May 25, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Martinez and 3-4-3: A Way Forward for Liverpool?

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Having flown to Miami to meet John Henry, Roberto Martinez now looks odds-on favourite to be appointed Liverpool’s new manager. Young, adept at pulling off value for money transfers and more likely to accept limitations on his role than a more established manager might be, he seems the perfect fit for what FSG are looking for.

Another bonus to appointing the Spaniard is the tactical acumen which has seen him save Wigan from the drop three seasons running and earn plaudits for his use of experimental formations, particularly a flexible and attacking 3-4-3.

Martinez is not the first to use the formation; Napoli play with a variation of it in Italy, and Barcelona have experimented with it in the past, but how might it translate to the current Liverpool squad?

 

The Key to 3-4-3

The most important positions in a 3-4-3 system are the wing-backs, or wide midfielders, depending on how attacking it is implemented. With a back four, attacking fullbacks can be exposed if caught out in advanced positions, while more rigid, defensive fullbacks fail to offer much to a team set up to attack. In a 3-4-3, there are always three centre-backs, with the two playing on either side able to cover in behind the wing-backs if the opposition attacks in wide areas. If attacked down the right, the left of the three can shift across, still leaving two central defenders in the middle, and a wingback who can drop deeper on the other side. This means the wing-backs can offer far more in attack than a traditional fullback, without leaving the team exposed.

Offensively, the wing-backs need to be good crossers and quick, as they provide the team with the width, and they also need great stamina to get up and down the pitch consistently over 90 minutes.

 

3 at the Back

Also vital to the way the team plays are the three central defenders. The defender in the middle performs a different role to the two either side of him, providing cover when one of the others ventures forward, and making blocks, clearances and headers in the box. He’s also the player most likely to do the defensive organising, and tends to sit a litte deeper than the other two.

The defenders either side of him need to be more mobile and better on the ball. When the opposition has the ball, they can push up to close down advancing midfielders or a striker dropping deep, while in possession they can push up to join the midfield or advance out of defence with the ball themselves. This is possible as opponents will usually only have on or two strikers, providing an extra man as an outlet for the keeper who can start the attacks. If opposition wingers come inside to close down the centre-backs, the keeper can then distribute the ball directly to the wing-backs free in behind them, as Wigan did so effectively against Newcastle in their 4-0 win.

 

The Attacking Trio

In Martinez’s use of the three man attack, each player performs a different role. The most obvious is that of the central striker, who needs to be strong and aggressive so that he can lead the line and bring other players – specifically the other two attackers – into play. With the two wing-backs providing width and frequent crosses, a player who is dominant in the air as well as technically good enough to contribute to the team’s passing style is crucial.

The two players in wide positions should not operate as traditional wingers, because of the wing-backs behind them. Instead, one cuts inside from wide areas onto his stronger foot, running at defenders and looking for one-twos, while the other operates between the lines, drifting into the channel from a more central starting position. Ideally the two should be comfortable in both roles, allowing them to switch, confusing the defenders.

 

Making 3-4-3 Work for Liverpool

At Wigan, Martinez complimented the 3-4-3 formation with a patient passing style, high defensive line and and emphasis on keeping possession and closing opponents down high up the pitch when the ball is lost – all traits shared in the way Barcelona have played under Guardiola.

The wing-back role is tailor-made for Glen Johnson, although Luis Enrique lacks some of the crossing ability and general attacking play to be natural in the role. Jack Robinson and John Flanagan would also appear to be well-suited, while Steven Gerrard, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing could also play there if utilised slightly further forward.

As far as centre-backs go, we could hardly be better equipped. Daniel Agger would excel at venturing out of defence to kick-start attacks, and is comfortable moving into wider areas to defend. Originally a centre-back, Martin Kelly has the ability on the ball and mobility and pace to play the same role on the opposite side, while Martin Skrtel is more of a ‘stopper’ adept at making clearances and in the air. Carragher would provide excellent cover for Skrtel, while Coates could potentially play in the middle or to the side.

