Club Focus – Sunderland – The Sunderland of old make Anfield appearance

Sunderland need not have turned up at Anfield as Liverpool strolled to victory in one of their most comfortable afternoons of the season.

All the pre-match optimism that followed the Wearside club to Anfield was extinguished after just three minutes when Fernando Torres scored what will probably go down as the goal of the season. By the time Glen Johnson’s cruelly deflected effort found its way past the floundering Craig Gordon, it was clear that the afternoon was going to be little more than an exercise in damage limitation. At half time the only real surprise was the score was as little as 2-0 in favour of the Merseysiders. As Kenwyne Jones was introduced early in the second period Sunderland offered just a glimmer of resistance but any hope of a red and white revival was ended by the irrepressible Torres’ second on the hour mark. From then on it was a dead game and Liverpool might have increased their lead several times. It would however be churlish not to mention Craig Gordon’s magnificent reaction save during the first half, a lightning quick flick of the wrist, getting just enough on the ball to keep Maxi Rodriguez’s header out of the goal showing again why Sunderland paid so much for him in the first place.

After the game Steve Bruce offered few excuses for his sides no show saying: “Sometimes in football you have to say you were well beaten and today we got our backsides kicked, it’s as simple as that. We simply weren’t good enough to get anywhere near a very good Liverpool team. Gerrard and Torres gave a masterclass and we simply couldn’t contain them.” As Bruce acknowledged later, it was hard to tell if it was just a case of Liverpool playing to their full potential, or a dismal away performance that led to the one sided nature of the contest. As is always the case it was a combination of the two factors, but Sunderland did little to help themselves.

The outcome of the game was all too predictable from the beginning as the defensive stability that had provided the foundation for the Black Cat’s recent good form was left in tatters by the injuries to John Mensah and Alan Hutton. This meant a change of personnel for three of the four defensive berths with Anton Ferdinand playing in his more orthodox position of centre-back alongside Michael Turner, with Phil Bardsley the replacement right-back and Kieran Richardson dropping into left-back. This caused frequent organizational disarray with Liverpool finding space down the channels with ease. Although Turner has performed well in recent weeks, without the composed Mensah alongside him he looks a significantly weaker player. Richardson is not a natural defender and his constantly changing position has resulted in a season of patchy form. He was missed in the centre of midfield where nobody seemed able to carry the ball. The two man central midfield of Lee Cattermole and the returning Lorik Cana were unable to keep or carry the ball at any stage in the game, and Sunderland once again were left crying out for a playmaker, or at least someone to show a bit of composure in the centre of the pitch. This was recognized by Bruce at halftime when Paolo Da Silva replaced Cattermole to allow Richardson to move forward and although the Black Cats improved – marginally – it was too little too late.

The Wearsiders continue to aspire to a top half finish but a dramatic improvement will be needed in their final handful of fixtures if they are to stand any chance. The injuries excuse is one that Bruce has often clung to over course of the season and with some legitimacy. However, when injury strikes his decision making has often left question marks and the weekend’s game at Anfield was surely one in which a 4-5-1 formation should have been deployed to prevent the midfield being swamped. The 4-4-2 that Bruce demonstrably prefers has brought positive results in recent weeks but if he is to develop as a top Premier League manager he must be more flexible in his use of tactics. He may be looking for some kind of continuity but with a constantly fluctuating injury list he is not going to get this and he needs to adapt tactically both to the personnel at his disposal, and to the opposition.

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