Talking Tactics: Sunderland v Liverpool (A)

Anfield bore witness to a mini-resurrection on Saturday afternoon. 4-4-2, once so revered that in 1994 a football magazine was launched with those numbers as its title, has undergone a steady decline since the turn of the century. Lamented by observers and coaches alike as "too rigid" for the modern game, it is a formation which many tacticians, both amateur and professional, have seen fit to wash their hands of.

Not Steve Bruce. Where many, including myself, expected Sunderland to line up against Liverpool with in a 4-4-1-1, Bruce instead opted to play Stephane Sessegnon up alongside Asamoah Gyan.

 

For the first 45 minutes, it seemed the doubters were right. Sunderland were quite simply blown away by the home side, and were fortunate to make it into the break just a goal down. True, Liverpool also played a 4-4-2, but theirs was one which incorporated a deep-lying Lucas Leiva with the creative Charlie Adam offering strikers Andy Carroll and Luis Suarez plenty of midfield support.

 

But the second half saw an entirely different game. Sunderland came out looking sharper, and Liverpool, having been relentless in the opening thirty minutes, noticeably slowed. Seb Larsson's stunning volley just before the hour cancelled out Luis Suarez's first half header, and from there the Black Cats were relatively comfortable in securing an opening day point.

 

Weathering the storm

 

Unsurprisingly, given their spate of new signings looking to impress in front of a home crowd, Liverpool began firmly in the ascendancy. Sunderland were offered no time to settle, and the home side's pressure and high tempo was personified by Suarez's closing down of Kieran Richardson which ultimately led to the Reds being awarded a penalty.

 

Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing were particularly dangerous. Sunderland, employing Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback in the middle, struggled to cope with the Scotsman, who found joy between the lines of the away side's defence and midfield. Downing, meanwhile, offered a more direct threat; one probing run from inside his own half saw Sunderland and Simon Mignolet saved only when the ex-Aston Villa winger's shot rebounded off the crossbar.

 

However, having survived the opening stages with only a one goal deficit, the visitors found themselves in a relatively good position. Kenny Dalglish's side were unable to keep up their high tempo, and as the first half came to a close, the red and whites looked to have finally settled.

 

As a result, Steve Bruce's men were able to enter the second half with a different mindset. Though not exactly throwing caution to the wind, the visitors now found themselves seeing a lot more of the ball (helped in no small part by Cattermole and Colback's improved ball retention) and began to find joy down the flanks.

 

It was from the flanks that the equaliser came. Gyan's excellent hold up play allowed Ahmed Elmohamady to find enough room from which to whip in a cross to the far post. Here, Larsson was able to peel away from the young John Flanagan, and left Pepe Reina with no chance of saving his mid-air volley.

 

The visitors had a scare when Gyan was forced off with a niggle moments later, but his replacement Ji Dong-Won looked comfortable on his Premier League debut. Showing decent hold-up play and good footwork for a man of such tall stature, Ji helped ensure the home side were unable to exert any great amount of pressure late on. The Korean often brought onrushing midfielders into the game, and never gave the ball away in Sunderland's two defensive thirds of the pitch.

 

4-4-2 revived? Really?

 

Perhaps calling Sunderland's set-up on Saturday strictly 4-4-2 is a slight exaggeration. Whilst Sessegnon appeared to be alongside Gyan, by his very nature the Benin international would often drop deeper in search of the ball.

 

In the first half, he did this too much. As a result, lacking any real support from midfield, Gyan found himself isolated, and Liverpool often regained possession fairly easily from Sunderland's aimless long balls.

 

In the second half, Sessegnon's activity came further up the pitch, and much closer to his Ghanaian strike partner. This, combined with the home side's slower tempo and subsequent wasteful behaviour in front of goal (with Carroll the main culprit), meant the visitors were able to better assert themselves.

 

In addition, Larsson and Elmohamady offered much more of a threat in the second half. With Bruce reluctant to change formation, his wingers were required to be a much more potent threat that they had been in the opening half. This proved to be the case, with the Egyptian Elmohamady providing an assist and Larsson scoring the goal; Larsson also caused the aforementioned Flanagan no end of problems down Sunderland's left flank. Furthermore, their increased presence in the opposition half provided Gyan and Sessegnon with much better support.

 

The opposite was true of the home side. On the right, Jordan Henderson was largely anonymous throughout. His passing statistics are a perfect example of where the facts don't quite tell the story correctly; the man signed for £20m this summer misplaced only 4 of 32 passes, but almost all of those passes were sideways or backward, and thus offered little in the way of providing Liverpool with options in attack.

 

Saturday was by no means proof that football sides should look to employ 4-4-2 as religiously as they once did. However Steve Bruce did help highlight that the old system is still of some use. By encouraging greater attacking play from his wingers, ensuring Sessegnon and Gyan (and later, Ji) were closer together, and also moving his defence and midfield lines closer together, the Sunderland manager showed that 4-4-2 is not yet the overly rigid beast that many have dismissed it as.

 

Star man: Wes Brown

 

Influential in this game's turnaround, and wide acknowledged as man of the match, was debutante Wes Brown.

 

Where Henderson's stats don't represent an accurate portrayal of his performance at Anfield, Brown's certainly do. The former Manchester United player was successful with 20 out of 23 passes, 7 of 9 tackles, 6 of 6 clearances from within 18 yards of his own goal, and contributed a third of his side's interceptions over ninety minutes.

 

Steve Bruce's decision at half time to tighten the gap between defence and midfield was complimented excellently by his new centre-back, who allowed £35m man Andy Carroll barely a sniff in the second half. Much of Carroll's play after the break came in the middle third of the field, something which is representative of the good job Brown did in keeping a high line and snuffing out any chances of Liverpool breaking through their opponent's back four.

 

Where Brown led the way, the likes of Anton Ferdinand followed. Ferdinand looked assured in this game, devoid of his trademark lapses in concentration.

 

The same could also, eventually, be said for Kieran Richardson. Portraying all the hallmarks of a man who simply isn't a left-back, Richardson had a torrid first forty-five minutes. Lucky not to get sent off following the penalty incident, he then failed to track Suarez for the opening goal. However, after the break, no doubt aided by Brown's constant communication, Richardson tightened up considerably, and dealt ably with most of what was thrown at him. Aided by Sunderland's central midfield partnership retaining the ball well and being tenacious in the tackle, the away side actually experienced few difficulties once they had garnered themselves an equaliser.

 

Conclusion

 

So, what can we take away from this opening encounter?

 

Well, 4-4-2 isn't dead, not yet anyway. Sunderland's system did indeed look horribly rigid and outdated in the first half, but a few subtle changes at the break allowed them to gain a foothold in the game and come away with a deserved point.

 

Had Liverpool been less wasteful in front of goal (Andy Carroll missed six attempts on goal, more than any player in a single Premier League game over the whole of last season), Steve Bruce would have paid for his initial tactics. As it were, via a fairly large chunk of luck, the visitors weathered the storm.

 

New signing Wes Brown was a revelation, offering composure and experience in a backline that was all too lacking of it last season.

 

What follows next will be interesting indeed. Will Bruce go for a more clear 4-4-1-1 for the visit of Newcastle? Or will he ask Stephane Sessegnon to once again play further up the field, in the hope his trickery and support of Gyan will unlock the Magpies' back door?

 

Time will only tell.

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