David Moyes’ first visit to Merseyside as Sunderland manager ended in defeat. Not the kind of defeat Sunderland supporters have been used to seeing this season though. This was a defeat with much more fight, determination and organisation. A defeat that they can actually take some positives from.
It was a half first half where Liverpool struggled to break Sunderland down. In the opening twenty minutes, the visitors seemed just as likely to break the deadlock, with Duncan Watmore looking especially bright. Jordan Pickford was showcasing his excellent distribution is it almost got Jermain Defoe in to score, while generally providing an outlet to the forwards. The best chance of the opening stages fell to Steven Pienaar though, who connected with a long ball over the top but Loris Karius was quick off his line to block the shot. It was a warning to Liverpool though, a warning that The Black Cats were here to do more than just defend.
Despite that threat, those were rare instances of Sunderland having possession in the first half, as the stats read 80% to Liverpool as the sides left the field. Off the ball though, Moyes’ men were superb as the likes of John O’Shea and Steven Pienaar organised & dictated through the middle and Didier Ndong made an attempt to cover every blade of grass. Struggling to break Sunderland down in open play, it took a set piece for Liverpool to give The Lads their first real fright, when Dejan Lovren headed Jordan Henderson’s free kick wide. An unmarked Lovren really should have scored but before then, the home team had been reduced to shots from distance that Pickford dealt with comfortably.
As the half wore on with ample added time, due to an injured assistant referee and Philippe Coutinho being stretchered off, Liverpool were starting to find a rhythm. Divock Origi, on for Coutinho, gave Jurgen Klopp some added physicality up front and it led to Sunderland becoming more stretched. The ball was finding it’s way into the box more often but without Pickford being too troubled and Sunderland were able to withstand the pressure and go in at half time level.
Liverpool began the second half as they ended the previous, pushing high up and trying to force the issue. Joel Matip typified their play as he started carrying the ball deep into Sunderland territory. Fifty two minutes in and a great chance came as Can lobbed over the top for Wijnaldum to miss hit the ball across goal and James Milner was inches from stabbing home. Sunderland were living dangerously and five minutes later, Firmino twisted and turned to bring a save out of Pickford at the near post.
There was a brief flurry of Sunderland pressure though, beginning with a free kick on sixty six minutes. It was a good break, where Patrick van Aanholt should have played in Watmore before being fouled. A huge opportunity followed when Victor Anichebe got control in the Liverpool box and laid it to Watmore, but a poor first touch squandered the chance. Failing to get a shot away, Watmore took possession wide, Liverpool managed to clear their lines and Sunderland had wasted a big chance.
Control was taken back by Liverpool almost instantly and Jurgen Klopp was keen to make sure supporters kept backing the players, as he began cheerleading on the sidelines. A free kick was put over the bar by boyhood Sunderland fan Jordan Henderson, after a harsh decision from referee Anthony Taylor. The ball was long gone by the time Pienaar caught Winjaldum but Henderson couldn’t keep his shot down regardless. A Liverpool corner followed and Jason Denayer had to be quick to block Mane’s shot inside the six yard box.
On seventy five minutes, Sunderland’s resistance was finally broken when Divock Origi curled into the bottom corner. As the Belgian picked up the ball at a wider angle, every player seemed to be expecting the cross but it was a well placed effort, just creeping past Pickford. While Sunderland may have felt hard done too, given their dedication, it was a goal that had been coming for a long time.
Sunderland huffed and puffed in the closing stages, but looked both physically and mentally exhausted. Duncan Watmore & Steven Piennar were replaced by Adnan Januzaj & Lynden Gooch not long after the goal but were unable to penetrate, as Liverpool kept possession to see the game out. To make sure there’d be no messing around, Klopp signalled his intention to shut the game down as Lucas Levia took the place of Firmino.
Just as the game approached stoppage time, Liverpool were given the opportunity to seal the game from the spot. Sadio Mane broke down the right, got away from Denayer and was fouled by Ndong as he began to get a sight of goal. It was a shame to see Ndong end the game with a mistake, as he’d been very good off the ball and made some good tackles. Sending Pickford the wrong way, James Milner converted the penalty and the home side could breath easy now.
Despite the scoreline, there are still positives to take from this game for David Moyes and Sunderland. Compared to how they played against Arsenal just one month ago, this was lightyears better. In a game where they weren’t expected to take anything, Sunderland left everything on the pitch and made Liverpool really work for their win. When you further consider just how easily they turned over the likes of Watford and Hull, you realise just how well The Lads did today. If nothing else, it shows that this team have something to build upon and the quality shown in the back to back wins didn’t come from nothing.