Liverpool looked like a different team during the second half of its 3-1 win against Wolverhampton Wanders last weekend.
It was the cliched game of two halves, and behind the transformation of Jürgen Klopp’s side in that second period of the game was a tactical change that suited the available players, especially defender Joe Gomez, in the absence of Trent Alexander-Arnold.
For much of the past 12 months, Liverpool has been playing a system that sees Alexander-Arnold, the creative right full-back, drift into the center of the field.
The thinking behind it is to get the most out of one of the most talented passers in the team who can unlock a defence via crossing, through-balls, or long passing.
As a full-back stuck to the right touchline, passing options are usually limited to crossing and passes inside. Moving into the middle from this position opens up the whole field for a player to utilise their creative talents.
This is, in simple terms, what Liverpool has attempted to do with Alexander-Arnold, and results suggest it has worked.
The club has not lost a Premier League game since April, when it lost 4-1 to league champion Manchester City.
Since then it has won 11 games and drawn five. Coming at the end of one season and the start of another, it may not feel like Liverpool has been successful, as success is only achieved in the space of one season.
Runs that span two seasons are pretty meaningless unless they continue in some manner for a full campaign.
The current unbeaten run of 15 Premier League games is nevertheless promising for Liverpool as it looks to turn a corner following a disappointing 2022/23 season in which it was unable to challenge for honours.
Alexander-Arnold’s role has been a part of that success, so now he is out with a hamstring injury, what happens in his absence?
An idea of what Liverpool might look like was evident against Wolves without their star right-back and vice-captain.
In the first half, an attempt was made to use Gomez in the same role as the one played by Alexander-Arnold. It didn’t work, and Liverpool went in at half time 1-0 down.
It was a case of getting the player to adapt to the tactics rather than adapting the tactics to get the best from players. Matching tactics to players’ strengths is, after all, what the Alexander-Arnold midfield adjustment has been all about.
Early this season, Gomez had looked as confident as he had for some time, putting in some impressive performances at center-back.
Moved out to the right in the Alexander-Arnold role, cutting inside to midfield at certain points, he displayed some of the lack of confidence and hesitant play that had been a feature of his performances last season.
It felt almost unfair on Gomez to ask him to perform this role, especially without the pace of Ibrahima Konaté alongside to help.
Joël Matip is currently deputising for Konaté while Jarell Quansah filled in for the suspended Virgil van Dijk. All of this combined made for a difficult opening 45 minutes for Liverpool’s back line, even though 20-year-old Quansah impressed on his full debut.
Liverpool changed its tactics at halftime, withdrawing Alexis Mac Allister who was struggling having played in the Bolivian altitude for Argentina just days earlier, replacing him with winger Luis Diaz.
This change saw Gomez revert to more of an orthodox full-back role, able to use his attributes as a defender more effectively, not having to worry about midfield positioning or tracking back to cover opposition wingers. That said, his positioning hadn’t been bad in the first half, he just found it difficult to adjust his body into useful defensive positions once there.
Liverpool was now in roughly a 4-4-2 shape. Diogo Jota on the right wing helped Gomez defensively but also played a big part in the equalising goal, while Luis Diaz stretched the play, and the Wolves defense, from the left.
Darwin Núñez and Harvey Elliott entered the fray just after Cody Gakpo’s equaliser, but the most important of these changes was the introduction of a midfield two, a double-pivot, in front of the back four.
These two midfielders, Curtis Jones and Dominik Szoboszlai, were much more effective than they had been in the first half, both in defense and attack, able to offer more support to the rest of the team in all areas.
Everyone in Liverpool red looked much more comfortable in this shape. Not least Gomez.
It was a sign that if Alexander-Arnold is not available, Liverpool should not be afraid of veering from the tactic created primarily for him.
It needed a well below-par 45 minutes of football for Klopp and his coaching team to realise this, but better to realise it now than later in the season, and maybe that unbeaten run will continue.