When Roy Evans took over at Liverpool in 1994, 3-5-2 was a very popular formation across Europe but 4-4-2 was very simply the meat and bread of the English game. No manager had ever won anything using anything else and most were reluctant to even try. It was a period when English teams were struggling on the continent. Bobby Robson had tried the formation with England at the 1990 World Cup, with mixed results. It was Evans that took a look at the domestic game, and decided he’d be the first manager to try it in the league.
3-5-2 FOR THE DEFENCE.
When asked about it, he’ll deny he was the first. He’ll point out managers like Bob Paisley who tried it first. It was Evans who attempted building a team around the formation. It was no easy task. 3-5-2 is an energy-heavy formation. The wing backs need to surge forward to join the attacks, while keeping the lungs to make it back to shore up the defence.
Liverpool bought Phil Babb and John Scales to play alongside Ruddock in a central trio. 3 central defenders would have a spare man against the two forwards in the 4-4-2. It would also increase opportunity to build play from the back. Both Pep Guardiola and Marco Bielsa have deployed the system. It converted versatile midfielders, like Gary Medel or Javier Mascherano, into accomplished defenders. 3-5-2 proved a success. Fowler, Rush and Barnes only improved from 60 to 66 scored goals, but Liverpool conceded far less. The team let in 57 goals before introducing the 3-5-2, and only 38 afterwards.
THE TRANSITION TO ATTACK.
Early on it was more often called 5-3-2, the emphasis being on the defensive duties of the wing backs. As Rob Jones and Steve Harkness grew more familiar with the system, it evolved into a more offensive formation. This was how it was being deployed on the continent. With the free role Steve McManaman adopted, it might be better called a 3-4-1-2. Evans was keen to emphasise the attacking nature of the formation. Especially in how much more freedom a talent like McManaman was now allowed.
“It’s been very successful for us and the biggest thing is it’s given Steve McManaman a freer role. With 4-4-2 he’d be basically wide right or wide left. With five in midfield he’s always got the chance to break out.”
THE MIDDLE OF THE PARK.
Evans was also impressed by how the much help the central midfield was getting from the wing backs. John Barnes found himself with more support, not to mention space. Jamie Redknapp grew into a pivotal creative midfielder for the club. Evans was keen also to make sure the wing backs weren’t the only players pressing up the pitch.
“If people push you into a flat back five, then you can end up with two forwards holding five players, so it’s important that you’re versatile not just with the full-backs getting out wide, but with the centre-backs stepping out.”
Roy Evans was ushering in beginning of a change throughout English football. The FA were anxious not to find their game left behind on the European stage. They’d studied how sides like Ajax used tactics like 3-3-1-3 to win European trophies. Evans is rarely seen as a vanguard coach among fans today. That Liverpool side is more remembered for the ‘Spice Boys’ moniker. But the changes he introduced at Liverpool marked the beginning of a tactical revolution in the English game. Continuing with coaches like Wenger and Mourinho and on today with Guardiola, Conte and Klopp.