Lazar Markovic scored his first Premier League goal to separate the two teams at the Stadium of Light.
A solid first half performance is not repeated in the second half even though Sunderland go down to 10 men.
Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers made two changes from the side that beat League Two side AFC Wimbledon in the FA Cup.
Alberto Moreno came in Javi Manquillo, whilst former Sunderland loanee Fabio Borini was chosen to start upfront - Rickie Lambert moving to the bench.
Liverpool dominated the first half - and within the opening 3 minutes should have had a penalty. Lazar Markovic ran into the box and was fouled by Wes Brown. The referee and assistant with perfect views waved away what should have been a blatant spot-kick.
Nevertheless it wasn't long before the reds took the lead and it was thanks to the former Benfica winger. Markovic starting the move, before collecting outside the box and bundling the ball in as he struggled to maintain his balance. It was the Serbian's first Premier League goal since his £20M move in the summer.
Gerrard was enjoying playing further forward and Borini was chasing down and holding up balls better than many attempts by our strikers this season. On a number of occasions he brought Gerrard into play - but the Liverpool captain struggled to get his shots either on target or with sufficient power.
Markovic attempted to double his lead with a scissor-kick volley from the edge of the box that rattled the crossbar.
The reds made it to half time still in charge - the only concern being that the reds hadn't made more of their many chances.
Steven Gerrard didn't make it out for the second half - with Dejan Lovren being subbed on. Lovren moved into central defence with Can moving forward. However, Can moved out on to the right wing with the excellent Markovic moving into the middle. Liverpool looked more disjointed by this switch - Markovic's first half pace nullified in the centre.
But Emre Can down the wing did draw some benefits when within 5 minutes of the restart Liam Bridcutt received his second yellow card for putting his arm across the young German's chest.
Going down to ten men didn't help the reds much. Johnson had the pick of the chances for the hosts - firing a shot on to the crossbar that Simon Mignolet would have got nowhere near. Coutinho, Henderson and Lovren all picked up yellow cards as Liverpool began to go backwards.
The reds brought on Mario Balotelli as Fabio Borini's involvement faded.
Coutinho was still finding space but there were less options available with Markovic struggling to find space in the centre.
Sunderland made late changes to try and grab at least a point from this game but the reds held on to secure a valuable three points.
Liverpool's first half performance should have resulted in more goals, but equally the reds should have done much better in a second half in which they had a one man advantage for the vast majority.
The reds stay in 8th position.