Sunderland 1 Liverpool 1 - Mark Douglas' match analysis

SO we will reach the end of September with rain in the record books as the only Premier League victor at the Stadium of Light so far this season.

Luis Suarez is challenged by Lee Cattermole
Luis Suarez is challenged by Lee Cattermole

SO we will reach the end of September with rain in the record books as the only Premier League victor at the Stadium of Light so far this season.

The record reads two matches, one draw and a resounding win for the elements on that surreal August afternoon when Reading came to town – hardly the ideal start to the Black Cats brave new era. But then trying to draw any kind of conclusions from the scraps of evidence served up by Sunderland is proving to be a particularly taxing business.

Normally, by the time Autumn is starting to assert itself we might expect to have some sort of idea of what lies ahead. Last season the Black Cats had played three Premier League home games by this point and lost two in a manner that made it pretty clear that the writing was on the wall for Steve Bruce.

This term, you have to wade through a thick fog of false dawns, familiar frustrations and Steven Fletcher before you can tackle the burning question of whether Martin O’Neill has constructed a team worthy of challenging for a top eight place. As the man himself admitted afterwards, the jury is still very much out on that front.

Having been full of the joys of the North East’s Indian summer when he met the press on Thursday, a more pensive O’Neill emerged after Sunderland secured this very fortunate point against Liverpool.

He said: “Are we better equipped than we were last season? I don’t know, I really don’t. I think it’s a long season and at the moment we have our own set of problems. That’s up to us to try and resolve. The answer is that I don’t know at this minute.”

If he doesn’t know the answers, O’Neill certainly knows the questions after a long old evening against a Liverpool side desperate to mark a momentous week with a performance worthy of the city.

The first perplexing dilemma for the Black Cats boss to confront is whether Sunderland’s current policy of sitting back and allowing opposing teams to play is really getting the best of his players. It was an understandable philosophy on the opening day against Arsenal, but it seemed a strange method against a Liverpool team in the midst of one of their worst starts to the season in living memory.

Presumably it will change when Adam Johnson gets back from the thigh injury that ruled him out of contention but there can be no getting away from the fact that Sunderland have spent their three Premier League contests on the back foot.

They have taken 22 shots this season – but conceded some 71 to a combination of forwards from Arsenal, Swansea and Saturday’s opponents Liverpool.

This is not the Black Cats that we were sold when O’Neill took the wraps off Johnson and Fletcher a few weeks ago, and most certainly not the entertaining, high-octane Sunderland which the manager wants to deliver.

Turning his team from counter-punchers into heavyweights will be a long process. But it seems a shame to play the percentages when they have a striker as lethal as Fletcher in their armoury.

He had one chance on Saturday and buried it, and while the critics might chide that it was another close-range finish, it is his cute movement that gets him into those positions in the first place.

Otherwise he was feeding on scant service as Stephane Sessegnon once again flattered to deceive and James McClean and Seb Larsson found themselves engaged in emergency defensive work for most of the evening. Sessegnon is the link man between Sunderland’s hard-working midfield and their deadly striker but at the moment he is struggling to emerge from the margins and his team are suffering for it.

He gave away the ball early on in Saturday’s game and that set the tone for another evening when his imagination and brio was stifled by a team set up to suffocate his creativity. It seemed to dishearten him and he had no answer to the hustle of Jonjo Shelvey, who was an industrious presence in Liverpool’s engine room.

“It’s just not happening for him at the moment,” O’Neill admitted.

If Sessegnon struggled, Sunderland at least had others who are flourishing. One of them – Craig Gardner – is playing in a right-back role that is not his normal posting and his impressive forward forays made you wonder whether he might be best returned to central midfield.

Another, Danny Rose, looked comfortable enough at left-back to make you think Sunderland have pulled off a smart bit of business in persuading Spurs to allow him out on loan.

Lee Cattermole was good too but in the creative areas, there could be no denying that Sunderland were second best to Brendan Rodgers’ emerging team.

They played better than expected on a day full of emotional resonance following the midweek reckoning for the lost souls of the Hillsborough disaster. In particular, Raheem Sterling impressed for a team that are better than their lowly league position suggests.

The wasteful Fabio Borini was denied twice by excellent stops from Simon Mignolet before the Black Cats struck with their first meaningful attack of the match. Gardner drove on against right-back England Glen Johnson and delivered a cross that was finished by Fletcher.

Sunderland enjoyed their best spell and Liverpool’s chief threat Luis Suarez was deservedly booked for an outrageous dive when John O’Shea checked his run in the box.

But the Reds deservedly pulled level in the second half thanks to Suarez, at a time when Sunderland appeared to be closing the game out.

In truth neither the point nor the performance went particularly far in answering the burning Black Cat questions. It has been that sort of season – so far.

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