Liverpool 1-1 Everton | The Merseyside Derby is often an intense affair, topped off with an aggressive flavour and mixed with an air of resentment. This one at Anfield was thus a bit disappointing, with neither side catching the imagination and not allowing the usual narratives to flow. Though the headlines were made stunningly by both captains, the two sides failed to convince viewers and justify their ambitions for the season.
Liverpool: Mignolet, Manquillo, Skrtel, Lovren, Moreno, Gerrard, Henderson, Lallana, Sterling, Markovic (Coutinho 60’), Balotelli (Lambert 88’)
Everton: Howard, Hibbert (Browning 73’), Stones, Jagielka, Baines, Barry, McCarthy, Besic (Eto’o 88’), Mirallas (McGeady 31’), Lukaku, Naismith
Goals: Gerrard 65’ // Jagielka 90+’
Everton change their philosophy to exploit Liverpool’s weakness
No matter what some stats may tell you, and what some people may have you believe, Liverpool isn’t a possession based side, they aren’t a real passing team, and they certainly don’t use any form of ‘tiki-taka’. What was evident at Liverpool last season, and has been lacking thus far this season, is that the Reds are at their best without possession. It’s a strange bit of strength, seen in sides like Borussia Dortmund, but the team performs their best when they are without the ball. Rodgers’ men thrive most when the opposition has the ball, creating an opportunity for the side to press, regain and quickly attack.
Liverpool with loads of possession are almost clueless, lacking in creativity and lost for ideas. It’s a factor seen most evidently last season when Chelsea came to Anfield and allowed the home side all the possession but never coming under any real threat. It’s an approach used by the likes of Aston Villa and Ludogorets this campaign, which have been some of Liverpool’s most disappointing games thus far.
It was a smart idea from Roberto Martinez, to take a similar approach and set up more defensively than they usually would. Though the stats will tell you that Everton ended up with having more of the ball, it is a bit deceiving as much of that came after Liverpool had the lead and decided to see off the result; also partly effected by the brief period in the first half where Everton decided to press higher up.
But for large factions of the game, Everton sat back and made it tight in their own half; though in hindsight it worked as Everton got a positive result, it was a bit disappointing from Roberto Martinez as you would have hoped for a more intense approach into a Merseyside derby, rather than what looked like contentment at getting a point. Irrespective of the occasion, form, location, or any other contingencies, both these sides
always usually look to get the three points in the derby.
Everton’s defensive set-up wasn’t the most organized one, but it still got the job done. The disorganization also stemmed from the fact that it seemed the side were alternating at random intervals between pressing and sitting back (is a Chaos Theory reference apt here?). This is partly why I termed this as a change in ‘philosophy’ because at times it seemed like the side were meant to sit-back but their natural tendencies got them to press, losing their defensive shape and organization.
But in the chaos, we can take-away some sort of organization in their general defensive approach. The trio of Romelu Lukaku, Steven Naismith and Kevin Mirallas were the first line of defence from the front, with Lukaku & Naismith the ones who were most involved in any form of pressing. Mirallas’ day was sadly ended early but neither him nor his replacement (Aiden McGeady) were active pressers.
Behind the front three, Gareth Barry, James McCarthy and Muhamed Besic formed the next defensive line. Not the greatest of performances from any of those three, but just having bodies sit deep often can be enough if the opposition is lacking in a bit of creative brilliance as Liverpool were with a rather tired Raheem Sterling & Lazar Markovic. Adam Lallana was arguably the best performer (and possibly his best in a Liverpool shirt, yet), but not one which really proved to be deadly creatively. His brilliance came more in his defensive work-rate.
Sub-par performance from Balotelli as he fails to keep up with transitions
Now before we get into too much criticism of Mario Balotelli, many have praised his performance on the day, and yes his work-rate can’t really be questioned while he also tested Tim Howard in the Everton goal more than any other player. But in an overall sense, Balotelli was lacking performance-wise, often guilty of slowing play and preventing quick attacks from taking place.
The problem actually arises from the positive side of his game. While he did work hard and did track-back, he is noticeably slow in getting back into position, guilty of failing to keep up with quick transitions. This often meant he wasn’t quite where he should be in attack, preventing his team-mates from creating opportunities and allowing quick attacks to flow. He also isn’t one to make too many runs in behind the defence, further preventing another attacking outlet. Everton sitting deep meant that Liverpool were able to play longer balls from the back with the help of Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson, but these long-balls never found their way into a central area because 1) Everton had more bodies in there, and 2) There was no option to play such a ball in.
