Liverpool return to Premier League action at Sunderland this weekend after a rather timely international break.
Both sides go into the match looking for their first league win of the season, although Sunderland are unbeaten after two away draws (their home match with Reading was postponed).
It is a fixture that hasn’t been kind to Liverpool in recent years with the Reds losing two of the last three meetings at the Stadium of Light, including the now infamous ‘beach ball’ game in 2009.
Brendan Rodgers and his team will be hoping for better luck this time round as they look to kick-start their season in the North-East on Saturday.
Whilst Liverpool have had quite a busy summer in the transfer market, deadline day apart, Sunderland were quite the opposite with relatively little movement until the final days of the transfer window.
By the time the window closed they had managed to bring in five new faces in centre back Carlos Cuellar, veteran striker Louis Saha, former-Wolves front man Steven Fletcher, England winger Adam Johnson and Tottenham youngster Danny Rose—two free transfers and a loan alongside the relatively big money signings of Fletcher and Johnson. Eight players left in all with goalkeeper Craig Gordon and former Manchester United man Kieran Richardson the most high-profile amongst them.
Season so far
Martin O’Neill’s men ended last season poorly but have equipped themselves well so far. They, firstly, earned a goalless draw at Arsenal and then twice led before being pegged back to draw 2-2 at free-scoring Swansea City.
Sunderland will certainly see it as two points gained and the fact new signing Steven Fletcher grabbed both goals at Swansea on his league début for the club will have particularly pleased O’Neill after many questioned the amount Sunderland forked out to get the Scot.
Goals, or a lack thereof, were an issue for the Black Cats last season and they will be hoping the additions of Fletcher and Johnson will help to remedy that problem this time around.
Like most Martin O’Neill sides Sunderland have tended to play a direct, high intensity game with a lot of focus on getting the ball out wide and putting crosses into the box. Last season it was Seb Larsson on the right and, in the second half of the season, youngster James McClean on the left.
This season with the arrival of Adam Johnson, Seb Larsson has moved into a more central role with Johnson filling the gap on the right-wing in the 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 system they have used in both league games to date. This does mean a change of sorts with Johnson, a left-footer, likely to be cutting in onto his favoured side rather than staying wide and whipping a cross into the box as Larsson would have done.
Johnson cutting inside leaves a space on the right-wing for the full-back to attack and so it is unfortunate for Sunderland that first choice right-back Phil Bardsley is out injured for a ‘number of weeks’ following surgery on his ankle. Midfielder Craig Gardner has filled in so far and it could be that his more attacking instincts allow him to fully exploit the space vacated by Johnson’s forays into central areas.
Defensively though, Gardner will be tested by Liverpool’s newest young star, Raheem Sterling. Gardner will have to use all his experience if he is to keep the 17 year-old quiet.
On the other flank, the direct running of winger James McClean should keep Glen Johnson on his toes and the Reds full-back will need to judge well when to get forward or risk being caught out by the raw but talented Irishman. While McClean could be said to be one-dimensional in his play, pundits often enjoy trotting out the line that defenders hate nothing more than a player running at them with pace. McClean certainly offers that.
Arguably, Sunderland’s key man is Stephane Sessegnon. The attacking midfielder was their top scorer last season and playing just off the striker he is capable of creating chances for his teammates as well putting the ball in the net himself. Playing in the holding role, Joe Allen will have to keep a close eye on the Benin international to help Liverpool nullify the threat he poses.
Both managers will be hoping that their players return from international duty unscathed and in good condition to play a full part in the game on Saturday. Injuries or fatigue affecting big players is likely to play a part in deciding the outcome. As such, Sunderland will be hoping that Adam Johnson can recover in time from the injury that has seen him withdraw from the England squad.
Liverpool will hope to take advantage of Sunderland’s weaknesses in the full-back areas with Gardner and Colback, both midfielders by trade, starting in those positions last time out. Danny Rose is likely to come in for Colback at left-back but the young Spurs loanee will be making his début and Brendan Rodgers will hope the likes of Borini, Suarez, Sterling and even Glen Johnson will be able to get at both him and Gardner as they adapt to a new club and new position, respectively.
Undoubtedly this will be another tough test for Brendan Rodgers and his side against a Sunderland team Martin O’Neill will have well-drilled in his way of playing. Neither side will want to lose but equally both sides know a win would provide a big, and in, Liverpool’s case, much-needed, boost so you can expect both sides to be going out focused on picking up not less than the three points on offer.