RAWK Round Table: Liverpool 2-1 Sunderland

Posted by E2K on March 27, 2014, 11:14:24 AM

When John O’Shea’s tame header drifted wide a couple of minutes from the end last night, along with breathing a huge sigh of relief I was immediately reminded of the 1-1 home draw with Everton in January 2009 (the League game rather than the FA Cup one six days later which also finished 1-1, Steven Gerrard almost inevitably scoring in both). That Derby match was the meat in the sandwich of three draws that month, our only League games in January (the others being 0-0 at Stoke and 1-1 at Wigan), which ended up being a large part of the reason why Liverpool found themselves chasing a 10-point deficit to Manchester United during the business-end of the season which ultimately proved insurmountable despite a 4-1 win at Old Trafford (any excuse to mention it). That night against Everton, back when David Moyes still had the power to be a mild irritant to Liverpool as opposed to a complete irrelevance, at the same end of the ground in virtually the same minute of the game (maybe 60 or 90 seconds earlier), the home side faced a very similar free-kick situation as they tried to see out a crucial one-goal win. On this particular occasion it was Mikel Arteta rather than Adam Johnson standing over the ball and, perhaps more significantly, Tim Cahill rather than John O’Shea rising to meet it. In 2009, Pepe Reina was given absolutely no chance with a trademark Cahill header shot through with enough venom to drop 44,000 men, women and children; last night we could just be thankful that O’Shea, along with being ostensibly unable to float like a butterfly, is also uncomfortable when it comes to stinging like a bee. Or maybe you only get to floor Anfield once in your lifetime and O’Shea already used all his credit up with that goal in front The Kop back in 2007? Seriously, think about it – Wayne Rooney’s done fuck all at the ground since Jerzy Dudek allowed his shot to squirm under his body in January 2005; the high-point of Andrei Arshavin’s Arsenal career was the four goals he scored there in April 2009 (greedy bastard) and his time in England tailed-off alarmingly (almost imperceptibly) after that; Didier Drogba scored how many goals at Anfield, one? And some never get to have their moment at all, like Cristiano Ronaldo or Eidur Gudjohnsen whose miss in that game in 2005 is the only one I can remember right now that brought me quite as close to the brink of voiding my bowels as O’Shea’s last night (brink, I said brink).

Rafa Benítez’s zonal-marking always got plenty of criticism heaped on it back then, much of it unfair in my view, but the potential failings of its man-to-man counterpart were twice laid bare last night as Sunderland threatened to do exactly what Everton did in 2009 and break Liverpool hearts into a million tiny pieces. Many of us said back then that it wasn’t the system, that zonal-marking has its merits just like any other system in football but that its overriding, defining ingredient is the players behind it, the ones who stand in the positions dictated by the system and then have to exhibit the intelligence and ability to make that system work. Zonal-marking didn’t work on that occasion with Cahill and, last night, Liverpool’s man-marking system on set-pieces fell apart twice as Jon Flanagan lost Ki at the back post for Sunderland’s goal (there’s also a school of thought, articulated by Jamie Carragher, that Martin Skrtel or Daniel Agger should have already had the ball cleared at the front post, but that doesn’t diminish Flanagan’s error), then Skrtel let O’Shea go for a wander in the box with a couple of minutes left on the clock and got the aural equivalent of a forearm to the temple from his captain for his trouble (how great was that, by the way?) With games on the way featuring Vincent Kompany, John Terry, Branislav Ivanovic and Jan Vertonghen (whose last visit to Anfield yielded two goals, one from a cross, one from a free), the kind of mistakes that we saw last night are virtually nailed-on to cost us points and, possibly, a first League Championship in a quarter of a century (because it’s on, we all know it’s on, Steven Gerrard sure as hell knows it’s on, and if we’re in this thing we may as well fucking win it). Is Mamadou Sakho therefore becoming harder for Brendan Rodgers to ignore? Maybe he is. He’s certainly our best centre-back in my view and the last 20 minutes last night may well have hastened his return to first-team action.

Something else which last night’s game may draw a (presumably temporary) line under, at least for the Spurs game, is the diamond formation. Again, every system has its weaknesses and sometimes it’s a trade-off of positives vs. negatives. Once again last night (as with the Southampton game in particular), the weaknesses of the diamond were illustrated as Sunderland got joy down our flanks (without the personnel to actually do much, thankfully), but the positives we’ve seen in recent weeks were largely negated by the three centre-backs and two holders in front of them which proved very difficult to play through. We were also quite narrow for most of the game, with both full-backs coming inside often and providing none of the overlapping runs we saw to such effect against Cardiff on Saturday. At one point in the second-half, Luis Suárez picked the ball up maybe 30 yards from goal and played a pass into space to where he expected Glen Johnson to be. Had Johnson been making the run, he wouldn’t have had a Sunderland player within 10-15 yards of him but instead he was inexplicably hanging back rather than attacking the yawning chasm of space in front of him (this was before Sunderland’s period of pressure towards the end). Whether this was an instruction or just a lapse on Johnson’s part is unclear (my suspicion is the latter), but we had some struggles in those wide areas all night both going forward and defensively and it made it easier for Sunderland and their three centre-backs alongside Cattermole and Bridcutt to deal with Suárez and Sturridge by squeezing the space they had to work in. Indeed, Liverpool’s two goals came from the one time that Suárez actually managed to get goal-side of that defensive line (ably assisted by Coutinho brilliantly robbing Cattermole) and a magnificent strike by Gerrard, and a goal out of nothing by Sturridge which took a deflection off Wes Brown. Other than that, Mannone had little enough to do. Spurs are likely to be more open so the diamond formation might work a little bit better, but it might also be a good time to bring back the formation that worked so well against Everton and Arsenal (a midfield two of Coutinho and Henderson ahead of Gerrard, with Sterling and Sturridge/Suárez drifting wide), particularly given the likelihood of Kyle Naughton starting again after what Sterling did to him in December.

A few odds and end to finish. The welcome for the team outside the stadium was magic, well done to all involved. Coutinho was magnificent too. His comfort in possession is a given at this stage but some of the work he did chasing down and nicking possession back was also very impressive and reminded me of the Arsenal game where he lined up in the centre of midfield and was head and shoulders above everyone else. Kevin Friend, on the other hand, had a really poor night. It’s all very well saying that Sunderland showed a lot of heart, fight, guts and could have had a draw, but they should have also had ten men for most of the game. Fair enough, Brown might have made the saving tackle on Suárez and the decision to brandish a yellow didn’t piss me off nearly as much as Phil Dowd letting Kieran Richardson off with similar in August 2011 at the same end against the same team, but Vergini should have absolutely seen red after another bookable offence minutes later. I’ve heard it said for years by an assortment of talking heads talking bollocks that referees should be allowed to use their common sense – God no. Not on things like this. Referees are hard-pushed enough to interpret the laws of the game without trying to use something that most of them don’t even have. If Vergini had gone for an early shower, I think we can assume that the second half would have been a bit more straightforward for Liverpool, but fuck it. The three points were won and that’s all that matters. Sunderland did well last night and here’s hoping we see as much fight from them at the Etihad and Stamford Bridge in a few weeks (and that Poyet starts Ki and Johnson). For Liverpool the journey towards the top of the mountain continues, nothing has changed except the distance left to go. It’s closer now. It may be closer again after Sunday.

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