The 231st Merseyside Derby repeated an all too familiar pattern for Evertonians, who are now left waiting upwards of 8 years for success in the fixture. The sense of frustration remains palpable given Liverpool looked to play a weakened side which led to them being there for the taking. Most will look on and consider what may have happened had we have began to attack them earlier into the fixture. Of course the counter may be that some of their players either lacking match fitness or feeling the effects of a midweek fixture have tired earlier? Or might it have given Liverpool the opportunities to counter that Manchester City had greatly exploited just a week earlier in a comprehensive 3-1 victory.
As with any football game it is very difficult to analyse exactly what has happened without understanding the context with which the game has emerged from. Human behaviour is a product of conditioning and our experiences wear heavily on us. For Evertonians the Derby is associated with a trepidation and fatalism that weighs heavily on us. The last 8 years we have seen several Everton teams go into the fixture as the stronger of two sides and find ways to lose the game. The frustration that at times Moyes settled for a draw and ended up with a defeat greatly shapes how we view the fixture and the narrative that emerges after it. That’s not to say that there is no truth to such a narrative, or it doesn’t fit the 231st derby but there is no small amount of confirmation bias that inhabits the thought processes of all Evertonians.
There is a legitimate and interesting psychological question as to how can this conditioning work when you have differing sets of players? While for many years under Moyes we stuck with similar players who it could be said developed a losing mentality, of late we have turned over players extremely quickly post Moshiri and yet many of the frailties remain. Sigurdsson scored a winning goal at Anfield last season. Keane Beat Liverpool last season. Walcott has beaten Liverpool many times. Is the collective memory of defeat in this fixture so strong that it overrides previously positive memories for players?
For Allardyce, who until recently was the last manager to win at Anfield, it seems unrealistic to me to suggest the baggage of the last 8 (or in reality 18) years has greatly affected his thought processes. What is more likely is he was impacted upon by the previous weeks humiliation against Manchester City. While the mood was largely subdued the week before, it would have been toxic had we been 3 down inside the first half. Watching Liverpool would have likely reinforced the view that containment initially was a necessity. While supporters crave a day where we puff our chests out and show we are not scared of Liverpool and look to outplay them, managers (particularly managers like Allardyce) look for the most efficient way to gain the maximum possible return. It’s a contradiction that is exposed in the aftermatch reaction of manager and supporters, one deeply disappointed the other relieved or even pleased that he has avoided a hammering. It is a contradiction on outlook that will only widen, as some of the sympathy afforded him taking over a side in a perilous situation diminishes next season and is a central reason why him remaining at the club will be a dangerous move from those in charge. What this season has exposed is Allardyce’s “realism” is unmoved by the ambition of an owner or fanbase and a substantial sum of money available to spend. It is inherent to who he is. If he is allowed to stay, he will plot his way to 50 points again and turn on the fanbase for believing we should be doing more. It will infiltrate every aspect of his management, from recruitment, to training, to tactics.
When you frame the match in that context- a manager desperate to avoid defeat and a fan base desperate to secure a victory you saw the contradictory performance we witnesses. The final 15 minutes could have seen Everton score 4 goals with clear opening made. Yet the previous 75 minutes saw a match meandering towards a 0-0. Maybe Allardyce will say his masterplan was to win it in the last 15 minutes though I find that doubtful. However I felt the substitutions he made changed the game and brought us momentum he couldn’t have planned for when he made them.
While Rooney and Bolasie started quite brightly, Rooney crunching into tackles and Bolasie testing Karius with a smart shot, but both faded badly in the game. Rooney remains a problem for Everton in that he is a luxury player who relies on his team having the ball and being given the space to allow his technical ability and vision shine. By the end of the half Bolasie’s head had gone, he was hiding, avoiding the ball and had been swallowed up by the ground following some mistakes. Gana coming on allowed us a foothold in midfield, while Calvert Lewin’s aggression drove Clyne back and allowed for Baines to get into the game as Ings fitness began to let him down. Again maybe this is what Allardyce intended but I suspect he made a change before Liverpool’s possession led to a goal and (particularly) Calvert Lewin changed the game.
The final substitution of Baningime I believe was intended to give us a foothold and cement a point. His composure allowed us to gain a further foothold in midfield and Coleman/Baines to push forward further. The law of unintended consequences led to Everton beginning to pepper the Liverpool box and Liverpool be left hanging on in a game that looked like they couldn’t lose 10 minutes previously.
There are some key conclusions to be drawn from this. The most important one for me is that Liverpool are very beatable. A manager who had little interest or intention of winning, allied to a fan base that has very little hope of winning very nearly conjured up a victory by lobbing on a quite random group of players. If we get a manager with belief, confidence and structure this Liverpool team remain very beatable. While there is some retort that it was only a reserves team, this suggestion seems patently ridiculous when the fact are scrutinized. Liverpools 14 players who played cost well over 200 million pounds to put together and the only players who missed the game in it’s entirety who are nailed on starters were Salah and Robertson (Salah through injury). Clyne, Lovren, Van Dijk, Henderson, Wijnaldum, Milner, Firmino, Mane, Oxlade-Chamberlaine all played and in the absence of Salah is about as strong as it gets for Liverpool (minus the left back). Everton too missed McCarthy & Holgate and are waiting for Bolasie to fully recover from injury.
I say this not as an exercise in comparing injuries, but an attempt to move Everton and Evertonians beyond the sort of Kopite revisionism that greatly restricts our ability to perform at our best in the fixture. Everton’s situation is like being in a damaging co-dependant relationship where the other party is narcissistic and abusive. The sensible advise in these situations would be to run as far away from the abuser as possible, though given we have to share a city with our neighbours this is simply not an option, so we have to avoid allowing ourselves to be shaped by the half witted nonsense they proclaim and begin to shape our own destiny based on our own reality.
One perception that needs to be challenged is that Liverpool are unbeatable or there is something inherent in them we cannot beat. The reality is Everton are a football club have under performed against top sides and we need to put in place both a structure at board level and a first team coach that changes that thinking. If we see the likes of Marcel Brands and Paulo Fonseca come to the club as widely reported that is a first step in the right direction, and as fans we need to try and avoid lumping on the misery of the last 8 years of derby games onto ones next season. While we have to turn our record around, it needs to coincide with a wider ethos around the club. Rather than trying to win 1 derby, our aim needs to be to build a team that can win continually in the fixture.
As Liverpool look set to make it to the champions league semi finals that currently looks a long way off. Under the right management I feel the two clubs are separated by 2 players- Van Dijk and Salah who are significantly better than what we have available. As for the rest, put them into our team under Allardyce and ask yourselves how you think they would be performing. Would Mane fair better at Everton than Walcott would at Liverpool? Swap Lovren for Keane and ask the same question. Coleman or Clyne? Robertson or Baines? Gana or Henderson? Pickford or Karius? The squads are not as far apart as we might think, and under the right management anything is possible. Surely the lesson from Klopp’s Liverpool is not how they are destined to be better than us, but how they matched their recruitment policy to the best candidate available to them and gave him time to implement his ideas. For Everton they need to develop a recruitment strategy, find a manager and give both time to bed in, in a process that may not work overnight.
It should be noted Klopp finished 8th in his first season and coming into his third if he fails to win the Champions League it will be 3 without success. This season he has been hammered at Tottenham and Manchester City. Yet in spite of such setbacks they look as if each season they are getting stronger. The gap will unlikely be breached in a season, but for Everton fans seeing that we too are heading in the right direction would give some hope back.