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Talking Tactics: SAFC May Have Lost But They’re Now Looking Difficult To Beat

Despite losing 2-0 on Saturday to high-fliers Liverpool, David Moyes' side continued to look somewhat improved - they were better organised defensively and weren't too bad going forward, either. Here's Rory Fallow's breakdown of Sunderland's tactical plan in the game at Anfield on Saturday, taking a look at what we did right, and what we did wrong.

Compared To Last Month, We Now Look Hard To Beat

After two games where the post match focus has been all about what Sunderland did in an attacking sense, this game was always going to be about how they did defensively. Liverpool dominated possession, as expected, but David Moyes' men were well organised, determined and tough to break down. Off the ball, they were fantastic for the most part.

It’s interesting to compare this game to the defeat to Arsenal, just one month ago, given how much better Sunderland were against a side with similar levels of attacking quality.

Everything was much more improved at Anfield and it is clear when you look at how Moyes’ men were performing a few months ago. Despite having less possession when they played Arsenal, Sunderland were second best in terms of tackles made and aerial duels won but that changed against Liverpool - 21 tackles was four more than against Arsenal, and 27 aerial duels was a huge 16 more. A big slice of praise should go to Victor Anichebe for the challenges in the air, he won 10 alone (most of which were in the middle of the pitch) and showed us we can rely on him to take the pressure off the defence in tough games. It was also pleasing to see The Black Cats dispossess their opponents more than they did them, showing that they weren’t giving up the ball as easily as they did earlier in the season.

AFC Bournemouth v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Alex Morton/Getty Images

It may all seem basic but it proves that the team is making progress and are beginning to improve. If they can make a Liverpool side with sways of attacking talent work that hard for their win, Moyes and the team are certainly doing something right. They moved fluidly, not just in attack but in defence, not allowing Liverpool’s clever movement get the better of them very often. The Sunderland players picked their battles well, knowing when to press and when to step in a make the tackle. Hopefully it’s just further proof that the recent back-to-back wins weren’t flukes and there’s now something to build on.

Even though Sunderland had more possession against Arsenal they didn’t create as many opportunities, looking largely unthreatening going forward. Now though, with a much more potent attacking plan, Sunderland were able to use their possession to create chances. In the second half, with the match still level, Patrick van Aanholt cut inside from the left and found Anichebe, who held off the defender to lay the ball to Duncan Watmore. A poor first touch took the opportunity away from Watmore but it was still encouraging to see Sunderland creating, despite being up against it for the majority of the ninety minutes.

Even early on in the game, The Lads were bright going forward and a Billy Jones long ball found it’s way to Steven Pienaar, only for the midfielder to be denied by Loris Karius.

Speaking on Goals On Sunday, Jermain Defoe mentioned the team had been looking to mirror Atletico Madrid’s style of play and, with quick countering like that, we're seeing small signs of improvement. If only we had Antoine Griezmann, eh?

The Makings Of A Strong Midfield

Didier Ndong gave an excellent account of himself in this game as he made it is mission to cover every blade of Anfield grass. If you go back and watch the game, you’ll notice that Ndong is always in the main camera’s shot, which is the best evidence of how tirelessly he worked off the ball.

While you can maybe criticise his lack of decisiveness in possession and he doesn’t take many risks when on the ball, he did his defensive duties exceptionally - he made five tackles, the joint highest of all the players on the pitch. This wasn’t a game for him to take risks in though, so we won’t be too harsh on him for that.

What we can be harsh on him for is giving away that daft penalty at the end - let's hope that he doesn't make those types of decisions too often.

It’s been a difficult time for the Gabon international though, signing for a new club in a new league that is struggling and having to learn a different language, so I’m glad he’s put in a good shift against such a strong team.

Liverpool v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Alongside Ndong, Jason Denayer once again gave a good showing in the deep lying midfield role. Even with Jan Kirchhoff being close to full fitness again, you certainly wouldn’t want to take Denayer out of the side if he keeps putting in these kind of displays. It was always going to be interesting to see how he fared after the Hull game, given he’d have much more to do against Jurgen Klopp’s team. It was vital that Sunderland had a midfielder who would be calm in possession, and would bring the ball out when required without giving it away. Denayer did that by completing a couple of dribbles and only giving away the ball once.

Both men can be pleased with their work against Liverpool and if they keep up that level of pressing, tackling and all-round graft they’ll make things tough for any opponent.

The Resurgent Billy Jones & Another Organised Defensive Display

Is this really the same Billy Jones that had that nightmare at Anfield last season?

Credit should go to Jones for his recent performances - coming back from injury and after the manager has signed two players in his position, he’s forced his way back into the team. Fair enough, Donald Love and Javier Manquillo haven’t exactly staked a strong claim to be starting games as right back, but Jones has applied himself to make sure he’s in the side.

Jones didn’t just hang back in the Sunderland half, though. Like the midfielders, he made sure the Liverpool players didn’t have free rein to attack down his flank by pressing high up when needed. If you take a look at his heatmap, Jones spent a large amount of the game just inside the Liverpool half even though most of his touches came inside his own. It made it difficult for Liverpool to attack down Sunderland’s right and they had to look elsewhere.

AFC Bournemouth v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images

It wasn’t just Jones though - the centre half pairing of John O’Shea and Lamine Kone looked strong and difficult to breach. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that Kone plays better alongside O’Shea (or Younes Kaboul if you go back further), allowing the more experienced, leader type player to organise and dictate. With O’Shea doing that, Kone could get on with breaking up Liverpool’s play, as he made 7 interceptions, a very impressive tally. Both centre halves swept up the lose balls effectively too, clearing it a combined twenty times.

Behind them, Jordan Pickford continued to look confident, commanding and it took a quality strike to finally beat him. All round, the defenders were slightly unlucky to not make it two clean sheets on bounce, but if they play with that level of concentration and endeavour every week, the next one will come soon enough.