In central midfield, we would need just two, rather than three players, which could reduce the need to bring in a new signing. A two man midfield works best when one is slightly more attack minded, joining in with attacks while the other sits deeper and protects the defence. With his excellent work-rate and positional sense, Lucas is perfect for the more defensive role, with any of Gerrard, Henderson or Shelvey more suited to the other. Adam showed last season that he lacks tactical awareness and mobility, making him unsuited to a system relient on high-energy players with tactical intelligence, and Spearing is destined to be a squad player.

The reason I don’t see Gerrard as an automatic choice for the attacking central midfield berth is that there are two others positions in the system he could take up. When he first broke into the Liverpool team it was at right-back, and although his engine might not be quite what it once was, it’s likely he could still perform to a high standard playing as a wing-back, especially if not asked to do much defending.

Alternatively, Gerrard could play the more central of the two wide positions in the three up front, which wouldn’t be too different to the way he played behind Fernando Torress under Rafa Benitez.

On the left-hand side of the three, Luis Suarez could terrorise defences dribbling at defenders and looking for one-twos from Gerrard and Carroll. Suarez often played in a wider position at Ajax, and his best work for Liverpool has often come cutting in diagonally from a starting point out wide.

This is also a system which could get the best out of Andy Carroll. With plenty of crosses coming in from the wing-backs, Gerrard bursting through behind him and Suarez buzzing around, Carroll would receive the ball from a variety of positions to both his head and feet, with his job being to lead the line and bully defenders as he does so well.

Carroll is better at bringing other players into play than he is given credit for, and with the system being so attacking in nature, he wouldn’t be relied on to provide the bulk of the team’s goals ass long as the front three can get 30 – 40 goals between them. The three of them managed 20 goals this season despite Gerrard being injured for half of it, Carroll spending large parts on the bench, and Suarez’s eight game ban.

Downing – for Suarez – and Bellamy – for either Suarez or Gerrard – would also fit easily into the system, though there doesn’t look to be a natural replacement for Carroll.

 

Signings to Fit the System

If there is one obvious drawback to Martinez becoming Liverpool’s new manager, it’s that he might struggle to attract big-name players as a relatively unproven manager. The flip-side to that is that Liverpool might struggle to attract big names anyway, so Martinez’s ability to unearth bargains would be a bonus, but with someone like Van Gaal as Director of Football the issue of attracting players could be nullified anyway.

Having looked at how the present squad could be accommodated into a 3-4-3, its fair to say that although the system seems well-suited to the current players, Martinez will likely want two or three players better suited to the specific roles.

The obvious positions to reinforce are left wing-back, where Enrique showed towards the end of last season that he is somewhat one-dimensional going forward; the central striker, as Kuyt’s likely departure will leave us short of a back-up to Carroll robust enough to lead the line; and a wide attacker, as Kuyt and Maxi are both set to leave, while Bellamy is past his best and Downing lacks a cutting edge.

The only absolutely necessary acquisition would be someone to provide back-up to Carroll, and with at least £20m – £30m to spend, Martinez should have no trouble finding a player or two to give him what he needs to implement the new system.

 

Conclusion

Assuming Martinez is offered and accepts the opportunity to become our new manager, I think he ticks all the right boxes. He’s young and knows how to develop young players, as shown with the development of players like Moses and McCarthy. Tactically, he is one of the most willing to experiment and forward thinking managers around, and he has shown both at Swansea and Wigan that he is committed to playing entertaining passing football, in-keeping with Liverpool’s tradition.

Aside from possibly being unable to attract top-quality players, which is by no means a certainty, I see two potential stumbling blocks. The first, is that many fans seem to have already decided he is the wrong choice, and the added pressure of having his card marked from the beginning could count against him if we didn’t start well.

The second is the time it may take for the players to adapt to a new and complex system, which makes the first potential problem all the more likely.

If Liverpool fans could give hime some time, as Dave Whelan did at Wigan while they were rooted to the bottom before switching to the 3-4-3 and winning seven of their last nine games, then Martinez might just be the man to finally lead Liverpool into a new era of success.

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