4-4-2 vs 4-3-3: Which Formation Has Been Better For Liverpool?

Graphic from Can You Play Football
Watching Liverpool over the last few months, I had begun to develop a very strong opinion about our system of play: namely that 4-3-3 (or its variants, which we will get to later) suited our personnel better, and encouraged our pass and move style more than the 4-4-2 we started with at the beginning of the season. Most fans I talked to seemed to agree, 4-3-3 was producing better results. But we had no evidence. It was merely perceptions, and sometimes our perceptions can be wrong. So I endeavoured to collate our results using 4-4-2 based formations and compare them to our results using a 4-3-3 based formation.

Some Disclaimers:
Firstly I acknowledge that formations are but one of the many variables that influence results in football. Playing style, form, movement of players between positions, personnel, opposition, tactical changes within the game, substitutions, luck – the list of variables goes on and on. As I can’t account for the majority of these variables, I’m going to completely ignore them. The focus of this comparison will be to look at the selection and deployment of players within a framework – a formation – and whether or not these initial selections (the “Plan A” tactics Kenny and co have chosen for each match) more strongly correspond to a favourable result, regardless of other contributing factors.

Variants:
Most of the formations Liverpool have utilised this season are a direct variant of either 4-4-2 or 4-3-3, with the key distinguishing feature being the number of central midfielders being used. In a 4-4-2, there are two central midfielders in partnership (see diagram above); 4-3-3 uses three central midfielders, in various configurations.

What about the 4-2-3-1 I hear you say? Well Rafa-philes, the 4-2-3-1 formation is a 4-3-3 variant. They both have the same defensive shape, two wide attackers and one central forward. The only difference is the shape of the midfield, with 4-2-3-1 having a band of two midfielders deployed defensively and one further advanced. 4-3-3 is not as descriptive, only intimating that there are three central midfielders.

In the tables to the left you will see the same formation highlighted in two different ways to make my point. Both are essentially 4-3-3, but one has the front trio highlighted separately to the midfield three, while the other highlights players in horizontal bands a la 4-2-3-1. In reality, they are the same, 4-2-3-1 being a particular type of 4-3-3.

For the purpose of clarity, I have defined both 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1 as 4-3-3 variants in this comparison. 4-4-1-1 was the only variant of 4-4-2 that we have used this season (of course we’ve used 4-4-2 itself plenty of times), although I defined the 3-1 win vs Newcastle at home as a 4-3-3 on account of midfielder Jordan Henderson playing the advanced role. When forward Craig Bellamy was deployed there (2-0 vs Chelsea away in the Carling Cup) I categorised it as a 4-4-2.

I have inlcuded the variant results in with the results of the parent formations (4-3-3 and 4-4-2, obviously). The source of formation data has come from Football Lineups, a fascinating resource worthy of any stats-junkie’s bookmarks.

Results:
*Points calculated from all competitive fixtures (League, Carling Cup & FA Cup) in the comparison.

Going from this very basic data, it is clear immediately that our perceptions have been correct. 4-3-3 has been more effective, allowing us to win a greater percentage of matches and helping us to accumulate points at a higher rate. While I have been a bit naughty in calculating pretend points for knockout cup fixtures, I feel this gives us a better sample size to judge the worth of both formations.

From a winning perspective, our 4-3-3 has outperformed our 4-4-2. But what about from an entertainment perspective? Has it been more exciting? Have we been a more attacking force with 4-3-3, or have we just been luckier?


The goal-scoring data suggests we have been far more entertaining, scoring almost 2 goals per game using a 4-3-3 system. 13 games of 4-3-3 have seen three more goals scored than the number scored in 17 games of 4-4-2. Interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the defense has conceded goals at a constant (and low) rate, irrespective of the shape of the midfield in front of them. A settled back 4 in collective good form is probably the reason for this consistency.

Verdict:
4-3-3 is working for Liverpool this season. We are scoring more goals and winning more matches when we play 3 in midfield. It is the formation that gets the best out of new boys Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson. It is also the system that has best covered for the loss of key players like Lucas Leiva, Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez during their periods of unavailability. Can it be the system that brings the best out of Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez? Or will we revert to partnering them in attack in a traditional 4-4-2?

It will be fun to find out.
-Grubb-

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  • Anonymous

    Yep, I agree some variation of 4-2-3-1 or 4-5-1 is the best for our squad. Our midfielders are not active or athletic enough to play 4-4-2, but with 5 we can make up for the indiscipline and inability to track back of some (Gerrard, Adam) and the inability to get forward of others (Henderson, Spearing), while taking advantage of some of our strikers’ flexibility off the ball (Kuyt, Bellamy). Unfortunately, that only leaves room for one of Carroll and Suarez to start at a time (anything goes with 2nd half subs).

    With 4-4-2 and both Carroll and Suarez on the pitch, we have huge gaps in our midfield, especially with Adam one of just two in the middle of the park. Kenny has only been foolish enough to try this against one top team — Tottenham — and you know what happened there since it cost us the game just as surely as when Hodgson played 4-4-2 at City with Torres and N’Gog up top. 

