Since the return of Daniel Sturridge, Liverpool have been playing with a similar formation, and one which only changes subtly due to the personnel in it.
Prior to the English striker’s return, Roberto Firmino had replaced Christian Benteke as the striker as Jurgen Klopp sought more movement up front, both on and off the ball.
Firmino offers pressing from the front – a prerequisite in Klopp’s system – as well as being more mobile in attack.
The Brazilian showed surprisingly good hold-up play, outshining Benteke even in this area, while also being able to run into the channels, play on the shoulder of the defender, and also drop deep to link up play when required.
He certainly wasn’t a false nine, and the attacking midfielder thrived in the striker role, becoming far and away Liverpool’s most productive attacking player in the process.
Back to the present, and thanks the aforementioned return of Sturridge, Klopp has begun to settle on a system which suits the side both in and out of possession.
Sturridge provides the out-and-out striking option up front, and is himself able to hold the ball up better than might be expected of him. He’s almost the complete striker, but not quite.
His current back-up – Divock Origi – could evolve into the complete striker, but at the moment he’s a much better alternative to Sturridge as he shares some of the Englishman’s traits, while also offering something a bit different.
Origi started at Selhurst Park, but was unable to make much of an impact during the time he was on the pitch. He ran the channels well, and was generally OK in most areas of the game, but lacked a cutting edge up front – as did most of his team-mates.
Since the introduction of a true striker, Firmino has found himself in a free role somewhere between attacking midfielder and support striker.
He drifts around, relieved of the responsibility of being the only attacking outlet, and makes runs where he sees fit. It’s since he’s been playing in this more withdrawn role that we’ve seen the best of the number eleven, whose performances in 2016 have earned him a recall to the Brazil squad.
Against Palace the attack were poor, but the system was still important.
High pressing gives a side a chance to pounce on any errors the opposition might make across their defensive line or, as was the case on Sunday, from their goalkeeper.
Alex McCarthy was once Buffon reincarnate when he played for Reading against Liverpool at Anfield, but it was his mistake which gifted a ten-man Liverpool with the chance to equalise.
It was a chance Firmino – who else – was on hand to take, and he slotted home coolly when presented with the one-on-one chance against the Palace keeper.
Further back, Klopp’s men showed the same organisation we saw against Manchester City at Anfield, even though the personnel were slightly different.
Moreno offered an attacking threat down the left, almost getting on the score-sheet himself in the second half, while Jon Flanagan attempted to provide more support to the defence down the right.
Neither full-back was 100% convincing, but the system offers them a base from which to build. They know their role, and know that if they’re picked again for the next game, they can look to improve on certain areas of their game in a familiar system, rather than being asked to play a whole new one just because it didn’t go entirely to plan.
One of the best things about this set-up is that it’s produced a good performance from Dejan Lovren, who was man-of-the-match on Sunday. The Croatian struggled for pace early on, but soon worked out how to deal with the opposition forwards and let little past him once he settled. He’s another player who’s benefiting from a more settled, more organised system.
Ahead of the back four, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson should be the perfect midfield pair, but it isn’t quite working out that way at the moment.
While Can was often imperious, Henderson struggled, but still put in his usual all-energy, hard-working performance. The incident where he took a yellow card so Flanagan didn’t have to sums up his team-work even if he’s not quite firing on an individual level.
James Milner and Adam Lallana tried to support Firmino and Origi, but struggled to create chances for the forwards. Lallana looks to have gained a yard of pace from somewhere though, while Milner appears to still be working out his best position on a football pitch. On Sunday he decided that his best position wasn’t on the pitch at all, as he picked up two careless yellow cards and was sent off.
Overall, the performance didn’t set pulses racing, or instil too much confidence in the minds of the fans, but at least the system is there.
It’s a good system, and more importantly it’s a malleable one, as shown when Liverpool were down to ten men and almost turned into a better side as a result.
A couple of nudges here and there, and the shifting of the imperious Can back into the defence ultimately secured an unlikely win for the side, with a bit – OK a lot – of help from their misfit striker Benteke, who might even be finding his own place in Klopp’s Rote Maschine.