Why 4-4-2 could be the key to Liverpool unlocking £64-million man Nunez
Did we see a glimpse of Liverpool’s future at Anfield on Tuesday night? The Reds’ Champions League win over Rangers may have been routine, but it could also prove significant for Jurgen Klopp, as he seeks solutions to his side’s recent struggles.
A confidence-booster, for sure, but also, perhaps, something of a blueprint for upcoming fixtures.
“The game we wanted to play,” was how Klopp described the 2-0 success, achieved courtesy of Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick and Mohamed Salah’s penalty, on a night which reminded everyone of the chasm which exists between the top teams in English and Scottish football.
Liverpool could - and should - have won by more, but it will have pleased Klopp to see his side look a little bit more like themselves, defending well, pressing with purpose, controlling the game and creating chances. On another night, they’d have had six or seven goals. Darwin Nunez alone might have had four.
The Uruguay striker had been the most notable addition to Klopp’s starting XI, as the manager opted for a change in shape following the disappointment of last weekend's draw with Brighton.
Gone was the 4-3-3 formation to which we have become so accustomed, but which has this season been unable to boss games as it once did, with Klopp instead lining up with four forwards, Nunez joined by Mohamed Salah, Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota, in a system which shifted from 4-4-2 without the ball, to something resembling a 4-2-4 with it.
Whatever the semantics, the bottom line is that, for the most part, it worked. Rangers may have been passive, perhaps even ideal opposition, but Liverpool were able to unlock far more of their game here than they have in recent weeks. They looked a lot more like themselves, and Klopp will hope that they can build on that, with a trip to Premier League leaders Arsenal coming up on Sunday.
“We wanted to defend differently to what we usually do,” Klopp said, explaining his selection. It may seem counterintuitive to do that by bringing in an extra attacker, but front-footedness has long been high on the Anfield agenda, and there was a pleasing intensity about the way his reshuffled pack went about their business.
Nunez, in particular, seemed to benefit from the change in emphasis. The 23-year-old has endured a tough start to life on Merseyside, but he can take plenty of positives from his first Champions League start for his new club. He was lively, worked hard, made good runs and he got chances. Lots of chances. Had it not been for Allan McGregor, the veteran Rangers goalkeeper, he’d have left clutching the match ball.
Whether he will keep his place for Arsenal, of course, is another matter. Roberto Firmino feels like a more obvious pick for that game, and is the Reds’ top scorer this season too, while Jota’s record against the Gunners means he will be hard to ignore. The Portugal international has scored in each of his last five appearances against Mikel Arteta’s side.
But the manner of Nunez’s performance will certainly have given Klopp something to think about. The sample size is small, granted, but this was the most comfortable he has looked since his switch from Benfica, and Anfield certainly appreciated his efforts. He was given a standing ovation when replaced by Harvey Elliott, 10 minutes from time.
Fans certainly see his potential. He’s not the most polished of players, not yet at least, but he’s an absolute magnet for chances. He’s averaging a shot at goal every 12 minutes in a Liverpool shirt, and it is surely only a matter of time before the goals start flowing.
Certainly, the four-forward system appears to suit him, giving him support when the ball is played up to him, and creating space for him to make runs in behind defenders.
There are similarities with Fernando Torres, in that regard, and it would have pleased Klopp to see Nunez’s smart movement rewarded with good, early passes from Salah, Jota and Jordan Henderson against Rangers, passes which on another day would have ended up as goal assists. There looked to be an understanding and an appreciation of the striker's runs, which can only be a good thing going forward.
“The way the boys moved up front today together I thought was extremely, extremely good for only one session working on it, to be honest,” said Klopp after the game. “We never did it before, we had [just] one session with a low intensity because we only played recently.
“So, you just see how good a striker he is to be constantly in these situations. I think everybody saw tonight that this [scoring goals] will happen, so all good.”
The same goes for Jota, who remarkably has not scored in his last 18 club appearances, but who adds so much in terms of pressing and off-the-ball work. He too was denied by McGregor against Rangers, but helped connect the game well, ensuring that Henderson and Thiago Alcantara were never left exposed as the two-man central midfield.
It will be interesting to see whether Klopp persists with that at Arsenal, who will pose a far greater threat, both in general build-up and in transition. Liverpool were able to leave Fabinho, who has been out of sorts this season, on the bench against Rangers, but they may feel his physicality and experience is crucial against the in-form Martin Odegaard, Gabriel Jesus, Bukayo Saka and Co.
It was, ironically, a change in shape which saw Fabinho find his feet initially in Klopp’s side, Liverpool using a 4-2-3-1 in the autumn of 2018 to help the new-boy settle. The Brazilian, who made a slow and tentative start on Merseyside, never looked back after that, becoming integral as both he and the Reds established themselves among Europe’s best.
Could something similar happen with Nunez in 2022? It’s too early to say for sure. But we should not be surprised if we see Liverpool lining up like this again in the coming weeks.