    Against lower teams, we have tried 4-4-2 without usually looking very good and as a result of this inability to pick the best formation and players, we were dominated for large stretches by Swansea and really struggled against many other teams. The sooner Kenny gives up on it, the better. To get more points, we need to respect these lower teams and play our strongest formation against them.

  • we don’t have the squad or apparently the discipline for 4-4-2 .. maybe, and it’s a big maybe, we’ll be able to do it when Lucas is back, Henderson transforms into the 2009 version of Steven Gerrard and Carroll/Suarez learn to play together .. 

    still, our best results have always come when ignoring that English way of playing and venturing into a more continental style .. playing 4-4-2 is like rocking a first generation iPod without being ironic about it ..

    wait, either way, you look like a douche and you don’t win at Liverpool. forget it, that analogy doesn’t work at all.

  • WW

    4-3-3

             suarez – carroll – kuyt
        adam – gerrard – henderson
    enrique – agger – skrtel – johnson

    or

        bellamy – carroll – suarez
           adam – gerrard – kuyt
    enrique – agger – skrtel – johnson

  • one day, Henderson will get forward. all he needs is 2 years and a hair cut that doesn’t resemble something from Mad Men.

  • CSD

    After watching Moneyball, I’m going to put blind faith in everything John W. Henry & Co. do. The fans begged for Dalglish and got him, now we have to support him. Honestly, I think it’s still early to make decisions about formations. We are just now seeing the squad start to gel. The 4-3-3 could be the right one in certain situations, but there needs to be the flexibility to change depending on the opposition.

  • Grubb

    Certainly 4-3-3 is not the panacea for all of our ills, but I do think it suits our squad better. I’m sure next time Kenny sees the need to play 4-4-2, that’s exactly what will happen. A flexible squad is far more deadly than a rigid system. Still, in the interest of coming 4th, I hope we can leverage the advantage 4-3-3 is giving us right now.

    Glad to see Kenny’s signings demonstrating their worth. I’ve seen enough in Carroll, Downing, Hendo and Adam (yes, him too) to be quite excited about how far this team can go – and that’s before the inevitable strengthening that will happen in the summer window.

  • Grubb

    Totally agree here. Henderson has the legs, it’s a matter of developing the nous to break into the area late. He will learn, given the company he’s keeping. Right now he’s doing his bit as a playmaker, but he has the attributes of a gamebreaker in my opinion.

  • Adey

    Well put, exactly the point ive been trying to put accross all season. As other people have been saying I dont think you can play 2 out and out strikers in a 433. 1 Striker plus 2 attacking midfielders or strikers who can defend, ie Bellamy / Kuyt

  • JK

    Grub and fellow commenters if you want to find out the reality of the formations we use with indepth analytical reports, go to Tomkins Times website and look at the reports by Mihail.

    The 4-3-3 in this article uses two holding midfielders which is not the LFC 4-3-3, we on the most part use a 4-1-2-3 with one holding midfielder – and its usually in the “bigger” games.   

    The biggest question to make an Article about is which is the best formation to employ Carrol and Suarez in… if you going to write an article worth reading analyse that.

  • Grubb

    Ignore the diagram – that was for teaching purposes only, about how 4-2-3-1 is a variant of 4-3-3.

    You are correct about the 4-1-2-3 being the variant we commonly use (although it can also be denoted a 4-1-4-1, which is the same thing). I explained within the article that I have lumped all 4-3-3s together in the comparison, as they are all variants, or variations, of the same system.

    Furthermore, I think you’ve been a bit rude in your comments. Like “the reality of the formations”, “write an article worth reading”. Take your condescending tone elsewhere.

    I have actually been planning a piece working out how to deploy Carroll and Suarez together. But I think we will see it against Spurs and be better placed to comment. At the moment we only have one game where they weren’t deployed as a traditional partnership in a 4-4-2, so there’s not enough data to do anything more than speculate about what might be more effective.

  • Anonymous

     I think that we have only seen the 4-1-2-3 a few times; mostly when we were chasing the game. Almost exclusively Kenny has lined up two midfielders in a double pivot, with Lucas or Spearing being the destroyer and Adam or Gerrard being the creator.

    Re. the “bigger games,” the 4-1-2-3 suggests a much more adventurous outlook than what we have actually seen on the pitch. Against Man Ure we had a 5-man midfield almost the whole time. In that case, the wingers were glorified wingbacks in the defensive phase, and we countered with a few midfielders running forward. This suggests it’s more of a 4-5-1.

    Also, the 4-2-3-1 turns into a 4-4-1-1 when the wingers drop off in the defensive phase. The back 6 have always been set up the same way, but the positioning and movement of the front 4 have been the factor that determines what formation is used. When wingers push forward on opposing fullbacks and stay wide in transition you have a pure Barca-style 4-3-3. When the wingers stay back in the defensive phase and push up on the counter, you have a 4-4-1-1.

  • Andy

    4-4-2 is a formation that can only really be played in the modern game if you have two exceptional central midfielders. They both need to be able to defend well and both need to be decent going forward, not too mention the fitness. It’s no surprise then, that Adam struggles with it. 

    4-3-3  is a much stronger formation for our squad. Get’s the best out of our midfielders while shielding their weaknesses. No surprises the stats are better really.

    Nice article though, been waiting for one of these.