Gus Poyet made five changes to the side defeated 4-1 by Manchester City in midweek. There were three changes in midfield as Liam Bridcutt, Adam Johnson and Jordi Gomez came in to replace Lee Cattermole, Jack Rodwell and Will Buckley. On-Loan defender Sebastian Coates was ineligible paving the way for Wes Brown to return and partner John O’Shea at centre-back, and Jozy Altidore was chosen to lead the line with Steven Fletcher deemed not fit enough to start.
Sunderland lined up in their familiar 4-1-4-1 formation.
Brendan Rodgers made two changes to the Liverpool side which recorded a 3-1 win over Leicester City on Tuesday. Alberto Moreno returned at left-back replacing fellow Spaniard Javi Manquillo, and Phillipe Coutinho featured in midfield with Steven Gerrard dropping to the bench seemingly rested ahead of the approaching Champions League tie against Basel.
Former Sunderland favourite Jordan Henderson captained the Reds in the absence of Steven Gerrard.
Liverpool set up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation.
Sunderland’s brief four game unbeaten run came to an abrupt end on Wednesday evening, but it was crucial that Gus Poyet regrouped his players and prepared them to respond in a positive manner ahead of another difficult fixture at Anfield.
Prior to the defeat to Manchester City Sunderland had looked more assured defensively in recent weeks, and seemed to have begun to establish themselves as a reasonably solid outfit who were tough to beat. The trip to Anfield in many ways was the perfect opportunity to respond to the defeat to Manchester City, and prove this to still be the case.
Prior to Saturday Liverpool had won only two of their previous seven fixtures, and are far from the free-scoring high-flyers they were last season. The departure of Luis Suarez has had a detrimental effect on the potency of Brendan Rodger’s squad, and the absence of both Mario Balotelli and Daniel Sturridge suggests that Sunderland’s task was perhaps not as big as it appeared on paper.
Of course Liverpool still possess great quality in their ranks, but they have been subject to defensive frailties of late, and Raheem Sterling is struggling to have the same impact he did last season without the presence of Suarez to attract the attention of defenders.
There’s no doubt that Poyet will have tasked his players to produce the same level of defensive performance they did against Chelsea, while also instilling a belief in his squad that Liverpool are a side that can be hurt, and that there could be points available from the fixture.
Sunderland started well and appeared determined to really take the game to Liverpool in the early stages. It became clear that witout the ball Poyet had instructed his players to press high up the field and exert a large amount of pressure on the Liverpool defence. In the first half especially Sunderland were energetic and organised, and Rodgers' side struggled to impose themselves as the dominant home team they were expected to be.
It's no secret that Jozy Altidore is a player on borrowed time at Sunderland, but for me the American at least proved on Saturday that he does in fact possess some valuable assets -if not as a goal-scorer - and he could bring a dimension to the side that no other current member of the squad really can. A close look at Altidore's stats on Saturday show that as a lone striker tasked with winning, retaining and distributing the ball, he actually put in a really efficient performance.
Altidore aerial duels
As you can see from the visuals above Altidore dominated aerially against Liverpool, and while his forward passing was not great in a creative sense, his link up play with Sunderland's supporting midfielders was. Now I know that this is perhaps being kind to Altidore who has done little to justify his transfer fee, but it's an argument to suggest that he could be utilised to his strengths if given the opportunity - and on Saturday he put in quite a respectable performance.
In yet another goalless draw for Sunderland again the defence deserves praise for a strong showing, and the attack must fall under some criticism for lacking impetus. Liam Bridcutt is a player I really like, and again the 25-year-old made a real case to Gus Poyet for a permanent place in the starting XI.
Poyet is blessed with a real selection headache with his two holding midfielders seemingly in the best form of their careers, and that's something which will no doubt please the Uruguayan. But it begs a question, could they play together?
To include both Cattermole and Bridcutt in the same side would most likely mean a change of shape, and it's perhaps arguable that a shift to a 4-2-3-1 style could benefit Poyet's side a great deal. We've only ever seen the Sunderland manager dabble with one other system (3-5-2) and it was highly unsuccessful, but with Sunderland currently the third lowest scoring team in the division maybe this is the perfect solution. A combative midfield two of Bridcutt and Cattermole would allow freedom for a more offensive player to support Sunderland's soul striker centrally, and ultimately render the Black Cats a more threatening side in attack.
This is merely a suggestion, and it doesn't come without it's counter arguments. For instance where would Sebastian Larsson fit into this side? the experienced Swede has been the stand out performer for me so far this season and in my eyes dropping him is not an option. Also, aside from the 8-0 defeat to Southampton, Sunderland have looked an improved team on last season, so to tinker with what is at the moment a relatively successful formula could prove to have a negative effect on results.
Sunderland could perhaps have snatched all three points at Anfield, but nevertheless the game ended at 0-0 and the Black Cats recorded a very respectable away point. Poyet's side showed good character in response to their defeat to Manchester City, and there was perhaps an indication there that the Uruguayan's squad holds some strength in depth.
A really solid point for Sunderland in a game where few would have predicted the Black Cats leaving with anything.
Plenty to be positive about with Sunderland recording their 5th clean sheet of the season, but Poyet's side have now scored only once in their previous four games. There's an element of frustration that goes alongside Sunderland's apparent progression, the lack of goals. The injection of goals could make a real difference in terms of Sunderland kicking on and establishing themselves higher up the Premier League table, but I suppose Poyet just needs to be granted more time - he is getting there slowly but surely.
The Black Cats must now prepare for what will no doubt be yet another tricky fixture at home to a high-flying West Ham.