In any other year where a seven point haul in as many days capped off a half season that had seen a club amass their Premier League record number of points, a 2-2 draw even to lowly Sunderland ordinarily wouldn’t rattle too many feathers. However in a campaign in which most of the usual suspects in the title race have either underachieved or were simply too slow out of the blocks, Liverpool’s wasted opportunity to close the gap on leaders Chelsea to three points ahead of a crucial London derby does hit right in the feels.
Jürgen Klopp, short on options due to a rash of injuries, named a barely changed side from the XI that beat Manchester City a scant 48 hours earlier (presumably departing Anfield immediately after the win and having fresh kits delivered on the way to Wearside). The Reds fought well, but the fatigue was apparent, the reinforcements too thin and the result suffered. However, in the post mortem, things aren’t so simple:
Like Jordan Henderson, Emre Can needs time settle into the new No. 6 role
Philippe Coutinho has banged in the pretty goals and Adam Lallana has caught the eye, but captain Jordan Henderson has quietly shrugged off the criticism to become one of the most important cogs in the Liverpool machine over the course of the campaign. While he does occasionally bomb up to take the odd long range shot or thread a Hollywood pass, the skipper’s primary role this season of shielding the center halves, keeping possession ticking over and even covering the full backs when possession is lost if needed, has seen every aspect of the Englishman’s discipline, positional intelligence and work rate come on full display.
That extraordinary form was underlined in his absence against the Black Cats thanks to a heel injury suffered against City. Despite Can, his replacement on the day, having had operated in a similar destroyer role for nearly his entire Liverpool career, the German struggled with the expanded responsibilities of the No. 6 role in Klopp’s new system. The 22-year-old was often reactive rather than on the front foot in the press, while failing to consistently provide an outlet to under pressure teammates.
We forget, however that Henderson himself initially struggled in the switch to supporting what has been jokingly described as a 3-7 attack-focused formation, with the skipper getting the runaround in the first two games of the season against Arsenal and Burnley before going on to radically improve. While there is domestic cup action roaring up, the next league game isn’t until January 15th at Old Trafford, by which time Can will have had time on the training ground as well as his own 2-game bedding in spell with the role. If Henderson is still missing by that time, the hope will be that Klopp has the former Bayern Munich man ready to go by then.
Daniel Sturridge has completely lost interest in pressing
At first glance, Daniel Sturridge was his excellent, world class self against the Black Cats and possibly Liverpool’s best offensive player on the day. The mercurial forward forced a heroic performance from Vito Mannone, keeping the Sunderland ‘keeper on his toes to the tune of six palm-stinging shots, all on target, and even besting the Italian in the first half with a true poacher’s finish.
However, the Englishman’s eye-catching stats don’t tell the whole story. Klopp this season has deflected criticism from the talking heads on the state of his squad’s defence, focusing time and again after every defensively solid performance instead on the number of chances his team limited an opponent to.
Build-from-the-back, possession-oriented teams like Manchester City (and also, even though it was only preseason, the 4-0 win over Barcelona) are red meat for the German manager, as his idiosyncratically-manic counter-press prevents the opponent’s midfield of providing service to the attack, while starving even the most brilliant offensive players of the opportunities to affect the game and providing his team the platform for the counter attack.
Prior to yesterday’s match, Sunderland were joint-lowest scorers in the league, averaging less than a goal per game. Tired or not, a Red squad that managed to stifle Liverpool bogeyman Sergio Aguero and a free-scoring Pep Guardiola side should have been able to do the same against Jermaine Defoe & the Championship Bunch. Instead, the likes of Patrick van Aanholt and Didier N’Dong were allowed time and space in midfield to feed Defoe, who, but for some fantastic work from a rejuvenated Simon Mignolet, could’ve easily had three or four goals on the day. Sunderland, roared on by a boisterous Stadium of Light, were allowed five shots on target. City, by contrast, had two on target. Stoke City and Everton both had six shots in total.
It couldn’t be attributed solely to fatigue, could it? After all, Sunderland had played on Saturday as well, on the receiving end of a hiding from feisty Burnley. But watch the game again and it starts to make sense. When, for example, Lallana in attempting to trigger the press, looks over his shoulder to find that Sturridge is in the opposition half closer to the center backs instead of playing the gegenpressing center forward role of tracking back, pressuring the midfield from behind and reducing the passing options for the opposing player with the ball by bisecting the pitch.
Chris of the Redmen TV in much more detail.
Sturridge can do this when he wants, as his lung-busting run and tackle in his own half to begin the movement for Firmino’s opening goal against Leicester demonstrates; however it appears that he simply doesn’t always choose to. The entire Klopp system of play does not work unless every player on the pitch has the fitness and the willingness to sacrifice for the team, and until Sturridge is willing to do so for 90 minutes each and every match, then it would seem that Firmino will most likely retain his place in the first choice XI.
Klopp needs time to once again right the wobble
The scintillating form of the early season was marked by the whirling dervish of Coutinho, Firmino and Mané supported by an industrious midfield of Lallana, Henderson and Wijnaldum. However, Lallana flitted in and out of the side over the course of October and November with a niggling groin problem, his absences from the starting XI coinciding with goalless league draws against Manchester United and Southampton. Coutinho went down at the end of November with a Divock Origi-led side initially dropping points against Bournemouth and West Ham, before righting the ship to go on a four match win streak to end the calendar year.
Now Henderson, who we have already established is arguably just as vital to the team’s fortunes as the previous two mentions, is out of the picture for a spell. Even given the disjointed pressing and the cramped fixture schedule, the evidence suggests that an adjustment match or two is in the offing as Klopp adapts to losing to his first choice No. 6. However, with that date with a resurgent Man United next up in the league, the hope will be that this time, the bobble is only a one-hit blunder.