Sunderland 1 Liverpool 1 – Big match verdict

Jack Colback
Jack Colback
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THREE Premier League games and three different left-backs for Sunderland.

The “problem” position for the best part of the last decade continues to trouble the incumbent of the Sunderland hotseat, yet does the latest contender offer hope of a long-term solution?

Initially, Danny Rose is very much a short-term option after arriving on a season-long loan from Spurs.

After spelling out his desire to remain at the Stadium of Light beyond next May in his first press interview though, the 22-year-old clearly wants to remain at left-back for the duration.

The England Under-21 international has every chance of fulfilling those aspirations, with a clear path towards becoming a top-flight regular at Sunderland, rather than the bit-part player who started just eight league games for Tottenham.

No one is standing in Rose’s way of holding down Sunderland’s left-back slot.

Arguably, it’s a similar situation in the opposite full-back slot when Phil Bardsley eventually recovers from injury. Yet, with Craig Gardner continuing to shine as a makeshift defender, there has to be a suspicion that Martin O’Neill will tempt the Brummie to re-brand himself.

While Gardner appears to be relishing the challenge at right-back with a superb assist for Steven Fletcher’s third in two games, Jack Colback seems happy to leave the left-back duties to Rose.

It’s a view shared by O’Neill, albeit his hand was largely forced by Adam Johnson’s withdrawal.

O’Neill wants Colback at the heart of things alongside Lee Cattermole, spoiling opposition attacks and unleashing the attacking capabilities of Sunderland’s front four.

But the 22-year-old didn’t quite shoulder that responsibility against Liverpool’s central trio.

There were moments when Colback showed his growing composure as an attacking force – gliding past Steven Gerrard with an elegant body swerve in the opening minute and bursting down the right of the box after Fletcher’s goal, before being denied by a superb last-gasp challenge from Glen Johnson as he dithered.

But there were too many soft giveaways from the Tynesider, too.

It was a trait that proved contagious for Sunderland, as Seb Larsson, James McClean and particularly the off-colour Stephane Sessegnon all succumbed to carelessness in possession.

Ultimately though, Colback is arguably Sunderland’s best option alongside Cattermole and, on the evidence of the first half, there was more than enough from Rose to justify O’Neill’s decision to land the former Leeds youngster as a replacement for Kieran Richardson.

Rose settled himself with a couple of solid early touches and, although he struggled to get forward and support McClean on the overlap, looked suitably efficient defensively.

He was alert to the danger of Gerrard’s raking passes down the channels from the quarter-back role in front of Liverpool’s back four and used his marginal advantage of experience to subdue Raheem Sterling.

Other than the one occasion in the opening 45 minutes when Sterling got the wrong side of Rose and he duly sliced him down – somehow without earning a yellow card – the Spurs man got tight to the Liverpool protege and nicked the ball out of his possession before he had a chance to turn and run.

But, as Rose tired in the second half, the battle turned in the 17-year-old’s favour.

It is understandable why a first league outing of the season took its toll on Rose.

He missed most of pre-season after being given extra time off for his Olympics exploits and was ruled out of the opening two games for Spurs after a red card in the penultimate encounter of last season.

Back-to-back outings for England U21s during the international break provided a modest boost to his fitness, yet he clearly tired as the second half wore on.

Twice before Liverpool equalised, Sterling was given sufficient space to whip a teasing cross into the Sunderland area, where the visitors were undone by their lack of attacking bite.

The warnings weren’t heeded and Sunderland were undone on the third occasion, when Rose should have been sitting track-suited on the home bench.

Five minutes before Luis Suarez’s leveller, John O’Shea signalled to the Sunderland bench that Rose was struggling with a groin strain and Fraizer Campbell was just stripping off when Simon Mignolet’s net rustled.

Sterling’s slight physique and quick feet make him an elusive winger to contain anyway, but he was too easily able to ghost past Rose from a standing start and lay it back to Suarez, who admittedly got lucky with the ricochet off Titus Bramble.

Sunderland didn’t help themselves though in their inability to ease the pressure on Rose and give him an opportunity for a breather.

O’Neill’s strategy, particularly against the division’s heavyweights, is clearly reminiscent of the one which brought success at Aston Villa – sit deep, soak up pressure and hit the opposition ruthlessly on the counter-attack.

But without Johnson, Sunderland were so weak on the break that a confidence-drained Liverpool side were able to virtually lay siege in the second half.

Although Fletcher again displayed his predatory instincts and held the ball up well, his supporting cast continue to fall short.

Even a month after the start of the season, Sessegnon remains well short of match fitness – breathing heavily as he strolled around the pitch languidly in the latter stages, somehow without being removed.

McClean had little more joy as Liverpool right-back Martin Kelly rushed to his back without giving him the chance to turn – persistently forcing the Ireland winger to go backwards.

It’s a ploy that will not go unnoticed by opposition scouts and hands McClean the challenge of varying his game so that he can find those pockets of space to run at the full-back.

Had Sunderland carried any semblance of bite on the break, they could easily have added a second and killed Liverpool off.

But Sunderland’s struggles with fluidity going forward have been present throughout the opening three games.

Fletcher’s goals have been a huge positive, but there haven’t been a glut of chances created by the Black Cats so far this season.

That, more than the long-term prospects for the left-back slot, is the principle area which needs to start showing progress.

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