EPL 2016-17: Liverpool leave it late to break Sunderland lock - Tactical Analysis
Rafa Benitez would likely not have been seen doing this. As a misfiring Liverpool looked to have hit a wall at home to a resilient Sunderland, manager Jurgen Klopp had seen enough. Up and down went his arms in short, energetic bursts, his countenance the picture of animation, urging the crowd to get behind their team when they needed it the most.
Liverpool had been dominating the game from the off, offering increasing penetrative threat, especially since the onset of the second half.
Shortly after, they got their reward; Divock Origi cut in onto his right foot and put the ball beyond the reach of Jordan Pickford in the Sunderland goal. And in stoppage time, James Milner’s penalty sealed a 2-0 home win.
Of course, it would be spurious to attribute this victory to Klopp’s energetic hand-waving alone. Liverpool had spent five-sixths of this game labouring to pick the stout Sunderland lock and avoid a repeat of last week’s performance against Southampton. On that occasion, Liverpool had similarly struggled to find their touch and found their attacks blunted by a combination of the Saints’ organisation and some errant finishing.
This time, however, Liverpool grew into the game and although the loss of Philippe Coutinho to an injury was a big blow, the Reds overcame the visitors to return, briefly, to the top of the Premier League table.
Some of the post-match outrage, if one could call it that, centred around David Moyes’ strongly defensive tactics at Anfield. In a match that involved teams from opposite ends of the table, however, Sunderland were entirely justified in doing so, and the onus lay on Liverpool to find a way through. With maximum points from their previous two games, the Black Cats had confidence enough to believe a point at Anfield was an entirely achievable objective.
For this is what they had set out to do. The names on the team sheet gave the appearance of a 4-4-2, but the visitors played something closer to a 6-3-1 or 8-2-0 at times, with a constantly changing front three in which Victor Anichebe and Duncan Whatmore functioned as extra wing backs.
The players in front of the defence varied: sometimes three, sometimes four. Liverpool’s choice of the right-footed Coutinho and Milner on the narrow left-hand side was helpful to Sunderland, and the Mackems were able to shut down the wings effectively.
Behind these massed ranks buzzed the impressive Pickford in goal. He claimed corners magisterially and limp first half efforts from Roberto Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum were comfortably collected. Sunderland fell deeper and deeper as the half progressed, and reached the interval having conceded 80% possession and strung together only 97 passes to Liverpool’s 385, but certainly feeling optimistic.
Klopp, for his part, named an unchanged line-up for the first time since his first two games as Liverpool manager thirteen months ago. A settled starting XI always helps, but the absence of Adam Lallana for a second week was telling. A reported injury to Daniel Sturridge also meant Origi was the only senior attacking option on the bench. Sure enough, the Belgian was called into action when Coutinho was stretchered off with what looked like a painful ankle injury.
Sterile domination to threatening possession
Liverpool’s squad depth has been tested in recent weeks, and these are precisely the kinds of opportunities meant for players like Origi to grab. Two things stood out that explained the Reds’ transformation from sterile domination to genuine threat. Playing in a double pivot, Emre Can and Jordan Henderson locked down central defensive midfield while Wijnaldum was permitted to go forward in support of the attack.
It is arguable that there was no need for two players so far back. Sunderland offered sparse attacking threat of their own, and it is near doubtless that Henderson could have dealt with it by himself. It would have allowed Can to play further forward and employ his talents closer to the visitors’ goal which, on the evidence of the first-half, the home side badly needed.
The second, despite the damage it caused to one of Liverpool’s key players, ironically may have helped the Reds’ cause. Man-marked fastidiously by Jason Denayer, Coutinho struggled to impose himself on the game before Didier Ndong’s violent clearance off his feet caught the Brazilian’s ankle very awkwardly.
Klopp then introduced Origi as his replacement, following which Liverpool sprang to life. It is possible to construe this stimulus-response association as a reminder of Origi’s energetic talent, but there’s a good chance it wasn’t.
David Moyes had probably outlined containment, but not injury, as his plan for Coutinho in preparation for this game, no doubt, must’ve been expecting to deal with the midfielder’s threat for the entirety of the match. He had probably not counted on another player in his stead offering a very different kind of threat, a player who neither Sunderland nor anyone else have seen very much of this season – Origi.
The Belgian has made ten Premier League appearances this season, all as a substitute – and his meticulous plans were suddenly no longer applicable. Dejan Lovren headed narrowly wide soon after and Liverpool began to ask tougher questions.
Release the Origi
Klopp's manic efforts succeeded in restoring the incendiary atmosphere at Anfield. Origi later thanked the fans for their support as he rode that wave of voluminous, expectant tension to Liverpool’s first goal on 75 minutes. It was like a massive release of fifty thousand supporters’ emotions all at once, and now Liverpool looked in no danger of doing anything but winning.
Sadio Mane struggled with his control and penetration on the day, but in stoppage time he won the penalty that Milner slotted into the left-hand corner. The victory took Liverpool to 30 points from 13 games, the division’s top scorers, and only their third clean sheet this season. It also boosted them to the summit of the Premier League – albeit briefly, as Chelsea overcame Tottenham at Stamford Bridge in the late game to lead the chasing pack by one point.
Liverpool now have a cup game against Leeds United, after which they travel to Bournemouth for their first game in December. Lallana is expected to be fit for that game, and if the last two games are any evidence, Liverpool would do well to restore him to the side immediately. Origi can realistically expect another start, while one of Can or Wijnaldum is likely to make way for the former Southampton man.
The loss of Coutinho is undoubtedly a setback, but all Liverpool can do is hope for a positive result of the scans. Meanwhile, Origi now has a real chance to turn this start into a campaign of substance. Perhaps a run as the main striker is not out of the question either.