Liverpool vs Sunderland: Kenny’s men fail to dominate

The starting lineups

The Kenny Daglish-era at Liverpool continued into the 2011/12 season with a plethora of new signings, new found hope of Champions League qualification and what seems to be a brighter future for the Anfield unit in comparison to 12 months ago. Their first fixture of the new season was a visit from Steve Bruce’s Sunderland who similarly has heightened expectations and seem to be aiming for a top 7 finish given the signings they made over the summer.

To the surprise of many, Raul Miereles and Dirk Kuyt were left out of the starting line up for Liverpool with debutants Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson starting instead.Charlie Adam also made his debut. Luis Suarez who had only returned to training 1 week prior week from his summer holidays which followed his successful Copa America campaign with Uruguay was another surprise starter. For Sunderland debuts were handed to new signings Wes Brown and Sebastien Larsson.

From the kickoff it was clear what the attacking strategies of both teams would be. Sunderland attempted to play the ball into Asomoah Gyan as quickly as possible for him to knock down or pass to support striker Stephen Sessegnon who would then tr to link up with link up with the Ghanaian with a quick 1-2 or get the ball to the flanks so that they could have gotten crosses in. Liverpool, surprisingly, were also a bit direct in their play but they were more purposeful in possession by keeping the ball (a bit) longer and linking up play better.

Liverpool attacking strategy

The Merseyside team started off the game by playing the ball down the channels for their forwards to run onto. Suarez and Carroll drifted out to the wide areas to combine with the wingers and full backs in an attempt to overload the wings or create openings for teammates. They also played the long ball out of the back with Andy Carroll being the main recipient whose job it was to knock the ball down to his strike partner or midfielders. Liverpool also attempted to get in behind the Sunderland backline by way of quick combination play and also counter attacks on the few occasions the opposition got forward in numbers.  Their passing was crisp, precise and full of intent in the first half and though they weren’t as fluid as they were at the back end of last season they were looking good enough for the first game of the season.

Suarez (yellow) drifting out to the wing taking his marker (green) with him and creating space (blue circle) for teammates to run into. If he is left alone this creates a 3v2 overload on the wing.

Synopsis of Sunderland’s first half 

In the defensive phase Sunderland sat back and tried to absorb Liverpool’s attack. They defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape with Sessegnon sometimes pushing up to assist Gyan in pressing the centrebacks. Liverpool’s central midfield pairing of Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam were allowed time on the ball as the Sunderland midfielders sat right in front of the back four. Steve Bruce’s attacking strategy went well for all of 4 minutes as Liverpool weren’t settled into their rhythm as yet and Sunderland attack was able to combine and win 2 corners in the space of 3 minutes. After this period their target man Asamoah Gyan was being crowded out by Jamie Carragher and co. and did not win a single aerial duo for the remainder of the 1st half neither was he allowed to get to passes played into him. Due to Sunderland’s non-committal of men in attack, lack of patience when in possession and the Ghanaian being upfront on his own Carragher and either Agger or a fullback were able to double up on him and make his task difficult. Liverpool’s defense thus made Sunderland’s main attacking outlet redundant and this enabled them to dominate proceedings for the remainder of the half.

Observe the large amount space between Charlie Adam (yellow) and Sunderland midfielders (green). This illustrates how deep Sunderland was defending

When Luis Suarez made amends for a missed penalty and put Liverpool in front they seemed to be on their way to an opening day victory but poor game management ensured that this did not happen. The thing about teams who play a direct style is that it is much harder to control a game when playing this way as the length of time one stays in possession is not that long to frustrate an opponent. Also Liverpool did not get the second goal which would have definitely killed off this game off so Sunderland was able to still play with some caution knowing that they only needed one goal to get back in the tie. At the end of the half  they did play higher up the park but rarely threatened Liverpool but they were allowed enough of the ball to feel like they were still in for a point at least.

2nd Half

Sunderland came out of the break with a lot more purpose and intent, they pressed higher up the field and the momentum of the game was now shifting. Liverpool started to become very careless in possession as they lacked the precision which they had in the 1st half. They even tried to capitalise on spaces left behind by a more advanced Sunderland but to no avail as inaccurate passes saw them struggle to get out of their half at times at the beginning of the 2nd period. During this period of dominance Sunderland equalised through a stunning volley by Sebastien Larsson. Liverpool were now jaded and Sunderland were the team playing with all the confidence.

King Kenny reacts

The Liverpool legend soon after made a change to his starting line up by bringing on Dirk Kuyt for Henderson who instantaneously linked up well with Suarez on the right flank and created a chance which was blocked and went out for a corner. In Liverpool’s case its a pity he didn’t start  because he and Suarez has great chemistry as was shown last season and he would have help their attack be a bit more fluid. Their time on the pitch together lasted a mere 15 minutes and didn’t bear much fruit as the Uruguayan was clearly not in top shape and looked exhausted for most of the 2nd half. His replacement was Raul Meireles, who has been probably Liverpool’s best player under Daglish, and the team was now lined up in 4-2-3-1 shape with Meireles, Downing, Kuyt play in the ‘3’ with the latter two interchanging the wide right and central roles with Kuyt sometimes supporting Carroll up top.

Liverpool's shape when looking for the winner late on.

Not much came out of Liverpool with their new shape as they still could not create any threatening chances and break down Sunderland’s resolute defense.


Liverpool, though they showed positive glimpses early on they were not convincing enough throughout and would need to play a style of football similar to that which they played at the back end of last season if they would like to achieve Champions League qualification. At the post match news conference Kenny Daglish did say that the team needed time to gel but one would hope that the fluid Liverpool of a few months ago has not been converted into a defensive unit who are just interested in grinding out results.

Sunderland were unsurprisingly cautious as they played away from home. They did well defensively and progressively got back into the game and got a well deserved draw.

Overall nothing really happened in the game tactically and a draw was a suitable result as both teams had their moment. This match was definitely not a clear indication of how both teams would play throughout the season as both teams have a lot of new players on their rosters and it will take time before they both get their identities.


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