Frustrating Liverpool, Nolan's nose for goal

It wasn't quite deja vu but there were certainly similarities. It will probably prove a simplification, if not wrong altogether, to say that one system and one approach is a guarantee of success against Liverpool but Sunderland's gameplan was rather reminiscent of West Bromwich Albion's four weeks earlier when they won 3-0. 

In both games, the home side played like the away team. Both played 4-2-3-1 - as Arsenal also did in their 2-0 win at Anfield - and both dropped deep, ceding both possession and territory and then counter-attacking. Liverpool had the ball for 66% of the game at the Stadium of Light. While Sunderland had spells of pressure, for the majority of the game they retreated to conserve energy and challenged Liverpool to break them down. 

Just as Albion's two holding midfielders, Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, stayed close to their two centre-backs, so did their Sunderland counterparts, Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback. The aim is to limit the space between the lines, to force Liverpool to operate in wider positions and further from the opposition's goal. 

That Sunderland's focus was on position, not pressing is evident from the statistics. Liverpool's anchor midfielder, Joe Allen, was allowed to be on the ball and completed 103 passes, more than Cattermole, Colback, James McClean and Seb Larsson managed between them. Their importance lay less in their efforts on the ball than off it and the absence of the injured Adam Johnson, a more attack-minded but less defensively-disciplined winger, may have helped Sunderland's shape as Larsson moved to the right and they stationed two banks of four in front of Simon Mignolet's goal. 

As in the Albion game, being organised wasn't quite the same as keeping Liverpool quiet. The visitors had 23 efforts on goal and six before Sunderland's first - and only - attempt on target. But, in another common denominator, they did not score the opening goal of the game, which would have drawn the home side out. 

In both games, too, Luis Suarez has had a series of shots: eight at the Hawthorns and six at Sunderland, one bringing his second goal of the season, but only three of those 14 have been on target. 

Liverpool were the superior side at 0-0 in both games, but then trailed 1-0. As with the majority of goals they conceded last season, individual errors, rather than tactical failings, were the cause. The immediate issue was poor defending by Martin Skrtel, allowing Steven Fletcher to get beyond him, but the build-up was also notable for mistakes. As Craig Gardner, Sunderland's right-back, came forward, Liverpool had two players in reasonable positions: left-back Glen Johnson and, tracking back from as the left of the front three, Suarez. The problem was that both made flimsy challenges, allowing Gardner to go past them and cross. 

That Suarez was on the flank was notable. Rodgers tweaked his tactics in two ways: Steven Gerrard, who had been the most advanced of the three central midfielders, operated further back and closer to Allen and Jonjo Shelvey, and the front three alternated more often. At various points four players - Suarez, Raheem Sterling, Fabio Borini and the substitute Stewart Downing - were the left winger with the Uruguayan taking the longest turn there. Sterling, who had spent virtually all of his embryonic career on the left, was on the right for much of the match. It gave Liverpool a different threat: whereas Borini, as more of a striker, looks infield when on the right, Sterling was prepared to go outside his full-back, Danny Rose, and that led to Suarez's goal. 

The statistical anomaly that Liverpool have not led, let alone won, against a team with a back four (Manchester City played 3-4-1-1 at Anfield) suggests more teams may play 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 against them and the reality that they have not been ahead in those matches means Albion, Arsenal and Sunderland have never had to chase the game. One advantage of Rodgers' philosophy for opponents is that they can predict his formation and set up accordingly. Perhaps a blueprint has been established by West Brom and now Sunderland. 

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