One of the often trotted out clichés around derby matches is that it’s a match where the formbook goes out of the window. A game where passion, emotion and intensity trump science, statistics, logic and probability. There is little doubt that the ferocity and speed that were demanded for both clubs players in derby matches brings an element of chaos, anarchy and therein randomness to the game. That being said in my 25 years of watching derby matches the truth is that the majority of those fixtures have gone with the formbook, barring a couple of unique periods where this was not the case. For an Everton side looking to buck the trend of long and short term form there are some interesting lessons to be learnt from these periods.
The exceptions to the rule are essentially a period in the mid to late 90’s where Everton went unbeaten over a 5+ year period in the fixture. Likewise Liverpool enjoyed a renewed success in the Goodison derby fixture for the following decade (winning 7 of 9 derbies often against an Everton team who were either in and around them in the league or at times ahead of them). Outside of these examples it’s hard to really pin down too many games that did not go, broadly speaking with what the wider form would imply.
From an Everton perspective there is a useful lesson to be learnt from the derbies in the mid 90’s. Interestingly Everton’s upturn in form and indeed the improved derby performance are loosely linked. Joe Royle’s first game in charge of Everton was the home match against Liverpool and the criticisms that he outlined of the playing squad he inherited-namely that they were too weak, too slow & too easy to play against were aspects of the game identified that proved particularly useful in defeating the old foe as well as crafting a short renaissance of the club in the mid 90’s. A focus on making Everton bigger, more aggressive and stronger as a method of survival an approach was stumbled upon for derby games that made the team very awkward to play against in derby matches against a Liverpool team who possessed enormous attacking flair but at times a soft centre when the matches become more fraught.
When you look back at the fixtures around that period during Everton’s unbeaten run it’s important to note that rather than taking the games away from Liverpool with attacking brilliance they were largely crafted on the back of preventing Liverpool from getting away from Everton in terms of the number of goals scored. In the 9 fixtures of the late 90’s just 15 goals were scored in the games compared to 21 that followed in the next 10 (and 25 that proceeded the previous 9). For Everton the first objective in this period was to look to keep the matches as tight affairs where a single goal or mistake could have a bigger impact.
On Sunday the same pressures would seem to be in existence on Everton. Liverpool have one of the more potent attacks in the leagues whereas Everton’s looks underwhelming by comparison. Approaching the game as a gun fight, or at least as a scoring contest is unlikely to yield spectacular gains for Everton, the more goals that are scored would likely increase Liverpool’s chances of winning the game. Keeping it to a 1 goal game to me seems the most likely opportunity Everton have of winning.
If I were picking a team for Sunday the majority of my thoughts would be around how best to frustrate this Liverpool team. There is the added benefit in this of it being a fixture that Liverpool desperately require a win from and Everton should look to play on that for as long as possible. Having watched Liverpool at Manchester United last weekend, it always became apparent to me that the longer you stay in the game level with Liverpool generally the easier they are to play against. As time went on against Manchester United they appeared increasingly frantic in their attacking play and Manchester United were increasingly comfortable in their defensive work.
In selecting an 11 I wouldn’t move an awfully long way from the side that won at Cardiff. Zouma would return for me and I would look to shoe horn Gomes back into midfield. The two lads I’d leave out would be the wingers who were ineffectual against Cardiff. I don’t believe this is going to be an easy game for Everton’s wingers to get into and the a shift in formation to a 3-5-2 would allow a greater solidity for Everton to build a platform from. It would also allow Everton to put a lot of height into the team, which hopefully alongside the added organisational competence that Jagielka brings should minimize the threat from defensive set pieces and potentially allow us to pose an attacking threat going the other way.
I do believe Silva will adopt a game plan close to the one outlined above. He has build a bespoke (and more cautious) game plan for each match against the top 6 this season and I can see no reason to change this for the derby. The fans too will have an important to play in this match. It was noticeable that when the Manchester United supporters started getting behind their team it had a detrimental affect on the Liverpool side. The same is true for Liverpool who had lost in Naples and Belgrade where hostile home crowds roared their teams on as Liverpool quickly became entangled in a rut that prevented them from posing any serious attacking threat. This is not a game Everton are ever likely to blow Liverpool away in, but it is one where we may be able to blunt their inconsistent attack and in the chasm that is left from that can snatch a winning goal later in the game. The supporters have a big part to play though, every tackle, block and clearance needs to be cheered accordingly.
Much has been made of Everton’s derby record, which has been very poor for a long time. The truth however is always slightly more complex than that. Just as in the 90’s Liverpool lost a number of tight games that could have gone their way, for the majority of matches at Goodison have been tight affairs. Liverpool have just 1 win in the last 6 over the last 10 games there have been 2 wins for Everton, 3 for Liverpool with 5 draws. Essentially Liverpool have shaded the fixture but the predominant result has been a draw. Alongside that the games have been unusually tight affairs, with the last 4 games at Goodison producing just 3 goals. Going back even further Liverpool have won 10 games at Goodison in 35 fixtures, so over a prolonged period of games it is not a ground they regularly win at. The results have also been very tight, a 1 goal swing in the last 6 Goodison derbies would have given Everton a record of 5 wins and 1 draw in the last 6 and the likelihood of heading into the game full of confidence. In each of the last 6 games Everton were just a single moment away from this. It underlines the idea that football is an uneven game where broader narratives that are outlined often don’t stand up to an enormous level of scrutiny. History generally is written by the winner yet the intricacies of how the end point is reached is likely to be laden with missed opportunities for either side.
For Silva and for the club the game on Sunday marks a significant one. Whether rightly or wrongly a win for Silva would do an enormous amount for his credibility as Everton manager. It is unlikely he will be needing to fear for his job before the end of the season if he were too. There is nothing quite like an upset, particularly over your rivals. In 1994 the victory for Joe Royle set the club on a rise from being cut adrift at the bottom of the table to being tipped as an outside pick for the title having previously won the FA Cup. The outpouring that came from the resultant euphoria and surprise of beating our much fancied neighbours was palpable. Players such as Parkinson, Duncan Ferguson and Andy Hinchliffe would revitalize their Everton careers on the back of that performance. Often single games can have a transformative affect for players and managers alike.
None of this means it will be easy or particularly enjoyable. However nervous you feel about the match though, content yourselves if you must on how most Liverpool supporters will feel at the prospect of Everton derailing their title push. Beyond the brash exterior lurks that very concern. It’s for Everton to bring that to the surface.