Liverpool moved up to second in the Premier League table with a 3-1 win at bottom-club Sunderland on Super Sunday. Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez scored a goal apiece in the first-half and while Emanuele Giaccherini pulled one back for the Black Cats, the Reds forwards combined for Suarez to finish things off late on.
It was a triumph for Brendan Rodgers and his efforts to reshuffle his team in order to get the best out of the in-form Sturridge alongside Suarez. Whether it is a long-term solution remains to be seen as Kevin Ball - Sunderland's interim head coach following the sacking of Paolo Di Canio - saw his side cause plenty of problems too.
Here we use Opta data to take an in-depth look at the partnership of Suarez and Sturridge, the consequences of Liverpool's unusual shape and Sunderland's penchant for shooting from distance...
Kevin Ball's first Premier League team selection saw him go for a 4-3-3 formation with Ki Sung-Yueng, Lee Cattermole and Sebastian Larsson as the midfield trio. Emanuele Giaccherini and Adam Johnson were expected to provide the width in support of Jozy Altidore.
Brendan Rodgers went with the same line-up that lost in the Capital One Cup at Manchester United in midweek. That meant he opted to persist with the 3-4-1-2 formation that accommodated Luis Suarez alongside Sturridge in attack with Victor Moses in support.
The formation allowed Jose Enrique to push forwards as a wing-back but put more restrictions on midfielder Jordan Henderson than he is used to, with the ex-Sunderland man playing on the opposite flank.
Where it was won and lost
"Sunderland have started very brightly," said Davie Provan on commentary. "They've got much more security in midfield. Larsson should be able to join in with Ki and Cattermole sitting." Indeed, Sunderland's formation also allowed their wide men to play in advanced positions - potentially pinning back the Liverpool wing-backs and forcing the opposition into a back-five.
However, the Reds showed little inclination for a tight game. It was noticeable that Henderson was happy to let Kolo Toure deal with Giaccherini, while Johnson frequently found himself up against left-sided centre-back Mamadou Sakho. Although the wing-back on the opposite flank would sweep round, Liverpool essentially went man-for-man at times.
It's a formation change inspired by the desire to get Suarez and Sturridge into the same team while keeping both players in central positions. The question for Liverpool fans and Rodgers himself will be whether the quality that the duo can give the team is going to be worth the sacrifices in other areas.
Sunderland edged possession before the break and - as the above diagram shows - actually completed more accurate passes than Liverpool in the first half. That's surprising given that Rodgers is well-known for his love of possession football, but the Northern Irishman has shown in recent times that he is prepared to be flexible in order to achieve his goals. The doctrine has been established. Now he can focus on winning matches.
In the early stages, it appeared questionable whether three at the back was the way to do so here. Hull boss Steve Bruce abandoned the tactic upon arrival in the Premier League despite winning promotion with the system last season, precisely because he felt there was no advantage to be gained against sides playing one up front.
That's how it seemed as Sunderland enjoyed 64 per cent of possession in the first 12 minutes. With the crowd lifted thanks to the presence of Ball in the dug-out, there was a real atmosphere to the game. Larsson hit the crossbar and Liverpool were being pressed in their own half.
But it was the Reds rewarded for their ambitious approach. Wing-back Enrique got forward well down the left, winning a corner from which Sturridge forced the ball past a lethargic Larsson on the Sunderland line. Replays clearly showed the striker used his hand but it was not intentional and when it's running for you it's running for you. That's seven in eight for Sturridge now.
Soon after, Liverpool doubled their lead. A brilliant cross-field pass from Steven Gerrard found Sturridge on the right and his impeccable touch set up the opportunity for him to run at Cuellar. "You've got to show him inside where you can get help from a team-mate," said Dietmar Hamann in the studio. Cuellar didn't and Sturridge went on the outside, finding Suarez at the far post for his strike partner to tap home.
It was an indication of just how dangerous their partnership could become. Sturridge has garnered something of a reputation for selfishness, while Suarez himself often looks to go it alone, but there was plenty of evidence of link-up play between the pair in this game. The third goal in the final moments saw the duo combine again and if this shift of system suggests an emphasis on the counter-attack it seems clear that Liverpool have the players to make that work.
Of course, there are problems elsewhere, particularly in the absence of the injured Philippe Coutinho. Moses is a powerful runner but lacks the subtlety of touch to truly thrive in the hole. "I don't think the way they play gets the best out of Victor Moses but sometimes you have to sacrifice players and this gets the best out of Suarez and Sturridge," said Hamann.
It left Gerrard and Lucas occasionally swamped in the middle of the pitch and that was reflected in the sheer number of shots that Sunderland attempted from central midfield positions. Liverpool conceded an average of 11.4 shots per game last season. Here they allowed 23 attempts on their goal. It was from one such effort by Ki that Giaccherini slotted home the rebound to reduce the deficit.
|Sunderland v Liverpool - Shots|
"What an open game," remarked Sky Sports commentator Martin Tyler on the hour mark. Perhaps that made the introduction of Raheem Sterling in favour of Moses with a quarter of an hour remaining slightly surprising. It saw Sterling take up the right wing-back role and Henderson moving into the centre of midfield.
On the face of it, given Sterling's defensive inexperience, the switch left Liverpool even more exposed down their right and Ball tried to take advantage by bringing on Charalampos Mavrias late on. But it also had the effect of making the visitors more solid in the centre and - as the above timeline of shots indicates - it was noticeable how Sunderland's efforts dried up just as they might have been expected to be pushing for the equaliser.
Instead there was a sucker-punch on the counter-attack and Rodgers was vindicated. This Liverpool system may have more fluid days when Coutinho is fit and there is a feeling that the right flank is something of a fudge at present. But ultimately, as Sunderland found out, with Suarez and Sturridge together in attack, Liverpool simply don't have to be at their best to win football matches. And that should be a worry for their Premier League rivals.
"We wanted a performance. I thought we played some good football in the first half. Obviously you're always going to be susceptible to the pace Liverpool have on the break. We then gave it a really good go in the second half - scored and created chances. We took it right to death but then you're susceptible to that counter-attack and, I don't mean this disrespectfully, I think 3-1 flattered Liverpool a bit. That's a shame because the lads gave it a really good go."
"The work we put in was exceptional. I thought we were really dangerous on the counter-attack today. Luis and Daniel up front are a real handful. You can see the partnership between the two of them. Obviously, our system has changed a wee bit to suit the players we have. It works reasonably well with a 3-4-1-2 and those two at the tip of the structure are very good for us. They combine very well, you can see how they pass and move off each other. Long may it continue."
Although Suarez scored two goals, it was his strike partner Sturridge who set them both up and scored one of his own. It was an impressive performance from the England striker and evidence that he can form a good partnership with the returning star. "His movement and touch have been terrific," said Provan. "If anyone is going to benefit from the return of Luis Suarez then it is him." Click on 'Player ratings' to cast your own vote.