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TALKING TACTICS - Liverpool v Sunderland

Rory Fallow analyses a game where Sunderland managed to fight back for a draw after looking down and out.

Line Up

After a spirited performance against Manchester City, where Sunderland were unlucky to lose, Sam Allardyce felt minimal changes were needed to the starting XI. Wahbi Khazri was handed his first start in place of the injured Jeremain Lens, a change Allardyce would have probably made even if Lens was fully fit. Illness meant Fabio Borini wouldn't be available to face his former club, and that meant a first league start in over a month for Duncan Watmore.

The back four remained unchanged with John O'Shea and Lamine Kone continuing at centre half, Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones started at left back and right back, respectively. After his man of the match performance on Tuesday night, Jan Kirchhoff retained his place in the deep lying midfield role with Lee Cattermole and Yann M'Vila just ahead of him.

Jermain Defoe started as the lone striker, as is becoming routine for Sunderland lately. The side lined up in a 4-1-4-1, becoming a 4-3-3 when pushing forward.



Sunderland academy product Jordan Henderson captained a Liverpool side who lined up in a 4-3-3 with Joe Allen and Emre Can partnering Henderson in midfield. Jurgen Klopp, who was absent from Anfield due to appendicitis, would look to the attack minded fullbacks, Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne, to provide additional attacking support to inverted wingers, Adam Lallana and James Milner.

The biggest danger to Sunderland would be the in form Roberto Firmino, who had four goals in his last six games going into this fixture. Firmino would also have the added motivation of Daniel Sturridge returning to the Liverpool bench and would be keen to show the management that he's the man for the number nine position.

Simon Mignolet, who joined Liverpool from Sunderland in 2013, played in goal with Mamadou Sakho and Dejan Lovren ahead of him in central defence.


If Sunderland could play so well against Manchester City then they had to fancy themselves against an inconsistent Liverpool. That's not to say that Sunderland should be entitled to win the game, but a result was certainly possible. Sam Allardyce had spoken in the build up to this game that Sunderland would need to pull off some shock results if they're to stay up, so Sunderland would need to take points here rather than just some "positive signs."

Duncan Watmore and Wahbri Khazri would have to work hard defensively against the attacking prowess of Alberto Moreno and Nathaniel Clyne. Both players would have to provide additional support to Patrick van Aanholt and Billy Jones as Sunderland's midfield trio can only do so much without gaps being created in the middle.


Above, touches made by Liverpool's middle three (left) and Sunderland's middle three (right)

With Liverpool playing such a packed midfield, it was right for Sunderland to continue with three defensive minded midfielders. As well as the threats Sunderland would face in the wide areas, they'd also have to be cautious of the likes of Jordan Henderson advancing forward and James Milner drifting inside. Cattermole, Kirchhoff and M'Vila would be in for a busy afternoon and would be constantly pressed and harried by Liverpool, when in possession.

From an attacking point of view, Sunderland would be looking exploit Liverpool's vulnerability on set pieces. The Merseysiders have been dreadful at defending corners this campaign and Sunderland's new signing, Wahbi Khazri, looked a big threat from them in The Black Cats last game. It wouldn't be any surprise to see the likes of Kone, Kirchhoff and O'Shea putting pressure on Simon Mignolet, who has constantly looked nervous on corners this season, and also attacking the near post.


Liverpool came out with the intention of playing on the front foot and absolutely dominated possession. In the first twenty minutes, Liverpool had 83% possession and an impressive successful pass percentage of 87% with Sunderland happy concede the ball so as to not get caught on the counter. It took Liverpool until the 20th minute to create their first real opening though after Alberto Moreno almost squeezed the ball through Vito Mannone. Jan Kirchhoff was dispossessed by Jordan Henderson, who then quickly moved the ball forward to Roberto Firmino. The Brazilian spotted the run of Moreno whose shot was saved by the legs of Mannone and bounced out for a corner. It came not long after Sunderland had forced their first attack too, Patrick van Aanholt carried the ball down the left wing but his shot was comfortably wide of Mignolet's far post.

Sam Allardyce will have been happy with his sides play in the opening half an hour. Despite Liverpool's dominance the majority of their 283 touches came in the middle of the pitch as they struggled to work the ball into the box. Sunderland had built up a wall of green shirts around their area, similarly to how they did away to Crystal Palace earlier this season. They were forcing Liverpool into losing possession and making tackles at the right time which showed decent off the ball work in a game where Liverpool had touched the ball almost three times more than them.

Both sides were also forced to make early changes due to injury. Dejan Lovren was replaced by Kolo Toure after only twelve minutes and Dame N'Doye replaced Duncan Watmore almost 15 minutes later. Liverpool's change was a straight swap and didn't alter their play but Sunderland's was a little more unconventional. Allardyce could have made a like-for-like change by brining on Adam Johnson but opted for N'Doye perhaps after seeing that Sunderland weren't holding up the ball particularly well, further up the field. It wasn't a huge surprise to see this from the Sunderland manager either, especially since we've seen him start the likes of Danny Graham in the wide areas.

As the first half went on, Liverpool continued to dominate but were still failing to create any major chances. Their best effort in the last fifteen minutes of the half came when Roberto Firmino saw his well hit effort go narrowly over the bar. Emre Can headed the ball down to Firmino, after the German international got the better of his fellow countryman Jan Kirchhoff, the second time that a Liverpool chance had came from pressure being put on Kirchhoff.

A fairly busy end to the half saw Liverpool forced into another substitution, again through injury, as Joe Allan limped off to be replaced by Jordan Ibe. This saw James Milner drop back into the middle of midfield and Ibe went out to the right wing.

