SEBASTIAN Larsson has expanded his repertoire this season, but one very important element has gone missing in the process – goals.
At the start of the campaign the Swede was Sunderland’s first-choice right-winger and, according to his former Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger some months earlier, the best dead-ball specialist in the Premier League.
Then came Adam Johnson. The £10m winger has not cost Larsson his place in Sunderland’s team, but he has had to adapt to survive. He has only started five Premier League matches in his preferred position this season, and has regularly been shunted to full-back in the latter stages.
Since Johnson’s arrival from Manchester City, Larsson has had to reinvent himself as a holding midfielder to get a game. In that respect he has succeeded, regularly preferred to specialists like David Vaughan and Jack Colback.
That in itself has not been enough to push him out of the goalscoring picture, but with Craig Gardner proving more productive from direct free-kicks, Larsson gets far less opportunities these days to live up to Wenger’s billing. As a result, his predominance on the team-sheet is not matched on the scoresheet.
Not since March 31 at Manchester City has he scored for Sunderland (he got two that day), and even that ended a 14-match barren run. In 2012 he scored as many goals for his country (three) as for his club. His last was particularly memorable because it came against England at the European Championships, but even that was in the dim and distant past. It rankles.
“It was a while ago that I scored,” reflects the likeable 27-year-old, who only has one assist to his name this term. “I am disappointed I haven’t scored this season. The position I am playing in doesn’t help. It is a more withdrawn role, a holding role, so I am not popping up on the wings as much.
“But I still like to get on the scoresheet, and I have not been able to do that this season.
“It would be really disappointing if I went through the season and I hadn’t scored a goal. It is down to me to change that.”
There could be few better places to do that than Anfield and the famous old ground where Larsson marked his Sunderland debut with a special goal on the first day of last season as Steve Bruce’s radically revamped Black Cats kicked off the campaign with a draw.
The blond winger’s acrobatic volley on the swivel seems a lifetime ago. So much has changed at the Stadium of Light since it is astonishing to think that tonight will be the first time Sunderland have been back since.
They go there with some of the joy of Christmas knocked out of them by Tottenham Hotspur. December saw crucial wins against relegation rivals Reading and Southampton followed up with another amazing victory at Manchester City. All in all it was a good end to a not particularly great 2012, but the mere fact its last act was a defeat took the edge off the celebrations somewhat.
“We have got to pick ourselves up and go again now,” Larsson argues. “At least we have shown that we could run a good Tottenham side close (taking the lead before losing 2-1). We have to go to Anfield and try to get a result there.
“The goal I scored at Anfield is probably the best goal I have scored while at Sunderland and it was my debut as well. Hopefully, I can go there and do it again. It would be a nice time to get back on the scoresheet.”
History is not on Sunderland’s side. They have not won at Anfield since Gary Rowell scored the only goal of the game from the penalty spot in October 1983.
Fortunately playing the modern Liverpool is not the same as playing the history books. They may still wear the famous all-red strip, they may be one of only three English teams in possession of a major trophy, but Brendan Rogers’ side are shadows of the giants in whose footsteps they walk.
Sunderland have drawn their last three matches in front of the Kop and there is no reason why a team who beat Manchester City twice last year need not be confident about becoming the sixth team to leave Anfield with a win this season.
The Reds have lost twice in their last four games, but the other two have been crushing victories at home to Fulham and at Queens Park Rangers on Sunday. In other words, what happens tonight is anybody’s guess.
“You always expect a tough game when you go to Anfield,” says Larsson. “Some weeks they look like and absolute top team. Other weeks they lose games where you can’t understand how.
“It is a difficult one, but whenever you go to Anfield you expect a tough game.”
The steady Larsson, by contrast, is a model of consistency. But it would be nice if he could kick off 2013 with a surprise goal.