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The festive football season in England is one of the games traditions stretching back as far as most of us can remember. Watching matches or highlights packages every few days are a football fans dream and the fact that most other major leagues are on a winter break means that English football is truly the focus of the World for those few weeks.
Unfortunately the fixture congestion is not as positive for players and coaches who can find their resources stretched to the absolute limit, as form and momentum go out the window.
On the back of an impressive but physically demanding win against Manchester City on New Years Eve, which took a lot out of this Liverpool side, as they defended a one goal lead and took the three points, to then have another fixture on the 2nd of January was always going to prove difficult with little or no time to prepare for a challenging fixture away to a Sunderland side that were desperate for points to aid their fight against relegation.
Back in November it had taken late goals from Milner and Origi to overcome a stubborn Sunderland defence at Anfield as Liverpool dominated the ball but failed to break through the solid defensive structure from David Moyes’ side.
Normally the second fixture between two teams in a league schedule favours the more talented side as they should have already seen the defensive strategy of their opponents. In this instance though, and with limited preparation time there was, no such advantage accrued for Liverpool.
The biggest piece of team news going in to this match from a Liverpool perspective was the reintroduction of England international Daniel Sturridge into the starting lineup with Jordan Henderson unavailable after picking up a knock in the match against Manchester City.
Sturridge moved in to his customary central striking position with Roberto Firmino moving out to the left and Adam Lallana dropping back in to midfield after his front line role in the previous match.
Simon Mignolet continued in goal for another match with little sign of a recall for Loris Karius at this point. The back four was also as expected with Clyne, Lovren, Klavan and Milner continuing.
In midfield Emre Can dropped in to the controlling midfielder role vacated by club captain Jordan Henderson. Ahead of Can we saw Wijnaldum and Lallana take up their familiar roles and in the attacking third Sadio Mane was playing his last match before leaving to join up with the Senegal squad prior to the African Cup of Nations.
Sunderland sit in a deep block
We have already seen Liverpool struggle this season against teams that sit in a low block to frustrate them in the attacking phase. The defeat in the second match of the season away to Burnley set something of a tactical blueprint for teams to follow this season.
By the end of the match Liverpool had nearly completely dominated possession of the ball with an impressive 71% of possession compared to 29% for Sunderland. That the match finished in a 2-2 draw serves only to highlight that Liverpool struggled throughout to find genuine penetration against the Sunderland defensive block.
With Mane on the ball in the final third Liverpool were probing for an opening with plenty of attacking options. Clyne was advancing in the wide area and Sturridge, Firmino and Wijnaldum were all in advanced central positions.
Sunderland though, were in a stong defensive shape, shutting down passing lanes for the man in possession and preventing the Liverpool attackers from taking up dangerous positions between the defensive and midfield lines.
Throughout the match Sunderland were content to sit in a deep block and look to play quickly in the transition looking to get their striker Defoe into spaces in and around the Liverpool defensive line.
Normally in order to penetrate a deep defensive block there are two possible strategies. Playing down the wide areas to get in behind the structure or playing in front of the defensive structure to provoke an opposing player to break the defensive structure in a pressing movement letting you play into the vacated space.
In this match neither was possible as Sunderland defended their wide areas very well and remained disciplined in not breaking the defensive structure when provoked.
Again here there is a clear overload on the far side of the field as Liverpool are pushing forward and chasing another goal.
The man in possession is clearly looking to play in to this overload but once more the defensive structure from Sunderland is extremely effective and Liverpool once again cannot play through.
Poor build up
Through the course of this season Jordan Henderson has without a doubt grown in to his role as the controlling midfielder not only providing defensive reassurance but also being an effective part of the build up.
I have stated previously that Emre Can has the skill set to play this role for Liverpool in the tactical structure, unfortunately this match was not the best evidence for this opinion. To make it clear I do not think that the German had a poor game, he just found it difficult to play against a Sunderland side that remained passive and disciplined.
With Adam Lallana in possession of the ball and with little pressure on the ball you would expect the England international to be able to create something.
The norm in these situations would be for Lallana to play vertically in to the feet of Firmino breaking the defensive line of the opposition. This movement would force the Sunderland midfield off balance and give Liverpool an advanced platform from which they could plan the next phase of their attacking movement.
Instead the passing lane through to Firmino is covered extremely effectively by the defensive block and Liverpool cannot penetrate.
This image again shows structural issues that prevented Liverpool from being able to play through the Sunderland defensive unit. With James Milner in possession of the ball Sunderland are in a relatively flat line in midfield with no movement to pressure the ball.
Adam Lallana and Emre Can are both passive and not moving to effect play at all. One of the two should be looking to move forward in to the midfield line of Sunderland to break the structure and offer a shorter passing option for Milner to advance the ball.
Defensive issues for Liverpool
Let’s face it, when your opponent only has 29% of the ball there is less of an emphasis on your defensive positioning as you would generally be expected to win the game comfortably. That said there were times in this match that Liverpool were exposed badly when Sunderland moved to attack the final third.
This was a simple long ball in to the Liverpool half. As Clyne challenged for the ball and lost out you can see how ineffective the midfield unit is in providing cover for their defensive line.
One Sunderland attacker runs across the face of Lovren in to the wide area forcing the Croatian defender to move out to cover the run. That left Klavan and Milner covering not only the dangerous Defoe but also the large empty space in front of their position.
This shows how uncertain Can was in periods of this game. With Sunderland controlling the ball comfortably there is no pressure being placed on the man in possession.
Emre Can is in a poor position where he cannot effect any part of the Sunderland attack. He is flat in relation to his teammates and poorly positioned in terms of the ball. There are three attacking movements from Sunderland attackers behind him that the German needs to be aware of, one in the wide area and two centrally.
All that he has to do is drop five yards back to give the defensive structure some depth and negate the threat of the central movements.
It is hard to be critical of the players after this match. They dominated possession with several first choice players missing and with a little more luck they would have broken through the Sunderland resistance on at least one more occasion. The fixture list has taken its toll, especially with the physical effort required by Klopp in his system.
There will be more games like this over the course of the second half of the season. Liverpool need to learn from their issues in this match and correct them going forwards, before Chelsea pull out of sight.