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Understanding Rodgers’ 4-3-3: Centre Backs

It seems a bit strange to divide the team into distinct sections. Under the Rodgers system, such a distinction won’t be as evident. But to better interpret the formation being implemented at Anfield, it would be easier to first decipher the various zones involved.

The basics of this approach are pretty clear to everyone, particularly pertaining to the short passes, quick touches, movement. But to really see how this fits into a team, we’d first have to understand how each player and each zone are specifically set out. Rodger’s 4-3-3 doesn’t have much of a distinction from the general 4-3-3 approach. However as the season progresses one might notice a difference in basic mentality of the players at Liverpool when compared to those at Swansea. That being an attacking emphasis as opposed to a more defensive layout.

As most football formations incorporate, the 4-3-3 too has a four man final line of defence. But contrary to usual style, this is anything but a flat back four. The movement as mentioned is vital in this approach and lazy defenders hanging at the back and being solid when the opposition attack would pretty much impair the entire system. A basic understanding is that the defenders defend, protecting the man in between the nets behind them and are able to get the ball as far away from their territory as possible. But with the 4-3-3 the defence don’t have such a simple job. Their duties are more complex than that. Rodgers has emphasised on the importance of training and prioritised this as the place to select his starting eleven. It is at Melwood that all the players will really be able to adapt to the new style. It is in training that the defenders will learn how to widen their abilities.

When you think of the role of the two men at the heart of the defence, its seems pretty clear as to what their presence in the side is. But contrary to popular belief, the defenders will not exist to mark the strikers, win the headers and pump the ball clear. Many have heard the statement “attack is the first line of defence”. Well in the 4-3-3 the defence is the zone that starts the attack and the central defenders being the deepest line of the outfield are presented with this role.

But lets first analyse how the defenders will set up when put against an opposition attack.

Playing the pressing game is key to the success of this formation. Sitting deep is not an option. Opposition shouldn’t be given time on the ball. The closer the opposition get into your half, the better chance they have of formulating a decent attack. Putting an end to the attack as soon as possible reduces the chances of a successful opposition attack. This would mean defenders going higher up the pitch. Based on the phase of play they may even need to cover for the midfield while defending. But it would be criminal if both the two center halves leave the safety of their deeper position in a bid to prevent an attack. So when one of the defenders moves forward to put pressure on the advancing attack, his partner would need to cover for him at the back. This second defender would need to now lay deep in defence should the possibility of his partner failing to win possession arise. His failure could have arised due to two reasons. 1) The player in possession managed to get past the pressuring center back and now has a more clear chance at goal. 2) He managed to pass the ball to a teammate in a better position who now has a more clear chance at an attack. For either of these reasons or both, the deeper defender would have to stay back to protect his goalkeeper from a shot at goal.

Obviously now such a situation would most likely arise when the ball is being played through the middle, where the central defenders largely exist. However there does arise the possibility of the center backs having to cover for the wider defenders with the help of the midfielders in certain scenarios. This will be explained more in detail in the next part but there will be many scenarios when the full backs have left their defensive duties in favour of an attacking role and haven’t got back in time. But in such a situation as well, the same policy is followed. A central defender goes ahead to stop an attack from the wing in the absence of the full back, his partner covers for him deeper. And the midfield would have to take a stand in the middle. The role of the midfield too will be dealt with in the latter part of this series.

The role of these defenders in defence doesn’t end here either. A less highlighted role of theirs would be the movement with the rest of the team as a unit when a wide opposition attack occurs. With the pressuring play, two maybe three players will take the space in and around the opposition player in possession and his passing options. The rest of the players however also play a significant part in the horizon. If an attack occurs from the wide areas, it is largely the duty of the full-backs and midfielders to defend. Their maybe a few exceptional situations though. But the recurring theme would be for the full-backs and midfielders to defend. When this happens, both the central defenders will come closer to the flanks. So if the opposing player does manage to wriggle his way through the full backs and midfielders, or is able to pick out a decent pass, there would still be another two players a bit wide who he would have to get past. This goes with the policy of crowding round the area where the opposition have the ball. Make a sort of enclosure or shield to prevent the attack going any further. Needless to say that work rate and movement are vital for the central defenders in this situation.

