I was disappointed when Liverpool didn’t win the league a few years ago. To me they were the underdogs, playing exciting football, scoring and conceding goals with breathtaking regularity and led by the controversial, but undeniably brilliant, Luis Suarez.
Since then, Liverpool have lost big names, replaced mainly with young players instead of the established quality that may have pushed them from second to first. Now they have a squad with players who quickly need to realise their potential, as expectation for a serious title challenge in the seasons to come has mounted since Jurgen Klopp took over. This season feels very much like a dry run for Klopp, testing his squad and biding his time and money for the summer.
For all of Liverpool’s problems, they are still a team with talented individuals and are more than capable, given the right motivation and combination, of scoring goals and putting on a five star show.
So how do we stop them?
This is only an issue if Benteke plays, which is far from a sure thing. Klopp seems to prefer the false nine formation, with Firmino in a central position flanked by Lallana, Ibe or Milner in a fluid attack. However, if Klopp has glanced at the stats Benteke boasts against Sunderland, he’d be mad to leave him out.
It’s fair to say Benteke loves playing against Sunderland. With six goals in six appearances, including a goal at the Stadium of Light earlier this season, we’ve had our problems containing Benteke in the past. His height, pace and power has often left our defenders powerless. He has enjoyed less success at Liverpool so far, but retains the qualities that made him so effective against us in the past.
Lamine Koné’s promising debut demonstrated he has the qualities to be a very important player for us. Koné’s strength, pace and commitment means he stands a better chance of stifling Benteke than any defender we have. Koné will be vital if we are to emerge with anything from the game.
However, Koné has played only one game for us and still has a long way to go before proving that he can be the defensive rock we so desperately need him to be. Just as Jan Kirchhoff’s debut was not a fair reflection on him, a strong debut from Koné must not lead to us getting carried away. There were occasions where he misjudged the bounce of the ball and lacked some composure. The next few games will give us a better indication of Koné’s abilities.
Don’t Play Three At The Back
Big Sam has played three at the back away from home several times this season, with mixed success to say the least. It went disastrously wrong at Everton and Tottenham, while it went much better against Crystal Palace. The occasions on which the formation did not work may be blamed on the personnel available and fatigue, but I believe that a 3-5-2, or 5-3-2 as we play it, is vulnerable against a team that employs attacking full backs.
Liverpool’s full backs, Moreno and Clyne, are renowned for their attacking forays, making wing backs insufficient to counter these tactics. As Liverpool play a false nine formation, the central attacker will drift from his position, while our two wide centre backs will be stretched to wide areas to cover Lallana and Ibe, or our midfielders will be forced to adopt wider positions to do so. This will leave large gaps in the middle through which Liverpool can pass.
I am not as enamored with the three centre backs formation as others, as I don’t feel it suits English football and it is far more difficult to get right. M’Vila’s visible confusion at Spurs when Eriksen picked up the ball and was able to turn, head towards goal unchallenged and shoot, epitomised the problems that constant meddling with formations can create.
Furthermore, I think the set up we had of three defensive midfielders worked excellently against Manchester City, allowing Jones and Van Aanholt to push on in the knowledge that there are three midfielders who can go wide to cover their attacks. We would be foolish to change it, unless we had to manage Kirchhoff’s fitness, considering he has gone so long without playing much football.
The only change I would be tempted to make is Khazri who seems to offer a bit more of a willing outlet to get on the ball and make things happen. His place will probably be at the expense of Jeremain Lens, who is an injury doubt, but also isn’t a player to have in the team when we are on the back foot, often appearing isolated and lost in wide areas.
Press The Ball And Play N’Doye
Big Sam has been saying that the fitness of the players has improved since he took charge. This will be an excellent test of that, as Jurgen Klopp will demand intensity from his players, pressing high up the pitch and winning the ball back quickly in advanced positions. Despite Liverpool’s ability to press high and pass the ball, we cannot be so respectful of them that we stand off and allow them to pass the ball around the edge of our own box.
