The End of the Affair

I never like to go in too negatively to any football match, particularly a derby, but some of the commentary and general noise pre-game seemed a little off for me. There seemed to have been a narrative crafted that this was Everton’s best opportunity to win. The notion itself is a problematic one. You don’t get classically singular opportunities to win. Everton play Liverpool at least twice per season, but football games remain unusual affairs where fortune plays a heavy role. The fact that most of the last decade have seen games between the teams at Goodison end in draws, and at times draws where Everton have hit posts and bars to not win them, seems to underline this. It’s obviously a frustration but over the last 4-5 years Everton have played against a very good Liverpool team while themselves trying to rectify the post Moyes wreckage in games where the ball just wouldn’t drop accordingly.

If you want to win more games, and vis-à-vis more derbies the best thing you can do is to get a better team, particularly in relation to your opponents. Everton went into the match top, and Liverpool came into the match off a 7-2 drubbing yet this was always an over simplification of the two sides. Whole I don’t wish to tempt fate, Everton’s position remains inflated while the 7-2 debacle was a freakish game where certain key players were missing.

Privately I felt that this was about the worst time to play Liverpool. Sides who win the title and are in the habit of wracking regular wins as they have tend to respond very well to set backs. In an interview on this site Andy Gray spoke of how if a heavy defeat came, the 1984-5 side would look to follow it up with a big performance. For Liverpool any existential concerns that may have existed in the squad were simplified and/or erased by having a derby match. Minds get focussed and space for self doubt or wallowing is limited. While it was the worst game for us, it was the perfect game for them. Add in Henderson, Thiago, Mane and Matip and around half of their outfield players were greatly improved. Salah & Mane (and others) were well rested with no international duty. Liverpool were bolstered, fresher and with a significant point to prove.

Everton had no such luck. Coleman, Richarlison, Mina, Allan, Digne & Gomes all arrived into the game with doubts over fitness, and in most cases performed in a manner that was indicative of this. Mina, James and Richarlison all arrived of a plane late on Thursday evening for an early kick off less than 2 days later. Against poorer teams, players can get away with not being at 100% but it was quite apparent that the flow of the game would not follow the trajectory of others this season.

Liverpool started very quickly, and in truth for 10 minutes we looked dazed in the headlights. Coleman-evidently not fit and to be replaced could not get close to Robertson or Mane and Liverpool took advantage of this 2 minutes in. It looked like it could be a precession down that side of the pitch with Liverpool able to carve openings whenever they went forward.

The match itself was filled with turning points. One was undoubtedly the substitution of young Ben Godfrey for his debut, outside of his preferred position. When you factor all that in, it was a very impressive start for the young man. Almost immediately after his introduction, the Mane/Robertson threat ceased and only seemed to return in the dying embers of the match when we were rightly reduced to 10 men. There was a moment very early into his introduction, where he was pressured by Mane and had little on, he decided to carry the ball, sped past Mane, then Robertson and won Everton a throw on around 60 yards further forward. While in and of itself it was a small moment, it felt an important one. Everton suddenly had an out and Mane/Robertson felt there was a player at fullback who could pose a threat going the other way. You could feel the confident of the players lift.

Shortly after that moment we got an equalising goal. Calvert-Lewin had started to get some joy against the hapless Joe Gomez who never looked settled trying to contend with him. He got a decent shot off and won a corner. The subsequent corner, expertly whipped in from James Rodriguez was turned in by Michael Keane. Liverpool simply couldn’t cope with the added physicality and height of Everton and had Keane not have headed it in, Yerry Mina behind him would have done. It is something of a frustration we didn’t make more of the other set pieces we had available to us.

The game seemed to slip into something of a void after this moment. What was unusual was that both teams were happy for the other to look to perfect their game plan. Liverpool wanted to press high, while Everton wanted them to do so, so as to play through them. While the latter did not happen on a frequent enough basis, over the course of the middle of the game it felt as if Everton had weathered an early onslaught and were slowly starting to take control of the match. James Rodriguez was head and shoulders above anyone else on the pitch and would keep picking up possession and carving out opportunities for other players. It is no exaggeration for me to say Andy Robertson was for the most of the game, nowhere near him and far from being able to stop Rodriguez, the beleaguered Scot could not get close to limiting his output.

In truth it felt like we have control of the game and chances began to follow. The best two opportunities fell to Richarlison who despite being tugged back (though no VAR check for what would have been a certain penalty) who headed against a post and Calvert Lewin who somehow missed his kick from 6 yards out flying in on goal. It felt as the match pace had slowed, it looked like Everton were turning the screw and the more likely.

Into this vacuum stepped Mo Salah. Much like Everton’s equaliser it came slightly against the flow of the game. Mina made a bit of a mess with a lazy clearance but you could not help but admire Salahs finish. He had probably been given clearer opportunities earlier in the match, yet with less time he volleyed into the back of the net. Confidence came flowing back to Liverpool and chances for Matip and Salah were well saved by Pickford.

The game was allowed one final goal, where again Rodriguez drifted away from Robertson and played a ball past Thiago and Arnold. Digne expertly whipped in where Calvert Lewin powered over the Liverpool defenders to head home. A hard earned draw was nearly lost for Everton when Henderson would convert a cross delivered from a player standing in an offside position which was inevitably ruled out, shortly after Richarlison had got himself inexplicably sent off for a needless rash challenge.

So what did we learn from the draw? The obvious starting point is that it was not the win we all wanted. It didn’t feel a game that we deserved to win so there can be no complaints that we only got a draw. Yet with the best Liverpool could throw at them, after going behind twice, with a patched up team and no home field advantage due to an empty stadium the team came back twice to secure a draw. This sort of resilience has been missing from Everton over recent years and is a big positive.

While we surrendered out 100% start to the season, what was critical was that we did not lose the game. The team was able to cement their place at the top of the table for another week, and you sense confidence will be oozing through the players as they gradually return to full fitness. Kenny is due back this week, while Brainthwaite, Holgate and Gbamin not being too far behind. Having payed now 2 of what is likely to be the top 4 or 5 teams in the league in Tottenham and Liverpool, Everton have made a very strong start to what was a tricky opening set of fixtures.

Some of the commentary that followed the game, from certain quartersI have to concede was very odd. The Athletics James Pearce noted that Everton’s 2 goals came from balls into the box. This was exactly the same route that Liverpool’s goals came from. The difference is, that Everton’s goals were largely unpreventable (the quality of the ball from James for the 1st and the quality of the leap for the 2nd are undefendable for almost any side) whereas the lucky ricochet for Robertson for Liverpools 1st and the misplaced clearance from Mina for the 2nd were a result of partial mistakes and some bad fortune on Everton’s part.

We are yet to see what the long term prognosis is for Liverpool following a string of heavy defeats over recent games. There is certainly a sense that conceding 7 goals will likely have a medium term impact on players confidence, but it was always unlikely to be exploited in the short term. For Everton, in fairly difficult wider circumstances they have gone toe to toe with one of the best sides in the division and while they have not come out on top, they have been more than a match for their red rivals. To have got to this position, just 5 league games after the Bournemouth surrender last season shows how far the team has come and that there is a new found momentum in the camp. It will be interesting to see how far this can be harnessed with a run of easier fixtures not too far ahead.

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