As with all games this season, I didn’t approach this game with abundant confidence. After all, Sterling was given a holiday in Jamaica and Borini was in his place. We weren’t playing Manquillo, but Markovic or Henderson as a wingback again. Gerrard might well be starting in the centre, which doesn’t bode well. Not to mention the windy pitch meant that Mignolet, already so shaky on crosses, would probably make some mistake again. But it was Sunderland, and I expected us to scrape a win.
It started off rather dull, as both teams began by passing it around the back. Liverpool were the better pressers of the two, and with better players on the ball as well, we soon exerted our dominance. Said dominance was quite sterile for a bit, as Coutinho was hounded by three or four Sunderland players, clearly all tasked to stifle Liverpool’s main creative spark.
But Markovic played like a man possessed, and made some brilliant runs that Coutinho was quick to cotton on, fashioning a great chance that led to a penalty call. It was blatant but not given, but it bode well for the rest of Liverpool’s play. With Coutinho on the left side of the pitch, Sunderland’s players crowded the area and made Moreno less of an outlet. But Markovic was left free to run, and did so again and again, with one of those runs culminating in a goal.
Despite Sunderland’s attempts, their pressing was not very effective, and their attacks were feeble. Markovic hit a post with an audacious volley, outlining his great form in recent games, and Coutinho continued to fashion chances despite being crowded out. Borini was working hard, making good runs and helping build play relatively well for a player that hasn’t been starting regularly. But he was quickly carded for a foul, which soon became a frenzy of cards as the referee went trigger happy with them.
Eventually, the game settled into a good rhythm, with Liverpool creating good chances that led to shots from Henderson and Gerrard, who looks much better in a forward role. Borini was also afforded one or two chances that he couldn’t bury, and Mignolet had pretty much nothing to do on the other end. Our defenders cleared the lines well, and Lucas and Henderson were a balanced midfield pair. It was a good half of football, but with a slender lead, I can’t help but be a little nervous…
At half time, Gerrard apparently felt a tight muscle as Lovren came on to replace him. This, inevitably meant a shuffle as Markovic went into Gerrard’s previous position, while Can had to take over as the right wing-back. While individually, both players continued to play well, with Can making a good run that led to Bridcutt getting his second yellow and marching orders, it completely changed the face of the game.
On one hand, it could have been that sending off that galvanised Sunderland and got them dominating on the ball despite being a man down. I’d like to think that it was because of the formation change that affected things. After all, Can is not as penetrative a player as Markovic down the flank, and Markovic had much less space in the middle of the park. This, along with Sunderland’s sudden spell of attack, meant we couldn’t do anything fruitful with or without the ball.
The pressing also fell off, with Henderson gesturing and screaming for more support to press. Lucas did put in plenty of good tackles however, as we struggled to get back into the game. Balotelli then came on for Borini, and he looked eager to make something happen. But he struggled once more, doing everything right except for scoring goals. Then the game descended into a sad, sad spell of sterility as both sides failed to make an impression in the final third.
The match ended with a bit of handbags as Sunderland decided to wake up and go for it once last time, but otherwise it was a pretty dull end to the game. Mignolet had little to do, and can be pleased to keep a clean sheet. Sakho did well, with Skrtel sweeping up decently and Lovren…well, he’s had worse matches. Apart from his reckless challenges, he did okay. I wished Rossiter came on for Gerrard, or Manquillo instead.
Lucas and Henderson continue to form a pretty effective midfield duo, while Moreno was quiet the whole match. Can was impressive, but lost effectiveness out wide, as did Markovic when he moved central. But the potential in Markovic is obvious to see, and I’d be happy to keep starting him. Why Rodgers refused to reward players with good performances until recently boggles me, as does his substitutions.
Coutinho continues to be our creative spark, and Borini did decently to replicate Sterling’s energy, if not his finishing, his dribbles and his runs. Gerrard was not bad, but wasn’t outstanding. Balotelli really should be given a shot at playing in a front two, but with this system in place, that might not be any time soon.
I can’t fault Rodgers for his first XI today. Long may this continue.