With all the controversy surrounding last week's Tyne-Wear derby continuing well into the following week, many could have been forgiven for not realising the importance of Sunderland's next game. Important it was though, as the Black Cats welcomed Liverpool to the Stadium of Light. The home side ran out 1-0 victors in a fairly scrappy affair, giving them just their third victory on Wearside against the Reds since 1958, whilst condemning Kenny Dalglish's side to a third consecutive league defeat for the first time in almost a decade.
Devoid of Lee Cattermole and Stephane Sessegnon following their early (or late, in Cattermole's case) departures from the Sports Direct Arena, Martin O'Neill was forced to rejig his side without his captain or, arguably, Sunderland's most effective player this season. As a result, the red and whites opted for a 4-4-2 formation. Fraizer Campbell came in for Sessegnon, partnering Nicklas Bendtner up front, while Jack Colback filled in for the absent captain in the deep-lying midfield role. The only other change from last week's starting line-up came at left-back; Wayne Bridge replaced the injured Kieran Richardson.
The visitors opted for a 4-5-1. Much maligned Uruguayan Luis Suarez was chosen ahead of Andy Carroll in the Merseysiders' sole striking role, flanked by two advanced wingers in the forms of Craig Bellamy and Jordan Henderson. Dirk Kuyt was selected in a central role, operating as the furthest forward in a midfield three that consisted of Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. At the back the selection of Sebastian Coates over Jamie Carragher suggested the winding down of an era for the latter; Coates was partnered by Martin Skrtel. Tasking with the unenviable challenge of keeping James McClean quiet was Martin Kelly on Liverpool's right side of defence, with he and fellow full-back Jose Enrique seeking to protect Pepe Reina in the Liverpool goal.
In all honestly, Saturday's game was not a great one. It was extremely scrappy at times and slow to get going, but there still some interesting elements thrown up - despite how the sides were fairly evenly matched throughout.
A look at the two sides' average positions over the 90 minutes is as good a place as any to start. Firstly, Sunderland. The Black Cats' 4-4-2 was a rather traditional one - two central midfielders playing tight and plugging the gaps, two wingers expected to get forward to a big man-little man strike partnership.
Nicklas Bendtner is not, of course, the archetypal 'big man', but he combined well with Fraizer Campbell and got his just rewards with the games only goal. Bendtner's hold-up play was excellent, drawing Campbell, the two wingers and Craig Gardner into the game at various times, and it was in part his good work that ensured Sunderland controlled the game up until their goal.
The other major factor in this control was the performance of the rest of the side's spine. The 'attack zones' graphic (shown later in this article) dictates that Liverpool attempted only 26% of their attacks through the middles, and this was down to the excellent work of Colback and Gardner in Sunderland's middle. Though filling in for Cattermole, Colback actually played more advanced that the suspended captain does - he still shielded his defence, but with only Luis Suarez up front for the visitors, the young Sunderland midfield was able to stay closer to midfield partner Gardner. It worked well and he put in an excellent display. Colback's most intriguing statistic was that he drew five fouls in the game; this relieved any pressure on Sunderland, as well as showing how the home midfield fared better in tight midfield combat than their opponents.
Prior to their late pressure, Liverpool offered very little going forward. Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson were very poor in the middle; Adam gave away three fouls, as did Jay Spearing, and the Scot seemed to focus more on playing difficult passes as opposed to moving the game forward in a beneficial way for his side.
With Henderson forced inside - perhaps indicating again that he is a central midfielder, not a winger - Dirk Kuyt largely anonymous and Craig Bellamy poor (more on that later), it was left to Luis Suarez to forage any kind of attacking opportunity. To his credit, when he remained on his feet, the Uruguayan was lively, but it remains that his finishing is not that which would be expected of a man who cost in the region of £23m. Credit must be afforded again, however, to John O'Shea and Michael Turner. For the second week in a row these two were defensive powerhouses (7 tackles, 6 interceptions and 25 clearances between them), keeping out both Suarez and then the dreadful Andy Carroll when he arrived as a second-half substitute. Much like Newcastle last week prior to the sending off of Stephane Sessegnon, Sunderland opponent's were largely limited to speculative efforts from outside the area.
