At the beginning of November, Brendan Rodgers deployed a three-man defence for the first time in the Premier League this season. The decision to field a 3-5-1-1 formation did not have the desired effect though, as Liverpool succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Newcastle United, however Rodgers was not willing to dismiss the set-up so quickly. A trip to Manchester United was perhaps not the ideal time to experiment, but a run of two wins from seven in England's top tier prior to the trip to Old Trafford convinced the Northern Irishman otherwise.
Against United, Rodgers deployed his side in a 3-4-3 formation, with Raheem Sterling flanked by Philippe Coutinho and summer signing Adam Lallana. The idea was to improve Liverpool's fortunes in front of goal, which was understandable considering the significant downturn following the exploits of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge last season. The former was sold to Barcelona over the summer, while the latter has been restricted to just three league starts due to successive thigh and hamstring injuries.
Liverpool fell to a 3-0 loss to their arch-rivals, but there were positives to take from the performance, particularly in attack. The Reds forced United shotstopper David de Gea into eight saves in the fixture; only Costel Pantilimon has made more in a single Premier League match this season (nine vs Manchester City). Defensive errors and a lack of cutting edge ultimately cost them on the day, but Rodgers had seen enough to persist with the formation. The Liverpool manager has used the system in his last six competitive fixtures, yielding four wins and two draws.
Their current four-game unbeaten run in the league has moved them back into the reckoning for a European finish after a rocky start to the season and much of that has been down to the performances of Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana. Over the last five Premier League fixtures, the trio have been Liverpool's three highest rated players, according to WhoScored (Coutinho - 8.18, Sterling - 7.49, Lallana - 7.41). While Sterling may have been deployed in the centre of the offensive three, the trio had been given license to roam freely in Rodgers' fluid offensive system, which makes them extremely difficult to track for the opposition.
Unfortunately, for the next month at least, Liverpool's first choice attack will be broken up on account of Lallana's calf injury, picked up in the 2-2 draw with Leicester. However, the performances of the trio in the 3-4-3 formation are likely to have convinced Rodgers that this is the best way to move up the Premier League table, especially with the 41-year-old manager able to utilise Lazar Markovic, Mario Balotelli and Fabio Borini in the offensive triumvirate in Lallana's absence.
Emre Can's recent form has slightly improved Liverpool defensively, with the Germany U21 international deployed in defence of late, but it's up front where the Merseysiders have made most progress. In the last five league games, the Reds have mustered 95 shots on goal, an average of 19 per Premier League match. That return is a significant mark up on their average in the previous 15 games (14.4).
Unsurprisingly, 48 of the 95 shots have been taken by Sterling (19), Coutinho (18) and Lallana (11). This increase in the number of chances on the opposition goal is clearly working, with Liverpool having averaged more goals per game in the last 5 matches (1.8) than the opening 15 (1.3). The change to a 3-4-3 formation has seen Liverpool's points per game return increase from 1.6 to 1.8, with Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana all lending a helping hand in that rise, each directly contributing to goals against Arsenal, Burnley and Swansea.
It is worth noting that Liverpool have averaged less possession in the last 5 league games (52.7%) than the opening 15 (56.2%), though that, in part, is due to the team being more daring on the ball, averaging more key passes per game in a 3-4-3 formation (15.4) than in any other system they have started in this season (10.7). With Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana each drifting into space in attacking positions, the onus has been to get them on the ball as much as possible. Of course, taking more risks when in possession results in the ball ending up with the opposition more regularly, but Sterling, Coutinho and Lallana had been working hard to reclaim the ball in threatening positions.
Over the last five league games, Liverpool have won possession in the attacking third considerably more times per game (four) than in the previous 15 this season (2.9). With the opposition defence caught out of position, this presents the Reds with goalscoring opportunities of greater quality, as well as quantity.
The goals may not be flowing as freely as last season when Suarez and Sturridge were in a rich vein of form, but Rodgers appears to have finally struck the right balance in attack with the players at his disposal. It's disappointing that Lallana has fallen victim to injury, especially as he, Sterling and Coutinho had begun to forge a highly impressive attacking trident. In the grand scheme of things, though, Rodgers finally appears set on a system that is benefitting Liverpool and the recent success of the team suggests he is likely to persist with a 3-4-3 formation for the foreseeable future.