All match data from Stats Zone and Who Scored.
First and foremost, despite the struggles and frustrations, Liverpool won. Liverpool eventually scored and Liverpool kept their third league clean sheet (the first time they've done it in consecutive matches since December 2015) and Liverpool remain unbeaten over the last 11 league matches with eight wins and three draws.
Still, I can't also help but focus on the fact that this was a very disappointing performance from Liverpool's front three. That's going to happen, no matter how potent they've looked so far this season, and especially when the side's forced to shuffle due to Coutinho's injury a third of the way through the match.
27 Liverpool shots, but just eight from Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho. Just four shots on-target from the four, although one was Liverpool's notable and necessary game-winner. 19 chances created in total, but just four from Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho, and not a single clear-cut chance until Milner's injury time penalty won by Mané's pace.
Emre Can leading the team in shots taken, and Can and Henderson creating vastly more chances than the rest of the side is not ideal. Henderson and Can created 10 of Liverpool's 19 chances, more than half between just the two of them, and more than twice as many as Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho combined. Liverpool's four defenders took the same amount of shots as Firmino, Mané, Origi, and Coutinho, and created one more chance.
Only the 5-1 victory over Hull saw Liverpool attempt more passes into the penalty area in a match this season. Liverpool completed 55% that day – just below Liverpool's 56% average going into Saturday's match – but only 43% on Saturday. Only the match against Manchester United, against Mourinho's better parked and more talented double-decker bus, saw Liverpool complete a lower percentage of its passes into the box. Not one pass came from wide areas (and Liverpool's crossing wasn't good either), while Firmino (1/7), Henderson (3/10), and Can (6/14) were all notably profligate in this regard.
Still, Liverpool kept trying, rather than simply resorting to even more speculative shots from distance, ramping up the shot total in the second half, finally forcing Sunderland to start blocking shots – its first not until the 57th minute – rather than watching Liverpool miss its more tentative and tenuous efforts.
All that lead to an Expected Goals chart which looks like this:
xG map for Liverpool - Sunderland. An effective bend-but-don't-break defense by Sunderland, but done in by a great shot. pic.twitter.com/cHEMc7tYFv— Caley Graphics (@Caley_graphics) November 26, 2016
Low value shots abound, against a defense designed to not give a single inch, needing a supremely unlikely strike to secure the victory.
That Expected Goals chart looks a bit familiar.
The Burnley loss from three months ago remains the closest comparison to Saturday's match. A similar discrepancy in passes, possession, and shot totals between the sides. Disappointing shot accuracy and a failure to create clear-cut chances, with Liverpool also missing a crucial attacker.
This time, Liverpool won. Because of Origi's solitary magic, because of Liverpool's patience and perseverance in pushing for the goal, because of Karius' save in the 20th minute and Karius' smother in the 68th, because Lovren, Matip, and Henderson refused to allow counter-attacks, because Liverpool didn't do anything dumb at the back, because Liverpool didn't give Sunderland the chances they gave Burnley.
Liverpool have allowed just nine shots in the last two matches combined, with just one shot on-target. That's after allowing 14 shots on-target (from 18 in total) in the two matches before, against Crystal Palace and Watford. It's not as if Sunderland or Southampton tried to attack often, but Liverpool also didn't let them, and Liverpool are impressively top of all five big European league in opposition shots allowed.
Because, three months later, while they're not perfect and they've a long way to go before being perfect, Liverpool are a lot better than they were in late August.
And that's really all that matters.
Despite the disappointing facets and performances, Liverpool won. Liverpool won a fixture they drew last season, now +11 points on last season's comparable fixtures, Liverpool won the type of match that they lost just three months earlier. Liverpool pushed and prodded and kept to its plan, even if that plan was partly thrown out of the window due to Coutinho's injury, Klopp cajoled and cheered on the touchline, the crowd got into it, and Liverpool made the breakthrough.
Heads down, get to work, and Liverpool did what Liverpool needed to do.
By hook and by crook, Liverpool took all three points to keep pace with Chelsea and Manchester City, despite all the difficulties, in a match they could have easily drawn or lost, and probably would have done so just a few months before. There's still clearly room for improvement, and improvement will assuredly be needed, especially if Coutinho's out for multiple months.
But rather than a lament or regret, it's yet another notch on the post, and another needed step forward.