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Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rest and expatiates in a life to come.
(Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, 1734)
Do not adjust your screens. Do not quickly hop to another website. You are indeed reading the first Talking Tactics article of the Roker Report's second season in existence. You see, while Mr Pope probably didn't have us football addicts in mind when he wrote his poem almost three centuries ago, it is a piece of writing which sums up wonderfully the anticipation the average fan feels as their team strides out for their first competitive fixture in three months.
It is the hope that keeps us coming back for more and, foolishly, believing this will be 'our year'. But alongside that hope is an air of wariness, a puzzling feeling, where we don't quite know what to expect.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the field of tactics. Whilst pre-season friendlies can offer an insight into whether a manager feels like harking bark once more to the famous 4-4-2, or going all twenty-first century with some zany experiment, it is not until the opening day is over that we can truly see which preferred tactical route the gaffer will be looking to go down over the coming months.
Now, I'm no Mystic Meg. That's mainly because my name isn't actually Meg, but also in part because I am useless at predictions. Not to be put off by this though, here at Roker Report we decided to kick off the season with a few (educated) guesses about just how Steve Bruce might go about trying to nick a point or three from Anfield on Saturday.
So, without further blabbing, join us for what will no doubt be proven completely wrong in five days time...
Right, first things first: who's gonna play?
As already explained, correctly predicting events that will soon come to pass is not exactly my forte, but I wouldn't be too surprised if the XI that takes the field on Saturday afternoon is the same one that started against Hibs two days ago.
In spite of signing the promising Kieren Westwood, Simon Mignolet looks set to keep his first-team berth in goal. Phil Bardsley will almost certainly start at right-back, whilst Kieran Richardson should occupy the left side of defence, assuming he recovers from Saturday's niggle.
Perhaps the only change from the Hibs game may come in the centre of defence. John O'Shea looks likely to miss out through injury, so Wes Brown will no doubt keep his place. However, Brown's partner on Saturday, Anton Ferdinand, may find that Bruce picks Titus Bramble over him. Ferdinand is well known for his lapses in concentration, and with Sunderland no doubt expecting to be on the back foot for much of their visit to Liverpool, Bruce will likely choose Bramble. Titus himself is no stranger to the odd mistake, but for much of last season he was a key figure in numerous clean sheets, and therefore I expect him to start.
Further up the field, there are no such complications. Captain Lee Cattermole will start in midfield alongside new boy Craig Gardner. Meanwhile Seb Larsson and, interestingly, Jack Colback are likely to take up positions the right and left flanks respectively. What will effectively be a 4-4-1-1 formation will be rounded off with Stephane Sessegnon sitting just behind Asamoah Gyan.
Perhaps I've contradicted myself there. Earlier I said we fans are unsure of what to expect tactically, and now I've just gone and said we'll play the exact same thing we saw at Hibs. Truth be told, I can't really see any other way we can do it on Saturday; I expect Bruce to put an emphasis on keeping the ball when we get it and keeping the back door shut primarily, and then hoping the pace and craft of Sessegnon and Gyan can nick something up the other end on the counter-attack.
What about Liverpool?
As chance would have it, our opponents at the weekend also completed their last pre-season fixture in a 4-4-1-1 formation. A 2-0 victory over Valencia saw Andy Carroll backed up by none other Alberto Aquilani; both Steven Gerrard and Luis Suarez were unavailable for selection.
However, as detailed here by Mitch Cray, it is quite likely that Kenny Dalglish will revert to a 4-4-2 line up on Saturday. Liverpool boast an extensive wealth of options in midfield, including former Sunderland man Jordan Henderson, and thus at least four in the middle will be needed to compliment this. Dalglish has warned that he won't be looking to rush Suarez into action until he is fully ready, the Uruguayan having just had a busy summer at this year's Copa America, but one cannot help but feel this may just be posturing on the manager's part. It would certainly be of little surprise to see Suarez line up alongside Carroll.
Despite the likelihood of the Reds playing two strikers, there are similarities to be drawn between the two sides' likely line ups. Both will probably line up with wide men in midfield who are perhaps more suited to playing in the middle (Colback and Henderson). Both will have an enforcer-type central midfielder (Cattermole/Spearing), complimented by a more creative, play-making partner (Gardner/Adam).
As stated, it will be the home side on Saturday that will look to stamp its authority on the game (and the season) early on, and force the game towards a decisive result. While Sunderland went to Anfield last year and were unfortunate to leave with only a point, the extent of Liverpool's recent activity in the transfer market and the strength of their current squad suggests Steve Bruce and his men will be more than happy with a point this time around.
Therefore, perhaps the main battle could well be between Andy Carroll and the two centre-backs entrusted with the job of containing the ex-Newcastle United frontman.
For argument's sake, we'll say that Bramble and Brown will line up against the twenty-two year-old.
Carroll actually had a fairly poor game when Liverpool won 2-0 at the Stadium of Light back in March, but a quick look at some statistics from that game make for interesting reading.
The Liverpool striker came out of that match with a pretty impressive tackling success rate for a striker (winning four out of seven challenges). Bramble, on the other hand, struggled against his lofty opponent. Whilst not all of his tackles came against Carroll, the Sunderland centre-back won only three of his ten challenges that day.
Obviously, Brown wasn't up against Carroll that day. Nor did he face him much when Manchester United travelled to Liverpool last year, Carroll only entering proceedings with six minutes of normal time remaining.
However, it is not wrong to suggest that both Brown and Bramble will have to play well (particularly when defending aerial attacks) if the Black Cats are to come away with a clean sheet and/or some points. While Carroll's aerial prowess is much vaunted anyway, Sunderland will have the added problem of facing a midfield packed full of players capable of putting a good cross in (Charlie Adam, Jordan Henderson, Stewart Downing).
Where the visitors may find joy is when they seek to counter-attack. Sessegnon and Gyan's abundance of pace will worry the likes of Jamie Carragher and Dan Agger, and could hopefully see the lads nick a valuable opening day win.