Richard Mennear's analysis: Defensive resilience augurs well for Sunderland's survival scrap

Liverpool's charismatic manager Jurgen Klopp had much to say about Sunderland's defensive approach in the aftermath of Saturday's game.

Monday, 28th November 2016, 11:00 am
Updated Tuesday, 6th December 2016, 11:45 am
Sunderland keeper Jordan Pickford takes a cross under pressure at Liverpool. Picture by Frank Reid

“I don’t think I have ever played against a more defensive team,” said Klopp, deep within Anfield’s impressive new main stand.

Phil Neville criticised him for being disrespectful on Match of the Day. Moyes said it better, though.

The 53-year-old Scot stating quite simply: “My job was not to come here and to entertain the Anfield crowd, my job was to come here to try to get a result for Sunderland.”

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Quite right. And they almost managed it too.

Sunderland were defensive, sitting deep with Jason Denayer in the holding role tasked with man-marking Philippe Coutinho, while Duncan Watmore and Victor Anichebe both tracked back at will to provide additional cover at full-back.

Liverpool dominated the ball and carved out more chances, but Sunderland were more than a match and almost held out, the opening goal coming 15 minutes from the end.

For much of the game it was attack v defence. But that simplistic outlook is doing Sunderland a disservice.

They came with a clear gameplan and stuck to it rigidly.

And the Black Cats were within a whisker of coming away with a very creditable draw. Liverpool deserved the win, but Sunderland played well.

Had they come away with a point, nobody could have begrudged them that, given the doggedness and resilience to keep a relentless tide of red at bay.

At the heart of Sunderland’s resolve was skipper John O’Shea and his partner at centre-back, Lamine Kone.

The Liverpool attack was almost non-stop, but O’Shea, in particular, deserves great credit for the way he marshalled the Sunderland defence.

Moyes had a difficult decision to make pre-match, with Papy Djilobodji suspended.

Denayer was always in his thoughts to partner Kone, with the Belgian’s pace a key weapon against a Reds attack that included Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane.

In the end, Moyes opted to keep Denayer in midfield, with the Manchester City loanee doing a brilliant job at containing Coutinho before the Brazilian’s early departure with a nasty looking foot injury.

That meant O’Shea was recalled. And he put in a real captain’s performance. Always vocal, always organised, he didn’t put a foot wrong.

Kone was much-improved. It’s too early to say he has returned to his best, given his season so far, but he was much more commanding nonetheless.

Djilobodji is available for the visit of Leicester this Saturday, but there is no reason to change the defence again, with Billy Jones and Patrick van Aanholt providing good support at full-back.

It was backs-to-the-wall stuff. Yet Sunderland almost prevailed.

O’Shea said: “The way they were switching positions, we knew we were going to have to be passing players over, not marking one player as such.

“They kept changing their attacking options. It is that side of the game when you get to 75 minutes, you think. ‘OK, this could be our day’.”

It wasn’t to be.

But at least Sunderland’s confidence hasn’t been dented after managing to finally turn their season around with those wins over Bournemouth and Hull.

Jordan Pickford was busy throughout, but he wasn’t called upon to make many stunning saves, with Liverpool’s finishing wayward or weak, with Firmino and Georginio Wijnaldum involved.

Liverpool were dominant, but it wasn’t all one-way traffic.

Sunderland looked a threat on the counter-attack and Steven Pienaar saw his effort saved by Loris Karius. A penalty appeal was turned away after Jermain Defoe went down under a challenge by Joel Matip. Replays showed there was little in it, though.

The Reds were dealt a blow when injured Coutinho was taken off, mind, Denayer was doing such a good job that his impact had been minimal.

Further Liverpool chances came and went, Dejan Lovren sent a header wide, Emre Can misjudged two headers before Lovren tried his luck from 30 yards.

The possession stats were startling, with Liverpool enjoying 80 per cent of the ball. But it mattered little, with well-organised Sunderland containing the threat.

The second half followed a similar pattern. Mane’s weak effort a let-off, Milner couldn’t connect at the back post and Pickford saved well from Firmino.

The home support was becoming increasingly frustrated. A key sign of how well Sunderland were playing.

Klopp resorted to whipping the crowd into a frenzy. It almost backfired, but Watmore missed a great chance to put Sunderland in front moments later.

Victor Anichebe laid the ball off, but Watmore’s touch was heavy and the chance passed up.

Liverpool hit back; Jordan Henderson curling a free-kick over, Denayer producing a brilliant block before Coutinho’s replacement Divock Origi opened the scoring.

Did he mean it? Was it a fluke? Either way the ball curled past Pickford from a tight angle to give Liverpool the lead.

Moyes quickly resorted to Plan B, with Lynden Gooch and Adnan Januzaj on. But the hosts scored again, Milner converting the penalty after Ndong’s clumsy challenge on Mane.

Defeat meant Sunderland go bottom again after Swansea City’s remarkable 5-4 win over Crystal Palace.

O’Shea added: “We have to focus on ourselves. There will be results along the way that are surprising and unexpected. We have done that plenty of times ourselves.”

And Sunderland had come very close to a brilliant point.

Moyes knew if his side opened up against Liverpool then they risked being torn apart, just like Watford and Hull City had been at Anfield – with 11 goals conceded between them.

No, Moyes was very canny and played to Sunderland’s strengths. It wasn’t one for the purists but as he says, it is not his job to entertain the Liverpool faithful. His job is to win Sunderland points.

And while they failed to take any back to Wearside this weekend, the performances over recent games have been a stark improvement.

Plenty to build on ahead of a testing few weeks in the run-up to Christmas.