It’s unusual for me to want to talk about any specific game on more than one occasion. In the previous piece, Redemption it was more of an analysis of my own experiences of the last 20+ years of derby watching football. Yet there is room for a more specific analysis in what will likely always be a totemic game for all involved. For Everton teams, in the last 40-50 years, the ultimate acid test has been to win at Anfield. When it occurs, it tends to symbolise a club that is moving in the right direction and on an upturn. With a young, powerful team, winning with some to spare on Saturday the hope is it’s an early indicator of more positive things to come.
A Tactical Masterclass
It would be remiss to start any secondary evaluation of the game, without starting from the perspective of the game being another tactical masterclass from Ancelotti. Forget injuries (in truth Everton with Allan, Mina and DCL out probably had more 1st team injuries than Liverpool with VVD and Fabinho injured) Liverpool’s wage bill currently sits between 2 to 3 times higher than Everton’s. For any Everton manager, to win with simplicity and ease at Anfield requires a great degree of tactical flexibility, which was shown by manager Carlo Ancelotti.
In the first game at Goodison it is unquestionable that Liverpool’s biggest threat, and main threat came down their left hand side, predominately for the first 20 minutes. Mane and Robertson ran amok for 20 minutes, creating a goal and 2-3 other good opportunities in the process. An ageing Coleman, being faced up by two players was no match, and it was testament to debutant Ben Godfrey’s power, pace and attitude that he was able to shut the threat down. Of the two “sides” of Liverpool’s attack though, this was the one that caused most angst in the lead up.
What Ancelotti does, is actually a very complex but also extremely subtle solution to the problem. We end up playing essentially 2 formations in the same game. The emphasis falls upon predominately 4 players to pull this off. Coleman plays between a conventional wing back and a right midfielder (in a 4-4-2), behind him Holgate plays between a right centre back in a 3 and a right back in a 4, Digne is somewhere between a left back and a left wing back, while Andre Gomes sits between a central and left midfield player. 3 of the 4 players excel in the role (where Andre Gomes never really looked to have gots to grips with the duality of what was being asked). This is a big call from Ancelotti. You’re asking players to do multiple things concurrently and the scope to get it wrong is enormous. Yet on the day it went a long way to deciding the game. It was brave, calculated and extremely effective. Klopp had no real answer to this. In truth, I doubt he is currently in the head space to find an answer.
Jamie Carragher piece on Monday night football was good. There was man marking on both Mane and Robertson yet I think it went a little further than a simplistic man marking job. It wasn’t 2 players stand 3 yards away from their man and following them everywhere. But more 2 players who needed to fold back into different shapes, and ensure that they held positions where they could singularly provide pressure, cover and an aspect of depth without the ball. The risk in playing a back 3 is always that Mane exploits the space between wing back and centre back, while Robertson gets beyond the midfielder if he pushes too high. Neither situation was allowed.
The use of Coleman for such a role was particularly inspired choice. Not only is he a quick, committed full back but he has become an increasingly tactical astute player. There are genuine questions at the age he’s at (32) as to whether he can get up and down enough to play fullback, but there are no questions about whether he is capable of performing specific bespoke defensive roles that require experience and know how. It was another example of manager Ancelotti expertly deploying resources to do things they are best at, and utilising the 400 games of experience a player has.
The net consequences was we sort of played both a 4-4-2 on one side and a 5-3-2 on the other. It was asymmetrical, it through Liverpool and it nullified Klopp, Mane and especially Robertson. It did lead on the other side to Arnold getting a lot of the ball. Whether this was a part of the plan (a calculated gamble to allow the most wasteful player on the pitch to have the ball and he will create little) or whether a consequence of Gomes not really performing his role well enough would be an interesting question. In the end, despite Arnold having a lot of the ball, the game ended with Salah having only 1 shot all game, and really only one good chance being created by Arnold (where Holgate hooked clear ahead of Mane in the 2nd half). While I can see sense in it being the game plan to allow Arnold the ball, given how he went out of the game following Sigurdsson’s introduction (who intuitively got playing in the half position better than Gomes) I tend to fall down on the side of the debate it was really a result of Gomes not fully doing his job.
Either way though, it was a unique and innovative tactical solution, that stumped Liverpool’s attacking prowess.