We need to get tight, jostle them and give them no time on the ball. Our main failing is the inability to get tight to wide players and stop crosses from coming in, while we must remain compact so Liverpool cannot pass through us or have the freedom to shoot from the edge of the box. We do not need to do this too high up the pitch but we should aim to do more than camp on the edge of our own box against this Liverpool team. They possess the talent to pick a pass, provide quality crosses and score from outside the box.
I think in this game, we should give Dame N’Doye an opportunity from the start. He’s not the most glamorous or exciting player, but this is exactly the sort of game in which we need a player up front who can hold on to the ball. Liverpool’s pressure on our defence will at times necessitate clearing the ball long and relying on someone to hold the ball up and stop wave after wave of attack. Bringing a fresh Jermain Defoe on with half an hour to go might be the best idea.
Make The Most Of Set Pieces
Having seen Wahbi Khazri delivering set pieces on Tuesday night, I am excited about the possibilities a set piece specialist has opened up for Sunderland. While Larsson has been excellent at free kicks, I feel quality, consistency and ingenuity from corners has been lacking for a long time, probably since the days of Sean Thornton. We have had several capable set piece takers since then, but in terms of consistent, pinpoint delivery time after time, it seems Khazri is the main man.
And we come up against a Liverpool defence not exactly know for their composure or stability under pressure. It is concerning that we cannot score even one goal against a Man City side who were missing Kompany and have been lambasted for defensive fragility. A similar criticism could be made about our inability to score against Liverpool in December. This, of course, needs to change if we are to stay up.
Mignolet is far from assured from set pieces, while Liverpool’s defence have little confidence in his ability to come for crosses and dominate the penalty area. If we can produce the quality we saw against Man City, I would be confident to say that Mignolet will make errors that we can capitalise on.
Are Liverpool In Form?
Liverpool are 8th, five points off 6th placed West Ham, with their Champions League hopes long gone, with some wondering if Liverpool would rather avoid the Europa League positions of 5th, 6th and 7th on purpose. I do not believe it is in Klopp's personality to avoid victories, particularly since they will qualify for the Europa League anyway if they win the League Cup final, which they will obviously want to do.
They are 12th in the form table, having taken 7 points from their last six - incidentally the same as us. In their last six home games, they have 2 wins, 2 losses and 2 draws, though their last three at home have been against Leicester, Arsenal and Man Utd.
Overall, Liverpool boast the joint 6th worst defence in the league and are only the 10th highest scorers. Our old goalkeeper Simon Mignolet has come in for severe criticism, though there is no doubt he is the best goalkeeper Liverpool have. Nevertheless, his judgement and handling have continued to be suspect and a source of nerves for both the players and the fans.
Their form will no doubt get a boost by the return from injury of Phillipe Coutinho, who is likely to be on the bench on Saturday. Coutinho has five goals and three assists so far this season, while his general positivity and ability on the ball causes defences significant problems. Liverpool have lost four of the seven games they have been without him this season. Compare this to losing four of the seventeen he has played in, it is clear Coutinho is an influential player. Should he play, stopping him will be key to any positive result.
Klopp will be looking for a reaction after the 2-0 defeat in midweek at Leicester, where they played some decent football, but were largely outplayed. If we start well, keep it tight and make the crowd nervous, we are more than capable of achieving a positive result.
This is a game that I would never in a million years place a bet on. Klopp’s philosophy is showing in patches, and he will be demanding a much improved performance this weekend. Koné against Benteke should be a key battle, while the threats from Clyne, Moreno and Coutinho are likely to cause us problems.
I believe it's necessary to start with N’Doye, to have an outlet up front to hold on to the ball. With Khazri and Borini supporting him, I believe we could create chances. It would be my intention to get to half time and assess the situation, before possibly bringing Defoe on to partner or replace N’Doye.
Sunderland need to start turning performances into wins. Being away to Liverpool however, I would accept a draw and take some confidence into the Manchester United game at the Stadium of Light. The performance against Manchester City and the promising displays of Koné, Khazri and Kirchhoff make me think we can get something from the game. I’m going to say it will end a 1-1 draw.
What do you think the score will be? Should we play 3-5-2? Should N’Doye start? Comment below.