It could have been worse, it should have been better, it was still way too similar to past failings. And it's getting harder and harder to find new ways to write the same exact damn thing every damn time.
You've seen it all before. Rodgers threw a few curveballs with his tactics and selection – Suarez started on the flank for the first time in his Liverpool career, Gerrard played in a much deeper midfield role with Shelvey further forward, Sterling started on the right even though Borini played as the central striker – but it was still same old, same old. Liverpool created a handful of chances, but suffered from poor finishing and a lack of movement. Borini had the two best, intercepting a soft back header and a first-time blast from the top of the box, but shot too close to Mignolet both times. And then, just when Liverpool edged closer to making the breakthrough, Sunderland sucker-punched.
It's no coincidence that Fletcher's goal came at almost the same point of the match as Podolski's did in the previous fixture. Liverpool are too easily torn asunder by counter-attacks, in midfield, on the flanks, and in central defense. At least there was no single scapegoat this time. Liverpool were caught flat-footed after Atkinson played advantage following Gerrard's foul, Gardner beat both Suarez and Johnson when ambling down the flank, Reina missed the low cross, and Fletcher embarrassed Skrtel, getting behind him far too easily to pounce in the six-yard box. It was Sunderland's first shot of the match.
Liverpool struggled its way to halftime, then found increasingly hilarious ways to not score after the restart. It wouldn't be a typical, soul-killing Liverpool match without hitting the woodwork; Johnson cannoned a blast off the crossbar, Gerrard caromed off the outside of the post on an opportunity he'd bury 11 times out of 10 three years ago.
But then Liverpool's savior finally struck. No, not that savior. Well, yes, that savior, but because of a different savior.
For long stretches, Sterling was the only Liverpool player holding up his end of the bargain: running at defenders, eager to take players on, trying to make a difference. He's 17, starting his third Premier League match, and was the only player who didn't disappoint. Finally, one of those crosses after a yet another clever run found its mark, with a generous assist from walking calamity Titus Bramble, blocking Suarez's shot straight back to Suarez. I'm tempted to say he couldn't miss from three yards out, but we all know better. Regardless, after 341 minutes of league action, Liverpool's first goal from open play. It was Liverpool's 19th shot of the match.
But Liverpool couldn't find a second, losing steam after the exertions leading to the equalizer. The lone substitution, Downing for the again-disappointing Borini in the 65th, added little, although that substitution allowed Suarez to move into a central position. Shelvey struck a fierce left-footed effort after running across the top of the box in the 80th minute, but again shot too close to Mignolet. Otherwise, Liverpool couldn't penetrate Sunderland's penalty box, packed with six or seven defenders, and the home side actually had the better efforts in the dying seconds, but McClean and Colback's crosses were wayward, Saha's shot from distance high and wide.
So sure, it could have been worse. We've become accustomed to stronger stomach punches. Sterling impressed, and Johnson saved Liverpool with three or four recovery tackles, even if he didn't do enough to stop Sunderland's goal and shot wastefully far too often. Joe Allen seemed slightly off-color, and that's after completing 103 of 113 passes. Shelvey had impressive moments and reckless moments in an attacking role, while Kelly defended well. Liverpool did dominate for long stretches, and were blessedly patient in their build-up leading to the equalizer, as is the plan, rather than frantically hoofing and hoping. Rodgers' system is taking hold. But, once again, Liverpool's most important players were its biggest disappointments. Moving Gerrard into a deeper role didn't improve his performance and didn't improve Liverpool's midfield balance; Joe Allen still had to try to do the work of two men. Suarez failed to make any impact in a wide role and was again profligate until his point-blank goal, his only shot on target of six in total. Borini was even less influential in his preferred striker position.
Once again, the stats tell a totally different story than the scoreline. Sunderland had 34% possession, attempted and completed 300 fewer passes, and took just one shot from inside the penalty area, its only shot on target. And they scored with that one shot on goal.
Liverpool controlled the ball, created twice as many chances, took three times as many shots (seven on target to Sunderland's one), and attempted and completed twice as many passes in the attacking third and in total. And still drew.
In some ways, that's progress. If not for one mistake, Liverpool wins 1-0. If not for the woodwork or poor finishing, Liverpool wins 3-0. It was an improvement on Liverpool's last away match, and on most of Liverpool's away performances last season.
In other ways, it's massively disappointing, because we've seen similar far too often since the beginning of last season. It can't stay like this forever, can it?