The big take out from the game, was the difference in physicality of both teams. In truth, since particularly Brands has arrived, we have begun to add bigger, strong and quicker players. You sense it’s a virtue the manager really wants and explains why Bernard– a competent player before and very easy on the eye just doesn’t get game time due to his size.
This was probably summed up best by 2 incidents in the game. The one that has most views, was a 50/50 ball falling on the edge of the box between Godfrey and Shaqiri, where Godfrey time’s a perfect tackle and Shaqiri backs away to allow him to do it. That has become a viral meme and an indication of the controlled aggression top teams have. What was more telling was an incident between Mane and Godfrey, Mane who had been kept very quiet by opposing centre back Holgate understandably switched sides. He knocked a ball 5 yards or so past Godfrey, who turned, caught Mane up, the overtook him, and finally casually brushed him aside while take the ball forward. Mane turned and looked a little crestfallen. After that it’s hard to think of a notable tocuh Mane had. Ultimately he was just too small and too slow to have an impact on the situation and the wider game itself.
It seemed to hint at a much wider narrative within the game. It had the feel of a 90’s derby I would watch, where smaller technical Liverpool players would often be over powered by bigger, more powerful ones from Everton. For a long time under Moyes we had a very well organised team, but ultimately quite a small and slow one (and ourselves were overpowered in derby games). Yesterday felt a role reversal. At the back they are small and slow, they lack mobility in midfield and size up front. You always felt if Everton got their defensive shape right, it would be hard for Liverpool to find a way through, and the laws of probability meant our quick, strong attackers could outrun their slow and cumbersome defenders (as happened on about 5 occasions, with us only fully taking advantage once for the 2nd goal).
There’s no perfect measurement to show this, but one of the best you can have is to look at win % of aerial duals you have, as a percentile in the position you play. So in layman’s terms, how many headers do you win, when challenged compared to your contempories in the same position (so CB’s are expected to win about 65% of duels, whereas forward it’s closer to 40% etc. While it doesn’t measure speed, it does measure power and height very effectively.
For Everton of the 13 players involved no player fell below 38 percentile (so top 62%) and only 2 players were below 50%. 10 of the 14 were in the top 30% with 4 players in the top 10% (and a 5th in the top 13%). The 6th and 7th players ranked in the top 20% and 23% respectively. This was a big, powerful team.
For Liverpool only 1 of the starting players were in the top 45% (Kabak) though he was joined by Phillips when he came. Henderson ranks at just under 50% for CB, though there is a caveat that he is in the bottom 1% for headers made. So while he doesn’t lose many, it’s really down to him not making many headers. While there is only really 1 player (plus a sub) who is “above average” (so 56% and upwards) there are 6 of the 13 who are in the bottom 25%. 3 Are in the bottom 11% and one is in the bottom 1% of players. Of the 14 players who played, only 5 of them are better than Everton’s worst at heading off the ball.
It’s only one measures but Liverpool’s team was ultimately smaller and weaker than Everton’s. Where Everton were massively above average across the board, Liverpool were massively below average carrying nearly half of their players who are in the bottom ¼ for such a measure. You also have to factor in, the to players who asre above average for them (Kabak & Phillips) are also massively deficient in other areas, not least physically where both are quite slow, so while Calvert Lewin wouldn’t necessarily dominate them aerially he can in a foot race (as was witnessed).
A lot of Liverpool’s problems at home particularly, is while they have a technically good team which can be nice on the eye, it has little cutting edge or much to scare opponents. Mane aforementioned frustration is indicative of a player who is being asked to physically compete with a player who is 4 inches taller and much stronger than him. There has certainly been some misfortune at how such a scenario has been arrived at, but recruitment of players 10-20 seems off for Liverpool. Unlike Manchester City (who have similar figures to Liverpool) their game plan does not involved, small nimble players, opening low lying defences. Their game has been predicated on power, but it was absent on Saturday.
If any player breathed a sigh of relief on Saturday it will have been Jordan Pickford. While I think the before Anfield 2018 v after Anfield 2018 narrative is a little over simplified (Pickford had made mistakes in the previous weeks against West Ham) there is some broad truth to it, and in the mind of Jordan Pickford it probably makes some degree of sense. When you lose confidence in your ability, rarely is it entirely rooted in reality, it’s more based around a sort of logic that provides some certainty for yourself. To some degree, such a high profile mistake also meant, for a section of the support base, such a mistake was almost unforgiveable, and where he might have had the benefit of the doubt before, this was now absent.