Now when these two defenders regain possession of the ball, whether that be at the edge of the box, far from it or at the flanks, they are not required to hoof it clear. Even in a mode of desperation, playing it out is the scheme. This would involve the center backs to look up and actually pick out a pass rather than getting the burden of the ball off their backs. Now the defenders have a few options, the obvious choice which is widely followed as much as the desperate clearance is playing it out wide to the full backs or a wide midfielder dropping deep. While a desperate clearance is the safe and basic way out in usual style of the defenders, this particular style would involve playing it to the full back as the basic option. It must be stated again, hoofing it clear should not be an option, as much as possible.

Another option the defenders have is taking a more daring role and having the confidence to move forward with the ball. Being fearless enough to take on a midfielder or two when needed. This would increase the burden on the opposition midfielders even more who would have had to leave their duty of marking their counterparts. The midfielders would further move forward to pressurise the defence allowing the defenders to constantly come forward. This is another shift in play done by the defenders. Opposition would be constantly under pressure and forced backwards.

Another point to be noted is when the defenders are playing against an attack and gain possession of the ball, despite the dangers of the opposition around the box, the better option would be too again play the ball out with their feet as the opposition is now vulnerable to an attack due to numbers they sent forward and a quick attack could catch them out.

This attacking style that is required for a defender can be termed as an extra-deep lying playmaker. In an attacking phase his role is no different to a midfield deep lying playmaker. But it is obvious he will playing this role from further down the pitch. It should be mentioned here that while quick touches and short passes are crucial in this style, the defenders would play such passes in a more attacking sense ie if they are closer into the midfield or have a midfielder dropping deep to help them out. When they are higher up the pitch they have the same role of a midfielder and are expected to play as such without any stress. This would mean being comfortable with possession in the midfield to the point that they can even play a quick one two with a midfielder to shake the defence off them and possibly take a shot at goal or a late run into the box after the ball has found its way out wide.

With regards to Liverpool it can largely be seen that Skrtel and Agger would be the obvious choices for the two center back positions. Agger breeds on playing like an extra deep lying playmaker and he would flourish with having to move forward with the ball at his feet. He would also be successful with moving forward and putting pressure. Skrtel would be a more than apt solid cover. Having said that the task of going forward and putting pressure lies with the defender on whose side the attack is emerging. Coates is still young and learning but it can be seen that his possesses the traits of both Martin and Daniel. He has shown he can be good on the ball while still being a strong defender. Carragher has been guilty of hoofing the ball clear often. And with that not being the main reason, he will find lesser playing time. But he can prove to be a good cover when needed. Martin Kelly has mostly been played wide by former Liverpool managers but he too can be comfortable in the center. A role he has occupied for the reserves and the U-21 England team. Andre Wisdom, Stephen Sama, Conor Coady are others who can play in defence but they’ll find opportunities hard to come by this season.

Liverpool fans have been hoping that Man City fail in their attempt to sign our Great Dane. The concerns are understandable. Agger is someone who would be absolutely vital for the success of  the 4-3-3. His play helps linking the defence with midfield and ultimately attack. In his absence we would need our deep lying playmaker to fall further deep in order to collect the ball and move it forward. With Agger in the team, it relieves the midfielder from this duty and instead Agger would assume this role. When in complete control and in attack, Agger would even occupy the spot next to the defensive minded midfielder/deep lying playmaker.

Skrtel as mentioned would be an ideal cover but he too would need to add pressure when called upon. But largely he would function as the solid centre back who would be more defensive that his partner. This season could prove to be vital for Seb Coates. It could be his breakthrough season. Irrespective of Agger’s future, Coates will be given opportunities to break into the first team. Its rare to find defenders who can be solid defensively and still possess quality attacking ability. This skill has to be taught well, and it will be pivotal for the career of the Uruguayan that he is being coached by Rodgers. It will be hard to make Carragher change his style but his experience and knowledge to read the game cannot be ignored. Also he would be vital for the development of the younger players.

Strikers attack, defenders defend is the general accepted theme. But as the 4-3-3 has proved and as we will learn from watching Liverpool play this season, that is the opinion of a narrow minded traditionalist.

All illustrations were made on


Sami Faizullah

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