Suarez 36' 89'
So who wants to cite the 'Liverpool win more matches when Suarez doesn't start' statistic that's been doing the rounds? Lies, damned lies…
As in the previous matches, Liverpool weren't great, Liverpool weren't especially fluent, and the link between midfield and attack remained pretty much nonexistent. Sunderland took more shots, played more attacking third passes, and pressured effectively until fatigue set in late in the second half, making sure that the ball spent more time in Liverpool's half.
But Suarez's goals and Suarez's combination play with Sturridge made sure that Liverpool won because Suarez makes Liverpool's counter-attack immeasurably better. Three league goals for the first time this season, the first second-half goal of the season. It really is no coincidence those happened in Suarez's first league game after his suspension.
Liverpool's opener came from a set play, the subsequent two from lightning counters. Sturridge's goal was slightly fortunate, directing Gerrard's corner past Larsson on the line and into the net with his arm. Both counter-attacks were glorious: Gerrard's long pass and Sturridge's wonderful control leading to the first, Mignolet's quick distribution and Suarez and Sturridge's combination play leading to the second.
But in between, Liverpool were often pinned back, partly by design, partly due to formation. Again lining up in the 3-4-1-2 we saw against United, Liverpool got bodies back in defense and looked to counter quickly, but there was still little coordination between defense and attack, little of the patient passing we became used to last season. Lucas and Gerrard were often over-run by the Larsson/Ki/Cattermole trio, and as in every match we've seen so far, Liverpool's opponent pressed effectively to deny the opportunity to build from the back. It really is no coincidence Liverpool had better chances – and that Liverpool scored – when bypassing the midfield.
Individually, neither midfielder played badly. Gerrard's glorious long range pass set up Liverpool's second, his set plays constantly threatened, and he did get forward more often than in previous matches. Lucas was again crucial in defense, with five tackles and three interceptions, completing 90% of his passes. It's the partnership, the way they play together, which has become so concerning.
And it's a good thing that Liverpool impressed on counter-attacks and set plays because Liverpool rarely looked like scoring from possession-based open play. In fact, I'm struggling to think of any good opportunity which came from one of those situations. Skrtel had an early goal ruled out for offside from a Gerrard free kick, Suarez chested down and shot wide from a Gerrard corner, Westwood saved Moses' blast after a Gerrard free kick and then denied Toure's rocket after the defender won the ball in Sunderland's half. Liverpool were utterly reliant on set plays and transitional play, and not for the first time. I don't know the answer with Allen and Coutinho injured and Henderson needed at right wing-back, but I do know that the question about Liverpool's midfield needs to be asked.
At least the formation did its job by limiting Sunderland's ability to punish Liverpool.
24 tackles, 54 clearances, nine blocks, seven interceptions, six blocked crosses. Aside from one shot spilled by Mignolet, where no defender reacted to a possible rebound – probably because every single person in the universe expected Mignolet to smother, as he's smothered pretty much everything else – Liverpool's defensive shell again worked excellently. Toure and Sakho were especially impressive, doing well to blunt Altidore's burly effectiveness.
23 shots was Sunderland's highest total in nearly two years. But 15 of them came from outside the box, only five were on target. Just three of those 15 shots from outside the box forced Mignolet into action. Yes, one led to Sunderland's lone goal, but Liverpool's last season demonstrated that taking lots and lots of shots doesn't necessarily translate to lots and lots of goals, especially if most of those shots come from long range. Sunderland's shooting accuracy was 21.7%. Liverpool's was 40%. None of Liverpool's three goals came from further than 10 yards out.
This is the fourth match in a row where Sunderland's conceded three goals. Today's margin of defeat is marginally unfair on the home side's effort and play, but that's still quite the auspicious streak.
Liverpool will face tighter defenses and Liverpool will face better midfields who press even more effectively. While today saw an improved performance in most regards, and Suarez does make a massive difference to Liverpool's competence in attack, there are still some glaring problems to fix.
To be fair, they're glaring problems to fix with Liverpool sat in second place. Which remains an awful lot better than the alternative.