In honesty, far from not kicking on as a young goalkeeper, the reality is Pickford has, up until quite recently, gone backwards. It’s very hard to imagine that he was a goalkeeper seemingly on a shortlist of 2 with goalkeeper Ederson from Manchester. Both are a similar age and very comfortable with the ball at their feet. Ederson has really kicked on in his time at City, while Pickford has really stalled or even regressed.
Pickford compounded the mistake at Liverpool with a horror show at Newcastle. In a game where he saves a penalty, he still costs Everton in a game they had played well in. His behaviour during, and after the game (needlessly goading Newcastle fans) showed up a glaring immaturity. Whether intentional or not (I suspect not) the impression it gave was of a young man who just didn’t care. This may partially have been a defence mechanism, but it was endearing nobody at this point. In truth numerous mistakes have followed that point and the saves have been more infrequent. For many fans it’s not a case of being in last chance saloon, but more have exited it long ago.
This done not appear to have been the case for manager Ancelotti. To his credit, he has seemed to identify the mental aspect of the game with Pickford. There has been some recognition that there are outstanding aspects to his game, his ability to make wonder saves still remains and is very confident in playing out from the back. The issue wasn’t a technical one but a mental one, and he has started working with a psychologist subsequently. Ancelotti has upgraded the reserve goalkeeper as well, and brought in an older, experienced goalkeeper who while not possessing Pickford’s raw abilities has been a steady pair of hands and arguably a positive role model for Pickford. He has not been pitched as a direct rival for Pickford, but as some worthwhile competition but also a support for Pickford to give him a break from certain games. It seems to have helped Pickford and in those terms alone should be seen as a positive.
Just like the game at Anfield in 2018 didn’t arrive in a bubble, neither did the game at the weekend. Where mistakes had crept in in 2018, some consistency has been improving for Pickford this season. In fact, he makes 2 wonderful saves (off Matip and Arnold) in the previous derby which has been lost in much of the needless, unhelpful and often incorrect noise that relates to an unfortunate collision he had with defender Van Dijk. There was an important mistake against Leicester at home, but other than that performance levels have improved.
From a body language perspective, he was much calmer on Saturday. Even at the final whistle, he walked off relatively calmly and shared a sweet moment with goalkeeper Alisson Becker, who despite recent mistakes is very much the role model for any younger goalkeeper currently playing for his own excellence. The save he made from Henderson’s volley was world class, and one he has no right to save. The one from Salah where he closed the angle and left Salah with little option was also making the difficult look easy. Some of the others looked flashy, but were the sorts of saves you expect him to make, but have in the past been problematic for him.
What it added up too was a high quality, calm, match winning performance on the biggest stage from Pickford. Where 2018 knocked him off track, 2021 is hopefully the year and the game to get himself on track. When you begin work in your mental approach to anything in life, it’s important you can see tangible results so assure yourself the process works. Few will be as worthwhile as the end result from Anfield on Saturday. What now stands between Pickford being a talented but flawed goalkeeper and a world class one is consistency. That is the level he should epect of himself 30+ league games a season. While he played very well, and made a world class save, it was nothing that came as a surprise to any Everton fan, nor should it surprise himself. The disappointment is it hasn’t been witnessed more often. In the aftermath of this match, he needs to hold himself to higher standards which in turn should allow for the demons of his past to melt away.
While the game through the eyes of an Evertonian was a prolonged method in a perverse form of mental trepidation (you’ve essentially lost almost every way possible to lose, how about you lose after taking an early lead to complete the set) once you abscond yourself of the wider context of Evertonianism, the result was remarkably predictable. Opposing fans on this forum all said they fancied Everton to win (which is usually more they hoped Everton would win). For the most part, this fell largely on death ears.
Yet the evidence is quite clear. Liverpool went into the game on a slump of 0 wins in 5 home games, where the only goal that was scored in the last 4.5 games was a dubious penalty. They have also played Brighton, Burnley and West Brom at home in that run. For reasons debated above, the goals have dried up. At the other end they have a make shift pairing at CB and fullbacks who are now being exposed defensively more than every before. The midfield, with the introduction of Thiago may be technically more proficient, but it can’t sustain pressure and attacks in the same way. Wijnaldum is another year older, Henderson, Milner, Chamberlain, Fabinho and Keita are all increasingly injury prone and 3 of the list are now over of approaching 30.