Sunderland pushed forward and a good bit of skill from Yann M'Vila saw him get a shot away from distance which sailed high over the bar. Despite the Frenchman getting his shot in, referee Robert Madley brought the play back for a Sunderland freekick, due to a trip from Jordan Henderson. The freekick was centrally placed and quite far out so it would take power over precision to end up in the Liverpool net. Wahbi Khazri touched the ball to van Aanholt, but the former Chelsea man saw another shot go wide of Mignolet's left post. Van Aanholt was then involved at the other end as Adam Lallana's cross almost forced him into an own goal but the ball, thankfully for him, flew into The Kop.

0-0 at half time may not have reflected Liverpool's control of possession, but their lack of chances was certainly to Sunderland's credit and Sam Allardyce will have been happy to have seem his team working so hard and efficiently.

Despite the fact that Sunderland will have been desperate to test Liverpool from corners, it took until the 56th minute for them to win one. They, in fact, won two in quick succession with the second being flicked on by Billy Jones before Liverpool scrambled the ball clear. Sunderland were to keen to get the ball straight back into the box though and Dame N'Doye swung the ball into the six yard area but it was well claimed by Simon Mignolet. Looking to get Liverpool forward quickly, the Belgian goalkeeper threw the ball forward, but only as far as Jan Kirchhoff who immediately passed forward to Jermain Defoe on the edge of the box. Defoe turned and shot wide, either not spotting or ignoring Wahbi Khazri who had acres of space to his left. Still though, Sunderland had shown they could hurt Liverpool here and weren't all about just shutting up shop.

Liverpool finally broke through though. Adam Lallana sent in an excellent cross which Roberto Firmino headed back where it came from and into the bottom corner. There was nothing Vito Mannone could do in the Sunderland goal but questions have to be asked of Patrick van Aanholt, and the Sunderland defence as a whole, as no one seemed to know where Firmino was.

The home side started to ramp it up a gear, gaining confidence from their lead. They had five shots (three on target) between 60 and 70 minutes, two of which lead to goals. After Mannone had pulled off saves from Lallana and Ibe in quick succession, Liverpool capitalised on a Billy Jones mistake to make it 2-0. Jones dallied on the ball for far too long and was easily dispossessed by Roberto Firmino, whose square the ball to Adam Lallana allowed him to tap into an empty net. It was all the more frustrating for Sunderland as Patrick van Aanholt had just missed a glorious chance to put them level, only two minutes before and now they had it all to do.


Sunderland scored from both of their shots on target (2)

It wasn't long after that Billy Jones was replaced by DeAndre Yedlin, either. The mistake from Jones had capped a poor run of form for him and many will be calling for Yedlin to start against Manchester United next week.

Just before Liverpool's second goal, Sam Allardyce had substituted Jan Kirchhoff for Adam Johnson, a sign of his intent to go for it and try and come away from Anfield with something. Sunderland did play with a bit more impetuous as well, they may have been seeing less of the ball than Liverpool but they were now doing more with their possession. In the fifteen minutes after Johnson's introduction, Sunderland's pass success rate was much closer to Liverpool's than it had been before (85-75 in Liverpool's favour) and they were having more touches in the final third.

It would be Adam Johnson that started Sunderland's fight back as well. A foul from Alberto Moreno on Wahbi Khazri earned Sunderland a freekick on the right hand side, which Johnson managed to squeeze past Simon Mignolet into the goalkeepers bottom left hand corner. As good an effort as it was from Johnson, all eyes were on Mignolet who really shouldn't have allowed the ball to get past him. Sunderland didn't care though and it was game on.

It was now time for Sunderland to go all out as they chased a point which seemed miles away only a few minutes ago. At 42%, their possession in the last 12 minutes was the highest it had been all afternoon, as Liverpool started to sit deeper to protect their lead.

Sunderland didn't relent though and got their reward in the 89th minute as disaster struck for Liverpool. Patrick van Aanholt drove forward and found Wahbi Khazri on the edge of the box who took a couple of touches, before playing the ball to Jermain Defoe, who got just enough space from Mamadou Sakho to be able to turn and fire the ball past Mignolet. Joy broke out in the away end and in the away dugout as Jermain Defoe scored yet another vital goal in his Sunderland career. 2-2 the final score and The Black Cats had taken a huge point in their battle to beat the drop.


Sunderland may have played better against Manchester City, earlier in the week, but we're now at the stage in the season where points matter more than performances and Sunderland have taken something here despite not being at their best.


That's not to say Sunderland have no other positives to take though. John O'Shea and Lamine Kone may now be in the beginning of building up a partnership, both again putting in decent performances. The contribution of Wahbi Khazri can't be overlooked either, getting the assist for Jermain Defoe and drawing the foul for Adam Johnson's free kick. Khazri looked bright throughout the game and his passing looked good too. The Tunisian ended the game with a pass success percentage of 83%, the joint third best of any midfielder on the pitch which isn't to be taken lightly. Fans won't want to get carried away with him just yet, but the early signs are certainly encouraging.

The fullback conundrum continues to rumble on for Sunderland though. We know that Patrick van Aanholt can get exposed defensively but it's much more forgivable when you see his forward contribution. Billy Jones, however, is currently offering us nothing going forward and his mistake against Liverpool typified his general poor play lately. It could well be time for Sam Allardyce to take Jones out of the firing line and give DeAndre Yedlin a run of games.

Comebacks like we saw here can be the catalyst to teams putting together a run of results. Hopefully it gives Sunderland the spark they need as they attempt to pull themselves out of trouble.

All stats are according to WhoScored

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