Johnson Carragher Skrtel Konchesky
Kuyt Meireles Cole
Bent 25' (pen) 48'
I can't do anything but shake my head and sigh.
Liverpool were excellent in the first five minutes and gifted an early goal, evoking karmic references to last year's beach ball horror show. They then proceeded to be utterly terrible for the next hour, as Sunderland went in front after a deserved penalty and more embarrassing defending on crosses. But, like against United, Ngog's entrance changed Liverpool's fortunes, and Gerrard soon hauled Liverpool level. But the home side couldn't take advantage of mounting momentum, spurning chance after chance in the final 15 minutes. I miss when Liverpool scored late winners; 2008-09 seems a distant memory. And we're left wondering how this result feels like two points dropped and a point earned at the same time.
The gift – which came less than two minutes after Torres had the ball in the net, only to be rightly ruled offside – was presented by Michael Turner's hilarious decision to touch a dead ball in the direction of his keeper, expecting Mignolet to take the free kick. Unfortunately for him, with the ball dead, his touch counted as the free kick, and Torres smartly stole in and set up Kuyt for the tap-in. But unlike last year's terrible beach ball decision by Mike Jones, Attwell correctly ruled the ball in play. Small favors.
However, Liverpool couldn't take advantage. Presented with an opportunity, the home side increasingly retreated into its own half. The only other Liverpool shot came from Meireles in the 21st, straight down Mignolet's throat from outside the box, as the Reds became more disjointed and more narrow, with Kuyt, Meireles, and Cole frequently switching positions, but always abdicating the flanks.
And then Poulsen, my new scapegoat, conceded an idiotic penalty, throwing his hands up in an attempt to stop Al-Muhammadi's cross. Mind-bogglingly moronic. Again, I don't like singling out players – and I've often defended past targets like Lucas and Kuyt – but I have zero clue why Hodgson's frozen out Lucas in favor of the Danish midfielder. I see absolutely nothing in his game, even ignoring this ignominy, to explain that decision. And although Reina guessed the right way, Bent's penalty had too much power behind it.
From there, Liverpool fumbled aimlessly, out-worked, out-thought, out-possessed, and out-played as Sunderland took the game to them. At Anfield. Admittedly, Konchesky's 27th-minute injury, replaced by Agger, didn't help matters, but by halftime, the away side had the edge in possession 46-54% and deserved to be level. That's unconscionable given what we've seen from Liverpool in past seasons and what we've seen from these sides in past meetings.
Despite having been better after halftime often this season, Liverpool were certainly not improved following the interval today, and it took Sunderland three minutes to go in front. In fact, the away side could have won a second spot kick seconds after the restart, when Sunderland won a flick-on header from a goal kick, and Welbeck burst through the backline, colliding with Reina. It'd be one of Liverpool's few fortunate moments, and it wouldn't last. In the 48th minute, that man Poulsen was out-jumped on Carragher's skied clearance, Malbranque found Onuoha in space (with Joe Cole failing to track his man), and Bent easily beat Johnson to head in the cross. Yet again, another goal conceded from a cross. It's far beyond the point of embarrassment.
Liverpool were frustrated, picking up unnecessary yellows, and second-best, but as against United, Ngog's entrance – for Poulsen – changed proceedings, even if the young Frenchman had little to do with it. Torres found space down the right channel – yes, using the flanks is helpful! – and despite a tricky deflection on the striker's cross, Liverpool's captain buried a header into the net. The benefits of getting Gerrard into the box. Don't worry, he'll be back behind the front four soon enough.
From there, Liverpool looked the only team capable of winning. Bramble blocked Cole's shot on target after Mignolet spilled Ngog's effort, followed by Torres mishitting an acrobatic volley from Kuyt's cross. Johnson toe-poked wide from just outside the area, then Ngog missed a free header at the near post. Deep into six minutes of injury time, with Liverpool camped in Sunderland's half, Turner made amends by somehow clearing Agger's flick-on off the line before the Dane missed a free header in the final minute from six yards out, wide open after Skrtel headed on a deep cross. That sums up Liverpool's luck this season. The result sums up Liverpool's impotence.
Make no mistake, a draw's still somewhat fortuitous since Sunderland were the better side for an hour, which is why it's partly a point earned. At least Liverpool showed some spine in coming from behind. As against United (for a little while) and (sigh) Northampton. But Liverpool shouldn't need to go a goal down before producing some passion. And all those chances not taken in the last 15 minutes, not to mention Liverpool's home record against the Mackems, contribute to the feeling of two points dropped. It was a battle of mid-table sides, and it ended level. That's what we've come to.
I'm still fairly convinced that the 4-4-2 is an outdated formation, one that doesn't work against tactically-competent teams, as the match at Manchester City demonstrated. Liverpool also seemingly doesn't have the personnel capable of playing in the formation; Kuyt, Cole, Jovanovic, etc. are not out-and-out wingers. But with how narrow and ineffective Liverpool were today, with Kuyt, Cole, and Meireles constantly atop one another, it might at least be a formation that works at home against teams like Sunderland, who pretty much played 4-4-2 with Welback sometimes dropping wide for a 4-5-1.
Whatever the solution is, it needs to be implemented quickly. Other than Skrtel's outstanding performance, Gerrard once again hauling Liverpool back from the brink, and the resoluteness shown in the last half-hour, there are few positives to take away from today's performance. Liverpool's reliant on a deep defense, "keeping the shape," and kick and rush. They're prone to conceding sloppy goals from crosses and unable to keep a lead, except in a few Europa League matches and at home against West Brom. As said above, right now, this is a mid-table team at best. The previous manager was supposedly fired because of disappointing results and a too-defensive side. While it's still early and the disclaimer that the owners are killing the club remains, all we've seen so far is regression from last season's "low point."