Liverpool moved back up to 2nd in the table with a tight victory over Sunderland at the Stadium of Light in which the 1-3 scoreline did not reflect the fine balance between the two sides on the day. Luis Suarez made his Premier League return after completing his suspension, a much needed creative addition since the loss of Philippe Coutinho. Sunderland fielded a fired up starting XI hoping to start their clean slate with a home win to lift them from the bottom of the table.
Brendan Rodgers fielded his latest experiment with the same 3-4-1-2 formation that featured against Manchester United in their midweek league cup defeat. The shape was set up nicely for solidity at the back; extra protection for any potential weaknesses (Skrtel composure, Sakho settling in, Enrique positioning etc.) and the bank of five sitting tightly when out of possession. It was certainly suited more towards a counter attacking game with the threat of Moses releasing Suarez and Sturridge at every opportunity.
The Importance of the ‘1’
Moses played an extremely important role in the transitions from defence into attack as he occupied the enormous hole of space between Gerrard/Lucas sat in front of the defence and Suarez/Sturridge higher up the field. Henderson usually drifts infield when playing on the right in the 4-4-1-1 from the previous games, however in this shape he kept his width and reserved a deepish position, picking his opportunities to get forwards. The graphic below shows how the wing backs were key to Liverpool’s counters by releasing as quickly possible, with either the central midfielders or wide centre-backs stabbing the ball into space for Henderson or Enrique to latch onto and link with Moses, or more directly playing into Moses who would then play into them.
In the next image below you can see an example of when this happened during the game, the Liverpool four (red) have just broken up a Sunderland attack and can now make a swift transition with Moses (circled) to get the ball forwards to Suarez and Sturridge (blue) while Sunderland are still disorganised. The group of four need to be able to do their defensive jobs effectively so despite turning over possession, it would not be practical for one of them to carry the attack. Instead of having one isolated striker and perhaps one withdrawn and playing in behind, the use of Suarez and Sturridge as an attacking duo playing high on the defensive line creates a big area of space for Moses to attack into. The knock-on effect of this is the midfield being drawn out and attracted to him, which as you can see leaves spaces between the midfield and defensive lines for the strikers to drift into and pick up the ball. If you look at how tight the Sunderland back four is, you also won’t have been surprised to see Suarez and Sturridge peeling off into the wide areas which gave them plenty of joy (including both goals with Sturridge receiving wide and playing across goal for Suarez).
Liverpool shaded possession with 53.8% and only 350 accurate passes compared to their previous average of 380 so far this season, while Sunderland dominated the shots category with 23 attempts. Despite this, Liverpool still got 6 shots on target compared to Sunderland’s 5, highlighting a distinct lack of ruthlessness in the final third which became more evident as the game wore on. The top passers in the game were Mamadou Sakho with 96% pass completion on his 49 passes, while more impressively Sung-Yueng Ki complete 94% of his 51 passes from an advanced midfield position (and also played an important role in Sunderland’s goal).
Sterling replaced Moses with 15 minutes left in the contest to give an idea of the impression he is leaving on Rodgers with regards to his tactical ability as well as his technical qualities. He is not just another young Theo Walcott or Aaron Lennon, a pacy winger with nothing but a bit of skill and attacking threat. He is far more than that, capable, responsible and knowledgeable in most areas of the field, which is the reason Rodgers felt comfortable bringing him on in such an important position. Henderson moved infield to work the centre of the field previously occupied by Moses, which allowed Sterling to work the right wing-back area. He demonstrated his defensive abilities by coming on and winning both of his two ground duels, both of his two aerial duels, and completing both of his attempted clearances. More importantly he showed game intelligence that cannot be measured by statistics; his awareness of his position, knowledge of when to tuck in closely to Kolo Toure, when to release forwards on the counter and penetrate in behind to be an attacking threat and get close to the strikers.
Sterling may well find himself in direct competition with Moses for a starting spot in the coming weeks, while in the news Rodgers has come out and challenged him to find stability in his private life in order to excel on the field. With the suspension of Lucas, and the returns of Joe Allen and Coutinho over the next few weeks, there will be a number of openings and opportunities in a few areas for Liverpool. The most urgent area to be addressed will be defensive midfield for Crystal Palace next Saturday, where Rodgers may be urged to get Joe Allen back into the starting line-up earlier than predicted to fill the holding midfield role vacated by Lucas. The defensive midfield role is likely to be the area Rodgers turns his attentions to in the January transfer window, with plans higher up the field for Allen, and room for a back up to Lucas.
Liverpool having been knocked out of the Capital One cup now for the first time in recent history, now only have the Premier League to worry about. Will this serve as a tool to maintain their good start to the season? Rodgers would argue the team have yet to perform to the best of their ability at any stage this season so far, which says a lot for where the club could potentially be at the end of the season.