Privately, some Liverpool fans felt as soon as 1 goal went in, it was game over. It seems an astonishing admission but when you watch the game back, there is only really 1 clear chance made from them in the entire game (Salah in the 2nd half). Where Leicester earlier at Goodison gave Everton a hairy 20 minutes after half time, which culminated in a goal, you never got the same sense of rhythm of or potency from Liverpool.
On the flip side of it, Everton have an excellent record away from home. They had more points away than Liverpool did at home (which is heavily skewed towards earlier better results, not the current drought they are in) and even as recently as the last 2 away games had gone to challenging opponents and performed admirably- winning at Leeds and coming back from being 2 behind at United to gain a draw. There’s a compelling case that both teams are currently in better form at home than this Liverpool side. The game plan of sitting deep, soaking up pressure, and countering with speed and efficiency suits Everton. It is also the ultimate nightmare for this Liverpool team who lack incision at one end and are suscetible to speed and power at the other.
Where Liverpool have struggled with Brighton, Burnley and West Brom at home, Evertons tactics at least partially resemble those sides in away games, but they are probably a bit better defensively, but also have quality going the other way the sides can’t compete with. James is probably the closest player to Kevin De Bruyne in style and output in the league, while Richarlison is a Brazilian number 9. Calvert Lewin is arguably the best all round number 9 in the league this season. Each has a legitimate claim to being world class when playing at their best. Facing Burnley, but subbing out their forward players for our 3 would immediately make Burnley a far more challenging prospect than they already are.
The match really plays out how you might expect. On Xg Everton look fairly comfortable 2-1 winners (being around 0.6 goals better off than Liverpool) and most of these don’t count Richarlison’s effort where he doesn’t shoot when in on goal (which is probably a 0.2-0.3 chance for him). In a game where a side takes the lead so early and then sits back, it’s rare you see that side winning on Xg. When you factor in Everton tend to outperform Xg (excellent blocking and scoring with headers) it was a very comfortable afternoon.
This really has to be the critical question now. To a degree the contrasting emotions of Duncan Ferguson and manager Ancelotti were demonstrative of probably Everton past and Everton future. Where Duncan Ferguson let out 20 years of suffering in celebration at the full time whistle, the more methodical Ancelotti remained calm and would emphasise the important of the win for European qualification. The chance of top 4 would almost certainly have gone without a win and you sense Ancelotti still rues dropped points at home to Fulham. Where for Ferguson and Evertonians the win is an ends in itself, for Ancelotti it’s a step on a journey for him with the end goal this season really being European qualification.
As indicated, a derby win tends to be a springboard for Everton. In 1984 it sparked a a period of domestic domination. In 1995 it arked a big uptake in domestic form. Both games led to an unbeaten run in the fixture and at Anfield. Though in 1999, none of this occurred. So there has to be a caution around the fixture, that as we come down to earth, much like for Pickford this is used as a barometer as to what can be achieved. It’s not just a win at Liverpool, but a win at the champions and in our own sense a bit of a marker.
There will undoubtedly be some talk of a power shift on Merseyside, and while it is too early to really decry such utterances, the focus now needs to be on more consistency. We have a run of easier games coming up, but they are the games we have lost focus for and dropped silly points in. Southampton at home really becomes a must win game. We need to become more comfortable with having must win games and embracing that pressure. If you don’t beat Southampton, what you’ve achieved against Liverpool becomes irrelevant.
So we have to use it as a springboard. It is a difficult moment for Liverpool, but also probably a wakeup call for them. As a club, you sense they have become a bit too complacent and basked in a title win that lasted months longer than it might otherwise have done. There has probably been a sense that if they get x.y or z back fit things will fall into place. This is now very unlikely to be the case, and the solution will be a little more complex. Losing to Everton will likely underline this point with an explanation point at the end. You sense for them, a reckoning at the end of the season will be done. The manager has got away with a lot this season, but some key questions will be asked of him and his players in how they have allowed their season to spiral out of control. They will get better though, and as a club we have to ensure we aim to get better too, or run the risk of this being a joyous but ultimately momentary reprise from an otherwise painful experience.