Similar to the scrappy victory over Swansea City early in this campaign, Liverpool pulled out what paradoxically might be one of the wins of the season thus far by prevailing over a stubborn Sunderland 2-0 at the weekend. In taking on a cautiously resurgent opponent missing two of Liverpool’s Player of the Season candidates in Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana in addition to Daniel Sturridge all while up against a shamelessly parked double-decker bus, the fixture had "banana peel" written all over it.
These sorts of results where a team needs to dig deep and pull out Plan C will prove invaluable once the race for Champions League spots heats up come April. As always there were plenty of interesting flash points, stories and issues to be discussed and dissected ad nauseum:
Lallana-less Midfield Looks Slightly Muddled
He might not boast O Mágico’s gaudy stats and predilection for match-winning goals (although three strikes and five assists through 10 league games is nothing to sniff at), but the argument can be made that Lallana is the key cog that makes the offensive juggernaut that has emerged out of Merseyside this season run so eye-catchingly smooth. Since dropping back into central midfield from an attacking role, the former Southampton man has combined sped-up decision-making on the ball with his trademark technical prowess, silky ball skills and tireless work rate to provide the link between Liverpool’s defense and attack to devastating effect. His versatility in the system allows Jürgen Klopp to both overload defenses by turning the front three of Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mané into a devastating foursome without the side needing to sacrifice defensively even in the slightest.
In Lallana’s now two-game absence nursing a niggling groin injury, the side has lacked fluency, even when accounting for the low-block defensive football Klopp’s squad have faced in those two matchups against Southampton and Sunderland. The Englishman’s replacement in the engine room, one of either Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum—depending on whoever of the two one would deem to be more in favor in a completely healthy squad—who now both play together with captain Jordan Henderson in Lallana’s absence, don’t appear to be completely clear in their roles. Prior to the injury, Lallana was consistently the furthest forward of the midfield when the Reds were in possession, with the Dutch international supporting and Henderson holding. Now, it often appears that Wijnaldum and Can are playing the same position, unclear of who should be joining the attack and when. The young German, one can imagine by force of character, often ends up taking the initiative, but understandably does not have the same guile, finishing and creativity on the ball that either Lallana or even Wijnaldum possess, both of whom have played in attacking roles in the past, while Can has never been asked to do so prior to now.
It is easy to guess that this lack of creative depth in the middle of park without Lallana in part is why the rumours of a January move for Gladbach's string-puller-in-chief, Mahmoud Dahoud continue to persist in the face of supposed opposition. In the meantime, while the fluid 4-1-2-3 formation in place has succeeded due to the freedom of movement in the attacking areas, Klopp will need to sort things out in the midfield between the three in terms of roles and responsibilities for future reference.
Klopp Refreshes the Kop on the Definition of the Word "Support"
It’s understandable, of course. The recent years of failure in the league—a depressing mix of mid-table finishes and last-gasp misses such as 2008-9 and 2013-14—along with a deserved reputation for defensive as well as mental fragility have led supporters of Liverpool Football Club to have simply grown accustomed to living with elevated levels of anxiety and pessimism.
Following Coutinho’s first half injury at the weekend, an already stout Sunderland defense looked even more impenetrable, with the Anfield crowd groaning at every mishit pass and scuffed shot from Klopp’s men. After about an hour of that behavior, the charismatic manager finally let the crowd have it, berating and gesticulating like a mad man, demanding that the 12th man do their job. Chastened, the Kop rose to the challenge, the spirit around the ground lifted as the likes of Firmino and Divock Origi responded and it was little wonder that the breakthrough shortly followed.
This is the most competitive Premier League season in recent memory, with four legitimate title contenders and at least six plausible claimants on a Champions League spot. An Anfield fortress is vital to Liverpool’s fortunes this year and Klopp more than most understands the need for the Kopites to believe and to push his team over the line in crucial moments such as these. The Etihad this is not, and the Kop will need make an appearance on the scoresheet more than just this once over the course of this campaign if we are to succeed.
The Value of an Out-and-Out Striker
31 of the league-leading 32 goals Liverpool have scored this term have come from a players not considered to be prototypical center forwards. Compared to the reliance of other teams at the top end of the table on the strike rates of their No 9s—the likes of Diego Costa, Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane—makes what Klopp has accomplished on that front all the more remarkable.
However, after a blistering hot start, teams in the Premier League are starting to adjust and the sort of negative tactics Klopp’s side have encountered in the past few weeks may be the new normal going forward. In this environment, the sort of free-flowing football this Liverpool excels at will be restricted as we’ve seen and it will sometimes take a moment of individual brilliance to break a stubborn defense down.
The manner in which Divock Origi fashioned his goal-scoring chance from a nothing angle with zero backlift was a revelation, something that we have also seen the likes of Daniel Sturridge, missing on the day due to a last minute knock, do on many occasions.
After the scintillating touch passing that has characterized the free-flowing play prior to this point, there seemed at times to a bit of an adjustment to playing with a traditional striker in the young Belgian as players missed a number of his intelligent runs and smart movements leading up to and even after the goal. If the 31-goals-in-13 games brand of football is Plan A, then learning how to implement a more traditional Plan B in the likes of Sturridge and Origi could be of use.