After a frantic and hectic festive period, Liverpool faced off against Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. This was the first Premier League game since Steven Gerrard called time on his glorious Liverpool career. Gerrard will go down in history as one of the greatest, if not the greatest Liverpool player. While it will be painful to see him go, it might be the best decision for all parties. Gerrard’s form has naturally declined because of age and Brendan Rodgers has criminally wasted him in a defensive midfield position. Gerrard would have been best utilized as an impact sub as fellow legend Frank Lampard is currently reveling in but because of because of abrasion between different parties, it does not look like happening. In the end, it will suit everyone as Gerrard can have the peaceful retirement he deserves and the team can move on. So, in the midst of all this, the Reds visited the Stadium of Light. Liverpool had already faced off against Sunderland before in a dour goalless draw. But, this time, the result and performance was much better.
The Reds won 1-0 in a tense but dominant encounter through a solitary Lazar Markovic goal. While the scoreline may indicate a tight win, the performance indicates that the converse is true. The Reds were denied a blatant penalty and hit the woodwork twice in addition to squandering a plethora of chances. On another day, it could easily have been a thrashing for the Black Cats. The fluency in the Liverpool play was back and the relentless pressing of last season witnessed a resurrection. The Reds created 14 chances and had 21 shots on the Sunderland goal (all stats per Squawka). While Costel Pantilimon had an uneventful outing in the reverse Anfield fixture, he was definitely worth his efforts today. There are a lot of positives to take from this game and things are finally looking bright for the Reds again.
The highlight was most definitely the performances of Phillipe Coutinho and Lazar Markovic. These two players were all over the pitch today pitching in with defensive work as well as pressing the opposition. Together, they had 11 tackles in mostly attacking areas of the pitch. Because of their effort and commitment, Sunderland was barely able to get out of their own half. These are the small things that influence games and today, these two were able to perfectly fathom the nuances of the match. It was particularly refreshing to see Markovic giving back to the fans after enduring a very turbid and turbulent opening months on Merseyside. While many have criticized the signing of Markovic due to price and experience, his talent cannot be denied as shown in this game. Despite being very influential in past games, Phillipe Coutinho is still very wasteful in front of goal. Coutinho had 4 shots on goal but only 1 on target, which is a 25% efficiency. If he can add those goals to his repertoire, he can be a star for years to come on a club as well as international stage.
On the defensive side of things, it was a fairly comfortable evening for the back culminating in a rare clean sheet for Simon Mignolet. The defense was largely untroubled except for one 5-minute spell after the Liam Bridcutt red card but great pressing and solid defending quelled that. This has not been said very often this season so this should give huge encouragement to the team. In the past few games, the rise of Mamadou Sakho has been nice to see. While detractors call him awkward and ponderous, he has shown his class with crisp passing and efficient defending. He had a 95% passing rate, which is even more commendable considering the very windy conditions. Against Sunderland, Sakho made 7 clearances, the highest in the game showing his tendency to bail his team out of trouble. Sakho was bought to be a stalwart in the defence for years to come and he is starting to show why.
In addition, Emre Can and Lucas Leiva had really good games. Can, deployed as a centre back in the first half and a central midfielder in the second, was solid in passing and tackling. He also brought the ball forward with assurance. His authority with the ball was apparent for all to see, especially when one serpentine run caused Liam Bridcutt to make a late tackle and get sent off. Like Sakho, Can also had a high passing rate with 92% finding a player in a Liverpool shirt. Can is touted as a future star but he has been unjustly ostracized to an extent this season. But, now he is getting a good run of games and is proving his mettle. The highlight of his performance was an exquisite pass to Fabio Borini in the first half. This shows that Can has vision as well which will bode well for the future.
Lucas Leiva provided yet another resilient performance seated in front of the defense. Lucas has impeccable reading of play and is quick with the tackle. This was fully on display in this game as Lucas recorded a tally of 4 successful tackles and 2 interceptions. There have been rumours of Lucas being replaced with Aston Villa midfielder Fabian Delph. If this move is to go through, it would be incompetence on the part of Brendan Rodgers as Delph is neither as a good a defensive midfielder as Lucas nor as good an attacker as Coutinho or Adam Lallana. Here is to hoping that this move does not happen.
All in all, it was a satisfying performance for all associated with Liverpool. Three points and a clean sheet is a good return from an away game and the performance was there as well. But, there have been frailties in the second half of games and this will be something Rodgers will have to watch out for. But, things are definitely on the up. All the new signings are seeming to settle and with valuable players to come back, things are turning up at the right point. But, it is important not to get complacent. Next, the Reds visit tormentors Aston Villa at Villa Park. It will by no means be an easy game. The Villains have given Liverpool quite a few problems in the past and it is imperative to not get self-satisfied. Also, it is crucial for Rodgers to get a few signings this window to bolster the squad. Otherwise, whatever slims hopes the Reds have of reaching the top four will vanish.