A Good Old-Fashioned Tussle
This game threw up one particular delight for traditionalists - a right old battle between winger and full-back. Sunderland's James McClean came up against a fellow youngster in the shape of Martin Kelly, in a tussle that intrigued and entertained throughout the 90 minutes.
Despite Sunderland's eventual victory, this particular matchup saw a tie. McClean was successful in two of his dribbles, but also saw himself dispossessed twice. He attempted five crosses in the duration of the game, though notably none of them were met by a red and white shirt - this was both a combination of Kelly's reluctance to let him get to the byline frequently, and good defending in the middle by Coates and Skrtel.
As for Kelly, the frequency of his individual battles against McClean become evident by looking at Liverpool's tackling statistics. The young Englishman completed no fewer than eight challenges, more than double anyone else in a Liverpool shirt - and 40% of his side's overall total. He managed two interceptions and was effective with two-thirds of his clearances. He also adapted to the McClean threat well. In the early stages, evidently trying not to allow the Irishman to get to the line, Kelly gave him a bit more room but held firm at the edge of the area. With McClean picking the ball up deeper than that, it meant he had the time and space to put in some fairly dangerous crosses. Realising this, Kelly soon got closer, and what followed was an entertaining battle.
Of course, recent observers of Sunderland will know that McClean's game is not limited to what he does when on the ball. He again contributed well defensively, stopping both Kelly and Jordan Henderson from gaining advantageous positions on Liverpool's right side. With Wayne Bridge looking somewhat shaky at first (though he grew more comfortable as the game went on), McClean's two successful tackles and single interception were important in the first half.
Perhaps as a result of the above battle, Sunderland actually limited their use of the left side when building attacks. They primarily focused on the opposite wing instead, where Seb Larsson actually saw relative success against ex-Newcastle United defender Jose Enrique.
Larsson produced a game-high of nine crosses and, though only two found Sunderland players, this suggests that the Black Cats choice to focus attacks down the right was a wise one. With Craig Bellamy playing ahead of Enrique, the Spaniard was unlikely to be helped out much by his teammate, and so Sunderland saw their opportunity to capitalise. Larsson's hefty number of crosses, despite not producing a goal, were a key attacking outlet for the Black Cats, and ensured Enrique's mind was focused more on defending that getting forward - something he is adept at when given the chance.
With regards to Bellamy, he was the man through which the Reds sought to create something. At first glance this was a sensible move - the Welshman possesses pace in abundance, something which Phil Bardsley would likely struggle with if he found himself turned and running towards his own goal.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Bellamy had a fairly torrid game - his 84% pass success rate belies his true performance (the majority of these passes were non-threatening ones that Sunderland were happy to let him make). He actually made a bright start, getting past Bardsley once or twice, but even then his end product was poor. He contributed just one cross - unsuccessful - and didn't even manage a shot on Simon Mignolet's goal. His poor performance did little to aid an increasingly isolated Luis Suarez, and he was rightfully taken off with just over twenty minutes remaining.
A scrappy affair that was overly interrupted by the referee's whistle, particularly in the first half, yet Sunderland deserved their victory on Saturday. They controlled the game in the opening 45 minutes, with only a wind-assisted Charlie Adam free-kick and a Suarez dribble and shot troubling Mignolet. Despite the fortunate nature of Nicklas Bendtner's goal, it came as a result of Sunderland forcing the play against a Liverpool side that looked all too often short of ideas. Both sides defended impressively, as would be expected from their respective records this season, but it was the red and whites that took their chance when it mattered this time around.
After the goal, O'Neill's side conformed to what Daniel Finkelstein's column in Saturday's Times found: teams who go a goal ahead in games are then likely to cede the majority of possession after that goal. The home side effectively said to Liverpool, "come and break us down" - Kenny Dalglish's side's attempts to do so were poor at best. The introduction of Steven Gerrard did offer a brief spark, but resolute displays by the home back four - who refused to wilt or worry under pressure, even with last week's late equaliser still fresh in mind - ensured a clean sheet and all three points for the Wearsiders.