Sunderland left Anfield empty handed on Saturday, and while defeat will not help in the annual fight against relegation the end result should not distract from what was an encouraging performance from The Lads.
Despite Liverpool’s dominance of the ball, the game was largely in the balance until Divock Origi’s superb 75th minute opener. In fact, Sunderland arguably had the better clear-cut chances in the game, with Steven Pienaar and Duncan Watmore wasting promising openings with the game goalless.
Sunderland were resolute, keeping Liverpool at bay through a combination of defensive organisation and intelligent pressing. And a great deal of this was down to the midfield - or at least two of them.
Didier Ndong and Jason Denayer showed further signs of encouragement in their development as midfielders. Steven Pienaar, on the other hand, looked out of place and was the weakest member of the middle trio. Playing against an aggressive and energetic Liverpool, Pienaar simply did not have the physical capabilities to perform effectively in his role, particularly as the game went on.
As we noted before the game, Liverpool’s domination of the ball allows them time to pick passes and exploit the spaces created by their attacking movement. But strong defensive organisation focusing on zones, and carefully considered pressing, as executed by Burnley in Liverpool’s only defeat this season, can restrict their ability to create chances. For a large part of Saturday’s game, Sunderland executed this tactic to perfection.
If we look at the image below, the Sunderland defence maintains a deep line, focusing on solidity and positional solidarity. When the ball is pressed, the player is careful not to be too aggressive, therefore reducing the chance of the Liverpool player getting goalside beyond them. There’s very few ways for Liverpool to progress in this situation. They can look for an inch perfect, eye-of-the-needle through ball which has very little chance of reaching its target, or they can look to move the ball wide, where their only option is to cross the ball into a crowded penalty area.
Ndong, in particular, does a great job of hurrying the Liverpool players here. They’re still comfortable in possession but they don’t have anywhere near the amount of time on the ball that they’re accustomed to. While the emphasis is placed on protecting a zone in this style of defence, it’s still important to ensure that players aren’t given a free, off the ball run on goal. In this case, Denayer never takes his eyes off Philippe Coutinho, ensuring that the Brazilian can’t find space to influence the play.
How does this relate to Pienaar? Just minutes before this phase of play, Pienaar attempted to intercept a pass from Coutinho to Georginio Wijnaldum.
It’s a risky attempt to make, but perhaps a calculated one. If Pienaar wins the ball then he will be a great position to counter-attack. But he doesn’t. Wijnaldum sidesteps him and Liverpool are presented with an overload on the right wing, which thankfully led to nothing. Maybe this is harsh and overly picky - Pienaar only had a split-second to make a decision in this instance, after all.
But less than ten minutes later, Pienaar showed a much greater lack of positional awareness. We can once again see how Sunderland, with Ndong and Denayer leading the charge, have successfully pushed Liverpool’s most creative threat away from Jordan Pickford’s goal and blocked off his passing lanes. There’s seemingly nowhere for him to go - towards the Sunderland area, at least. But Pienaar switches off and allows Wijnaldum to make a simple run off the back of him. Thankfully for Pienaar, John O’Shea was able to close down the Dutchman and restrict his space.
Pienaar struggled to come to terms with the pace of the game on Saturday, and it’s really no surprise. The South African played just 432 minutes of Premier League football in his last two seasons at Everton and spent a huge 413 days injured between August 2014 and January 2016. A shocking two minute period in which he gave the ball away to Emre Can before booting Sadio Mane in the chest summed up how much he was struggling.
His two fellow midfielders were impressive off the ball, which further highlights Pienaar’s ineffectiveness. Ndong won five tackles, more than anybody else on the pitch (tied with Billy Jones), and worked tirelessly to press Liverpool’s ball carriers. Coutinho spent just 33 peripheral minutes on the pitch before departing with injury. Denayer made sure that he stuck to the Brazilian like glue, following his every movement. And Coutinho really struggled to get into the game as a result, creating just one chance and failing to register a shot.
Pienaar’s failings off the ball were almost matched by his failings on the ball. With his experience and technical ability, the least that could be expected from him was to be able to pass the ball accurately and efficiently, particularly with how little possession Sunderland enjoyed. But Pienaar was one of the side’s worst performers with just 56% pass accuracy. Admittedly, Liverpool’s intense pressing game reduces the time a player has on the ball, but both Ndong and Denayer managed to complete more than 80% of their passes.
To counter this, to an extent, we have to understand that Moyes has been hamstrung by injuries, particularly in midfield, and that playing Pienaar there was probably not something that he would have hoped to do - for this length of time at least. Pienaar himself is unlikely to relish playing in a deep-lying centre midfield role, especially at the age of 34. He has not played in that position since he arrived in the Premier League and is now being expected to win tackles and get around the pitch in the latter stages of his career.
It comes as no surprise that Pienaar’s best moments were in advanced areas, but Moyes seems set on maintaining the 4-3-3 shape. He lacks the pace and energy to play on the wing, and it seems unlikely that Moyes will look to employ an attacking midfielder in the future.
Sunderland need to battle hard each and every week, and Pienaar is unfortunately not fit for purpose in the middle of the park - or at least to start in midfield each week. With Sebastian Larsson, Jan Kirchhoff and Papy Djilobodji returning from injury and suspension respectively, Moyes would be wise to consider making a change for the visit of Leicester this coming Saturday.
That’s not to say that there’s no place for Steven Pienaar at Sunderland, though. He has a wealth of experience that can be incredibly useful on the training ground and in the changing room, particularly for the younger members of the squad. Pienaar was a fantastic technical winger in his prime, and the likes of Watmore and Lynden Gooch in particular would be wise to tap into that knowledge.
But his playing role should largely be restricted to making substitute appearances. Sunderland need a dynamic, energetic midfield to compete, and Pienaar sadly just does not provide that. His experience and know-how when Sunderland are looking to close out games could be vital.
Sunderland have had success in recent years with older, out of contract players. Bolo Zenden, in particular, was an influential figure in Steve Bruce’s side and brought some much-needed experience and class. But you can’t win them all, and it looks like Sunderland haven’t won this time.