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Talking Tactics: Liverpool (H) - Toothless Sunderland Disappoint Again

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Lazar Markovic scored the only goal of the game as Sunderland were beaten 1-0 by Liverpool at the Stadium of Light.

Michael Regan/Getty Images

Line Up

Sunderland were boosted by Emanuele Giaccherini and Patrick Van Aanholt’s return to the starting eleven as Gus Poyet made three changes to the side which lost 3-2 to Manchester City on New Years Day.

The Uruguayan made a bold decision to drop fit-again Billy Jones to the bench in favour of starting Santiago Vergini at right-back, and Liam Bridcutt was given the nod to play in front of the defence in the absence of Lee Cattermole.

Connor Wickham led the line for the Black Cats with Steven Fletcher missing due to injury.

Sunderland lined up in their familiar 4-1-4-1 formation.

Opposition

Brendan Rodgers has made giant strides to improving Liverpool’s fortunes thanks mostly to a change in shape. With the reds now operating in a 3-4-3 system, Rodger’s side are unbeaten since their 3-0 defeat to Manchester United back in mid-December, and had won five out of their last seven in all competitions prior to their visit to Sunderland.

There were returns to the Stadium of Light for three former Sunderland players. Simon Mignolet continued in goal for the Merseyside club despite a run of bad form, while Jordan Henderson featured in centre-midfield behind Fabio Borini who led the line for the Reds.

Approach

With conditions as they were, any match-specific plans made prior to the game were certain to be difficult to deploy. On a day where much of the North East were being issued weather warnings, it would not have been a surprise if the game had been called off due to the heightened risks facing travelling supporters.

However with the game going ahead and in such extreme conditions, there was perhaps a greater opportunity for Poyet to exploit what is arguably Liverpool’s primary current weakness – Simon Mignolet. With the former Sunderland goalkeeper notorious for his difficulties handling high balls into his penalty area - particularly from set plays - this could be a chance for the Black Cats to really make a nuisance of themselves and damage Liverpool.

Execution

There isn’t a great deal to be said about the game on Saturday other than the fact that the match was won by the side who better handled the conditions. Referee Craig Pawson had a questionable game making so many controversial decisions that I think it would be difficult to call just which set of fans he frustrated the most, and the whole thing made for a very poor spectacle. I did however manage to pick out one or two aspects of the game worth talking about.

From an attacking perspective Sunderland were poor. There seemed to be a total absence of communication – especially in midfield – and on numerous occasions offensive phases in play broke down far too easily due to misplaced pass or a misunderstanding between two players. Of course, again, negotiating the conditions was difficult on the day so it is forgivable, but Liverpool didn’t appear to be facing the same issues.

For me, Connor Wickham had a desperately bad game on Saturday, and I’m becoming more and more convinced by the week that the striker does not have what it takes to succeed in the Premier League. I’m even starting to believe that Paolo Di Canio had him pegged from day one. Wickham’s on-field attitude infuriates me, and his contribution when Sunderland aren’t in possession is something which he really needs to improve if he is to forge a career in England’s top flight. I’m not suggesting that Wickham should have been busting a gut for 90 minutes chasing down each ball Liverpool played along their backline -because that would be unreasonable – but he was practically static and looked to me uninterested in helping his teammates out defensively whatsoever. In fact, the only goal of the game originates from Wickham failing to contribute defensively. The passage of play which led to Liverpool’s breakthrough began in their own defensive third. Wickham showed absolutely no intention of pressuring the ball, forcing Emanuele Giaccherini to break ranks in midfield in order to do so leaving Sunderland outnumbered and vulnerable. The Black Cats still made a hash of clearly the danger, but the move could have been prevented.

To be fair to Connor Wickham, he was handed a tough gig by Poyet matching a lone striker with three opposition centre-halves. With Sunderland being reduced to 10 men early in the second half we’ll never know whether or not Poyet intended to address that imbalance, so in that respect I’ll give Wickham the benefit of the doubt this week.

One final point regarding Sunderland’s attacking play was their approach to set pieces. The Black Cats had four offensive free-kick’s and six corners on Saturday and not once was a man tasked with sticking close to Simon Mignolet and making the Liverpool goalkeeper work hard to collect or clear the ball. This is Liverpool’s biggest current weakness, and I think Sunderland allowed the Belgian an easy game.

Defensively, aside from perhaps John O’Shea, Sunderland were collectively poor. Poyet’s decision to start Santiago Vergini ahead of Billy Jones could have been motivated by Liverpool’s offensive formation, and it may be that the Uruguayan preferred the idea of having three natural centre-halves on the field – especially if he intended to play narrow in order to neutralise Liverpool. As it was, Vergini probably had one of his worst games in a Sunderland shirt and his inabilities as an attacking full-back meant it was difficult for the Black Cats to get out and progress up the field. A bad call from Poyet in my opinion.

Liam Bridcutt is a player I like, and he’s someone who I have spoken highly of in previous weeks. Unfortunately however, he wasn't at the races on Saturday, and his disappointing performance was brought to a premature end with a sending off; although it could be argued his red card was a harsh one. The main issue was that the 25-year-old seemed to be at the centre of Sunderland’s breakdown in communications, which was a surprise to me because I genuinely consider him to have one of the best footballing brains at the club. The midfielder will now miss the game away at Arsenal next weekend and is unlikely to reclaim his place in the side with Lee Cattermole expected back from injury – not that any of Bridcutt’s recent outstanding performances have warranted him keeping his place mind.

Despite his somewhat poor performance, Bridcutt still managed to successfully complete 31 out of his 38 attempted passes.

Conclusion

A game which I’m happy to overlook. Very difficult footballing conditions and although Sunderland did very little to impress, it’s still only a 1-0 defeat to Liverpool.

Adam Johnson deserves a mention for showing some desire to get Sunderland back into the game in the second half. The 27-year-old went very close to equalising with a long-range effort which came back off the bar, I only wish he could be consistent with his influence and perform for the full 90 minutes rather than his regular 15 minute spells.

Sign a centre-forward Gus.