Front Five, Back Five

I recently realised that there are two ways in which you can describe a team’s formation in football. The traditional way is to describe it in terms of the number of defenders, midfielders and attackers. 4-4-2 and all that (speaking of which, I don’t think I’ve mentioned here at all about The Paper, a new venture I’ve started with Suprio Guha Thakurta, where we dissect one piece of India business news every day. Subscribe here if you aren’t yet a subscriber. In yesterday’s edition, we used Inverting The Pyramid to describe India’s National Education Policy).

Back to football, so you can describe teams as 2-3-5, or 4-4-2, or 4-2-3-1, or whatever. However, in the last few months, maybe since Jose Mourinho took over at Spurs, I’ve discovered another way of describing a football team. It’s not that elegant, I must admit, and it takes more effort to describe it. This is what I call the “back five, front five” method.

In his early days at Spurs, Jose sort of surprised us by the way he set up the team. We all expected a 4-3-3 (or even a 4-2-3-1) given his history. It was still a nominal 4-2-3-1, but it was highly asymmetrical. Right back Serge Aurier was given license to attack, while left back Ben Davies stayed back. So the “front five” (players responsible for attack) were centre forward Harry Kane, wide left forward Heung Min Son, the attacking midfielders Dele Alli and Lucas Moura, and Aurier.

In other words, it was the 3-1 of the 4-2-3-1 and the right back that constituted the front five for Spurs under Jose. The remaining two defenders and two defensive midfielders were the “back five”, responsible for holding the position when the front five went on attack.

Now, Jose has tweaked his formation several times after this, but once I had seen this front five back five description, I couldn’t “unsee” it. Every team’s formation fit nicely into a front five and a back five.

Liverpool and Manchester City both play with nominal 4-3-3s, but that doesn’t tell you how different these teams are in the way they attack. Well, for both, the front line of three are all attackers, but the interesting thing is who joins them.

For Liverpool, it is the full backs Trent Alexander Arnold and Andy Robertson. The job of the entire midfield is to be part of the back five (though they do join attacks in turns), which makes their job very different from similar midfielders at other clubs. Check out this statistic, for example:

Manchester City (and Guardiola’s Bayern Munich before them) do it differently. For them, all the back four are part of the back five, assisted by one of the midfielders. The other two midfielders (most commonly, Kevin De Bruyne and David Silva in the last two seasons) are part of the attack (Pep ┬ácalls them “twin eights”).

Manchester United struggled for most of the season, trying out different formations and not being particularly good at it until they landed Bruno Fernandes in the winter break. That, along with the emergence of “wide striker” Mason Greenwood meant that they’ve since adopted a front-back policy similar to their City rivals. The resurgence after the pandemic break was spectacular.

So think about it – the reason nominally similar formations might play very differently, or why nominally different formations produce similar styles of play, is that they interpret the front five and back five differently. Maybe it doesn’t work for all teams, but this is a good framework to describe teams.

Dear Brendan Rodgers

I’m beginning to write this at 64 minutes played in Basel-Liverpool. Basel is leading 1-0, not undeservedly. Liverpool have so far been extremely poor, and deserve to have gone behind. We started well in the first ten minutes, and it seemed like an eminently winnable game, but after the tactical substitution made by Paulo Sousa, we’ve never been in it. Some pertinent observations so far.

  • I understand our need to have wanted to buy a world class striker to replace Luis Suarez. One might have thought the purchase of Mario Balotelli, no doubt a world class striker, was vindicated when Sturridge got injured. But Balotelli just doesn’t suit Liverpool. He is too slow. He just doesn’t move.

    I don’t have the statistics (football statistics are extremely hard to come by, unlike cricket), but we need to look at the number of off sides conceded between last season and this one. Balotelli gives away too many of those. Most of them come about because of his slow movement

  • Raheem Sterling was due a poor game, and we are seeing one now. His touch has been poor all day today. In his defence, he was due one bad day. Except that you had no clue how to handle that.
  • Sousa saw the weakness in Liverpool’s left back zone with Jose Enrique, and thus decided to double up on his right wingers to attack that zone. Now, this ended up pushing Raheem Sterling back, and he has had more defending to do than what he thought would have been his share. That is understandable.

    But then you need to realise that when you double up on one zone, you end up weakening yourself in another. Basel have played almost the entire night without a left back, or anyone on their left side apart from their left winger Hamoudi. They are playing a very lopsided 3-4-3. And you have done nothing so far to exploit that. Markovic has played all evening, but hasn’t been leading attacks down that wing as would be optimal. Manquillo has been leading the attacks there, with Markovic drifting inside. What we needed was Manquillo and Markovic doubling down in that unguarded zone. Haven’t seen that at all.

  • Then there is the centre of midfield. The two of Gerrard and Henderson isn’t simply working. Even when playing out from the back, they have consistently been stopped at the halfway line. Ok there is Gerrard and Henderson, but they haven’t had a forward pass to play! Coutinho has been lost in the crowd. And Balotelli, unlike Suarez doesn’t come back to pick the ball there. So how do we go forward from there?
  • Liverpool simply haven’t been picking up the second balls in the middle of the pitch today. They’ve been thoroughly outnumbered in that area – with only Gerrard and Henderson against three central midfielders of Basel. When we demolished Tottenham last December, the key was in our picking up all these second balls and keeping attacks flowing. That’s been sorely missing all day today.
  • Lallana’s introduction was good, but it should have been Sterling who should have come off. He is evidently extremely tired, and nowhere close to his best. We can see that in the two clear chances he’s missed since I started writing this post.
  • Markovic shouldn’t start. He’s not enough of a lone ranger for that. With his pace you should look to him as a super-sub. A plan B to be introduced along with Balotelli and Lambert. I just don’t see him gelling with the rest of the team. And please – someone along with Gerrard and Henderson there. I know Allen and Can are injured, but even someone like Lallana along with Gerrard and Henderson would help. The World Cup showed us how those two together in a 4-2-3-1 are ineffectual. You haven’t learnt from that.
  • It’s been a scrappy game so far, but a great tactical battle. There was one big question that Sousa posed – by putting on Gonzales for Safari, but you have thoroughly failed to answer that. After two moves by Gonzales, you went into a shell, and didn’t attack enough in the newly posed gap. I’m absolutely disappointed with you for that. I expected you of all people to be more tactically sound.
  • The best formation Liverpool has played with the available players this season was in the second half against Everton. With Gerrard-Henderson-Lallana-Coutinho-(not out of form)Sterling-Balotelli. You never even tried that in this game, while I expected you to start that way.
  • The game has ended as I finish this post. We have lost. Deservedly.
  • Maybe a you could use the services of a statistical analyst to help you figure out the gaps in play and how Liverpool should structure themselves given the available players. You can leave me a comment if you think you need one (you surely do!), and I’ll come over to help!