Benteke meeting Klopp in the middle: 5 things to discuss from Sunderland 0-1 Liverpool

Paul Wilkes was in the press box at the Stadium of Light to analyse Liverpool’s narrow 1-0 win over Sunderland using Stats Zone – FREE on iOS and Android...

1. Firmino isn’t quite reaching the required level

The 24-year-old appears to be on the verge of becoming a fine player for the Reds and his work rate can’t be faulted, although he needs a little more end product

There’s certainly plenty of skill and ability in Liverpool’s summer signing from Hoffenheim and it’s entirely natural that it will take time for him to adapt from the Bundesliga, but it doesn’t make it any less frustrating for Reds fans.

The Brazilian set the tone early on as Philippe Coutinho played him in behind the defence, but his poor first touch let the ball run out for a goal-kick. Just 60 seconds later his sloppy pass found its way to a Sunderland defender.

Roberto Firmino had his side’s best two chances of the first half, first when he cut inside from the right, then turned back onto his right foot before unleashing a shot against the post with Vito Mannone just getting his fingertips to the ball. Then, the Brazilian should have done better with a header from a Nathaniel Clyne cross, but the Sunderland goalkeeper was again equal to it.

The 24-year-old appears to be on the verge of becoming a fine player for the Reds and his work rate can’t be faulted – he made eight ball recoveries, more than anyone – although he needs a better end product more regularly. His attempted clearance with 10 minutes remaining had the whole defence panicking, and fans’ hearts leaping. 

The same criticisms have been levelled at team-mate Coutinho in the past, however, so Liverpool's summer signing is not alone.

2. Henderson injury problems a concern for Liverpool

In this game he looked to close opponents down with his energy and slow the pace of the ball when Liverpool were previously a little rash in possession

The 25-year-old left the north-east four-and-a-half years ago and although there was plenty of promise back then, he returned this time as Liverpool captain and a much more complete player. Jordan Henderson has continually adapted his game to not only suit the needs of the three managers that he has played under at Anfield, but to enable his team-mates to fulfil their own roles.

He has the capability to dictate the tempo with and without the ball, and in this game he looked to close opponents down with his energy and slow the pace of the ball when Liverpool were previously a little rash in possession.

His substitution in the 61st minute was met with a standing ovation from the home supporters – Henderson is still a Sunderland fan, after all – and the introduction of Lucas Leiva appeared a tactical move until the away skipper was seen shaking his head with disappointment. Jurgen Klopp confirmed in the post-match press conference that it was due to injury, although he failed to reveal whether it was a recurrence of his past problem or a new issue.

3. Benteke showing signs of meeting Klopp in the middle

The second 45 minutes was a different story: he made twice as many passes as in the first half and received the ball in wider areas, running into the channels more

Klopp’s faith in his Liverpool strikers isn’t exactly clear despite the fact that he has publicly backed them on several occasions. The reason for the doubt is due to his team selection, which has told a very different story.

This was only £32.5 million Christian Benteke’s fifth start in the league since Klopp joined the club in mid-October, and although he scored in the victory over Leicester his participation then was down to the injury of Divock Origi.

Benteke was surprisingly outfought in air at the Stadium of Light, winning just four of his 15 aerial duels. He struggled initially and conceded a couple of fouls, gave the ball away too cheaply and generally stayed very centrally.

However, the second 45 minutes was a different story: he made twice as many passes as in the first half and received the ball in wider areas, running into the channels more. Straight from the re-start he made an impact, when after a decent passing move in midfield the ball was pushed out wide to Clyne. The right-back gave it to Lallana, who poked it through Firmino’s legs into the path of Benteke, the striker finishing with the side of his foot.

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“Lallana’s tried to control it and his mis-control flicked off his toe running right into Benteke’s path; even he mishits it,” complained Sam Allardyce about his team’s lack of luck in defending the goal.

Benteke’s one-two with Coutinho was fantastic in the 75th minute too, the Belgian flicking the ball into the Brazilian’s path and the playmaker returning it to the forward via a backheel. They combined 16 times in the match, which offers hope for their future relationship. Benteke finished with a game-high three chances created.

His one-on-one miss in stoppage time should have sealed the points a little earlier, just like at Leicester, but the hitman will still be pleased with his overall contribution.

4. Sunderland still nervy in defence

When asked to sum up December for the Black Cats, Allardyce simply replied: “S***e!”

Allardyce’s team have conceded 11 goals in their last four matches, although in fairness they have played three of last season’s top four in that period. The manager has opted to return to a back four after using three centre-backs for four consecutive matches before Manchester City put four past them. It was a much improved defensive display from Sunderland, but their nervousness showed throughout.

Both Wes Brown and former Red Sebastian Coates passed the ball out of play at times but did do well in the air against Benteke. However, there were a number of wayward clearances, with Coates’s headed attempt and collision with Mannone showing the lack of communication in defence. That incident caused Coates to leave the pitch early, with Allardyce saying it was a “dead leg rather than a muscle strain”.

When asked to sum up December for the Black Cats, Allardyce simply replied: “S***e!”

5. Liverpool show combative strengths

They made more tackles than Sunderland and gave away more fouls

“There are a lot more duels for the second ball here, and more duels in general,” admitted Klopp in an interview with Sport Bild this week. “That makes the game even more intense.”

The Liverpool manager knows that he has to adapt his style of football to meet the needs of the Premier League, although it’s important that in doing so he doesn’t compromise his own beliefs.

Liverpool showed once again that they could grind out a result and battle for the ball as much as a side that’s involved in a relegation scrap. They made more tackles than Sunderland and gave away more fouls.

With Klopp’s gegenpressing it’s expected that Liverpool will concede fouls in the opponent’s half of the pitch, and sure enough they did here: eight of their 16. The German coach will hope to continue pushing teams back with his side’s directness and tenacity, but he’s fully aware that it might not always be possible.

Opta facts

  • Benteke has scored six goals in seven Premier League games against Sunderland; more than against any other side.
  • Benteke’s goal was the quickest second-half goal scored in the Premier League this season (45:22) and the quickest after half-time in the Premier League since April (Jack Colback for Newcastle vs Tottenham)
  • In fact, Sunderland have conceded the two quickest second-half goals in the Premier League this season – Benteke for Liverpool (45:22) and Wayne Rooney for Manchester United (45:39) in September.
  • Sunderland have conceded just three goals in their five Premier League home games under Sam Allardyce, but all three of these goals have come in 0-1 defeats.
  • Sunderland have managed to pick up just two points in their last seven Premier League meetings with Liverpool (W0 D2 L5).
  • Sunderland have now lost 71 league matches against Liverpool; only against Everton (71) have they lost as often in their history.
  • Sunderland are now on their worst run of Premier League defeats (five in a row) since April 2014.
  • Liverpool have won five games 1-0 this season, a Premier League joint-high along with West Brom.
  • Liverpool join Stoke and Tottenham as the only teams to win both on Boxing Day and Matchday 19.

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