of the three (mostly likely Jota based on recent form) to be in the team from the start. This would make the team much more attacking. In theory, this will bring more goals and perhaps a return to the free scoring teams of the past. Rather than the more pragmatic approach Klopp adopted for much of last season.
It’s not surprising that the biggest weakness with Klopp’s Dortmund was the defence. In the 2013 Champions League final reaching season, they conceded an average of 1.24 goals per game in the league. For context, Liverpool’s average was 0.87 per game in the title-winning campaign of 2019/20.
It was a reputation that Jürgen brought with him to Anfield. It was one that proved true in his first few seasons on Merseyside. There were doubts surrounding his abilities to build a defence, that his teams would look to outscore opponents with “heavy metal football” rather than take the more pragmatic approach. This changed after a heavy defeat at Wembley to Tottenham and then the arrival of Van Dijk.
Liverpool’s defence has become less stable since the return of football from the enforced COVID-19 break. With the return of the 4231 against Sheffield United, it saw the opposition have lots of space on the wings as Wijnaldum and Henderson struggled to manage the space in the middle. For this formation to be successful, further protection from the wingers will be required.
Drastically changing the system because of an injury to one player is not something that many managers would do lightly. Especially one that trusts his system as much as Klopp. But Virgil van Dijk isn’t just one player to this team. He is in many ways the defence. This is also not just a different system. It is one Klopp developed and worked on for years, and one that he has sporadically used at Anfield.
The formation was tried in the home win against Sheffield United, resulting in a 2-1 win. However, the performance left a lot to be desired. As previously mentioned, the wide players of United were often left with a lot of space. Going forward, Klopp will look to ensure that the wingers are always available to assist the full backs.
There were positives to take from the performance too. Jota was excellent and a 4231 seems to be the way forward in order to incorporate him alongside the front three. The formation can not be judged on one game alone, especially when the side still has players such as Matip, Thiago and Keïta to come back and fight for places. It should also be noted that the next few weeks (and perhaps a lot of this season) will be figuring out life without Virgil van Dijk. This is just one system that can be used in his absence.Embed from Getty Images
Going forward, this is a formation that is expected to be used again by the Reds. It is perhaps most effective against teams that will utilise a low block and try and stifle Liverpool’s attacking players. This system would allow four extremely high quality attacking players to go at teams. With the knowledge they have the protection of players such as Jordan Henderson and Thiago Alcântara behind them, it is a formation that is guaranteed entertainment.