Chris Young’s big-match verdict: Experimental Sunderland must build on an encouraging night

Liverpool's Phillippe Coutinho (left) and Sunderland's Lee Cattermole battle for the ball.
Liverpool's Phillippe Coutinho (left) and Sunderland's Lee Cattermole battle for the ball.
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THREE? Four? Five? Six?

The biggest fear prior to the trip to Anfield was not that Sunderland would suffer a defeat, it was more that it would be a cricket score.

At least that scenario was avoided. So too was the familiar feeling of coming away with a hefty dose of dejection, heightened relegation fears and little else.

The nerves that were contagious around Anfield in the final 20 minutes last night were testament to how close Sunderland came to nicking an unlikely point in the relegation battle and disrupting Liverpool’s title challenge.

In a run of post-Capital One Cup final games where there have been few positives, there were finally some foundations for Gus Poyet to build upon.

Going close to becoming only the third team this season to come away with something from Anfield is no mean feat, particularly with the form Liverpool are showing.

Of course, the bottom line is that Sunderland came away empty-handed for the fourth time in five Premier League outings.

In their current position, hard-luck tales or near-misses count for absolutely zilch.

After taking only a solitary point from the back-to-back games against Crystal Palace and Norwich, Sunderland may still need to pull something out of the bag before the end of the campaign.

But in a game which Poyet was clearly using as a laboratory test, the Sunderland boss did indeed benefit from a few lessons, particularly with his formation.

Poyet (pictured, inset) had contemplated using the 5-3-2 system for the cup final, before ultimately plumping for the more familiar set-up.

After the woeful nature of Sunderland’s performance at both ends of the pitch at Norwich though, it was clearly time to try something different.

And Santiago Vergini aside, the formation worked effectively.

The use of a five-man defence restricted the space available for Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge to get in behind or down the sides of the Sunderland back four.

Liverpool’s efforts during the first half were limited to shots from long range, albeit Steven Gerrard converted one of them with a thunderous free-kick for the opening goal.

Brendan Rodgers’ side were unable to fashion many more clear-cut opportunities inside the 18-yard box either after the break.

There were some lovely touches and waltzing runs from Suarez and the hugely impressive Philippe Coutinho, but Vito Mannone was hardly wheezing with exertion.

Yes, Liverpool were by far the dominant side and had plenty of pressure and near-misses. But any side in the bottom half inevitably has to ride their luck in such surroundings.

All you can try to do is restrict the clear-cut openings and Sunderland did that effectively.

That was despite the performance of Vergini, who was a bundle of nerves.

He somehow managed to avoid a red card on two occasions – one for unceremoniously hauling down Suarez when he was in behind the Sunderland defence and then deciding to go to ground to bring the Uruguayan down on the left-hand side of the area.

Free-kick, but no second yellow card, was referee Kevin Friend’s baffling judgement, albeit he owed Sunderland a favour, as he officiated his first Black Cats game since ludicrously dismissing Wes Brown at Stoke last November.

Vergini’s distribution was generously laced with anxiety too. The moment when a low cross bounced off him and shot behind for a corner, as he tried to clear, summed up his evening.

But setting aside the on-loan Estudiantes man, there was clear food for thought for Poyet, particularly as Sunderland still have daunting away games at Spurs, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United to come.

Can the 5-3-2 be the answer to Sunderland’s Stadium of Light woes, though, in a make-or-break clash against West Ham on Monday?

Well, it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a negative formation. After all, it incorporates two strikers and is at least something different from the plodding 4-1-4-1 system which has clearly not paid off at home.

But if Poyet is to persist, he will surely tinker with the personnel.

The introduction of Ki Sung-Yueng and Adam Johnson, who came off the bench just after the hour mark, were at the heart of Sunderland’s renaissance in the final 25 minutes.

Suddenly, instead of the persistently slack giveaways whenever Sunderland entered the final third, they were keeping possession, passing it around slickly and creating chances.

Ki looks a shoo-in to take the place of Emanuele Giaccherini against the Hammers and there was clearly a reaction from the South Korean to being hauled off in the first half at Norwich and then being dropped from the starting XI.

It was far more reminiscent of the performances produced at the start of 2014.

Ditto for Johnson, who found space, attacked from better areas and worried the Liverpool defence as he ran at pace at the back four.

Whether Johnson can be squeezed into the system will be a dilemma for Poyet, if he is to persist with two strikers.

Neither Jozy Altidore nor Connor Wickham thrived as the frontmen last night. Both were guilty of struggling to hold the ball up and failing to offer Sunderland an attacking platform.

But playing one central striker at home hasn’t paid off this season. Why not try two?

Surely Fabio Borini will go straight back into the side after he was ineligible to face parent club Liverpool and with Poyet already promising that Wickham will start against the Hammers, Altidore looks like being the man to miss out.

That West Ham game cannot be underestimated though.

Producing a decent performance against Liverpool is no guarantee of Sunderland producing again on Monday either.

Sunderland’s pattern this season has been to do themselves justice in the no-pressure encounters against the big boys and then wilt when faced with the more winnable ones.

Another no-show could mean curtains to their survival hopes.

But at least Sunderland don’t face the Hammers – now looking relatively safe on 34 points – on the back of a rout.

That provides at least a modicum of comfort heading into a game which is almost last orders at the last-chance saloon.

Twitter @youngsunecho