Above is an instance where Balotelli has dropped off and while eager to receive the pass, he isn’t quite where he should be. Lazar Markovic on the ball would have loved to have had the option of playing it in to a striker in and around the box but that ofcourse was missing.
This also meant that Everton’s defenders were able to play without the pressure of having a striker to deal with. Their full-backs had their own issues, particularly with Liverpool’s own full-backs, but centrally there was nothing of real threat that they were faced up against.
Another instance is seen in the second half, the counter is on, Everton don’t have too many players back and in normal circumstances, it is a situation that Liverpool would have thrived in. Lallana picks up the balls, quickly accelerating but having absolutely no one to pass it to. Ideally, he would have loved to have seen the main striker upfront, Balotelli, quickly making a run ahead of him, thus allowing the ex-Southampton man to have an option to pass into. Balotelli however, wanted to receive the pass into the deep position that he was in, and in fact slowed down rather than replicate Lallana’s acceleration.
The Italian by the looks of it, wanted to create the chance and for Lallana to make the run after giving him the ball rather than the other way around. After a brief bit of delay, Balotelli does indeed make a run, but by the time he did, the chance had gone, and a rare one since Liverpool didn’t have too many instances of space to exploit.
No doubt Rodgers wants Balotelli to come into these deep positions, but ideally he wants him to also quickly transition with the rest of the team. It isn’t a disaster, and there are improving signs, but this was something that Liverpool missed in the derby.
Lukaku misused, failing to influence proceedings
While one Merseyside striker was failing to get into the right position, another was played out of position by his manager. Yes, Romelu Lukaku has been deployed in a wide role in the past and done well, but against a Liverpool defence that has had their fair share of issues, it would have been more positive from Martinez to have the physical presence of Lukaku to really test the centre-back pairing of Dejan Lovren & Martin Skrtel.
The Belgian also has a rare burst of pace which could have been used had he been deployed centrally, combined with the fact that Everton’s deep approach had forced Liverpool’s defenders higher up. Pace for pace, Lukaku could have won, aerially he could have competed, and Liverpool’s defenders have been guilty of over-committing and slightly misinterpreting their position, a quick turn could have caught them out as well.
Note that the image above isn’t the most ideal example, given that it has Liverpool in possession, but the point stands. Maybe Lukaku would certainly have got the better of Alberto Moreno aerially, but Everton were never really going to attempt long-balls onto the right flank were they? And if there’s one defender in the Liverpool side who can keep up with any Everton attacker, pace-for-pace, then it is the quick left-back from Seville.
The Spaniard was more than comfortable dealing with the Belgian along the ground, easily having him under control. The ex-Chelsea man too must be criticized for failing to properly deal with balls that came his way, losing possession cheaply, and like his counter-part in the Liverpool side, preventing Everton attacks to transpire.
Needless to say that both Balotelli & Lukaku will thrive centrally with another pure striker around them (Sturridge, Etoo..), but on the day both disappointed. One failing to get into position and thus having a sub-par performance, and the other played out of position as a result of the managers’ misuse.
Tony Hibbert exposed by Liverpool’s threatening left-side
Firstly, a bit of a confession. When the team line-ups were read out, I was quite shocked to see Tony Hibbert in there. Admittedly, I was unaware that he still existed in the professional football world and was of the belief that he probably retired a season or two ago. A quick check tells me the last time he played more than 2 minutes for Everton in the league was back in December 2012; so retirement was a fair assumption to make.
My first opinion was at how he’d struggle given that he would be up against Raheem Sterling & Alberto Moreno. Though not completed exploited, Hibbert was left exposed and proving to be a bit of a liability. Too slow to deal with the Liverpool duo, and (this may sound strange) inexperienced given he hasn’t had a competitive league start for a year and a half.
As the illustration above shows, Liverpool were the most fruitful down the side Hibbert was meant to cover. The quickness of Moreno and Sterling, combined with a few chances by Lallana were proving to be too much for Hibbert to handle. Sterling in particular was able to get in behind and receive passes far too easily, creating a whole host of opportunities, the most threatening of which saw Balotelli ram the post from close range.
When sides set-up like how Everton did, it’s often the flanks that prove to be the only real outlet for the opposition, particularly with the unmarked runs of full-backs. Hibbert was consequently brought off as Everton needed to respond to Liverpool’s goal, thus moving higher up and further allowing Liverpool to exploit the space in behind the 33-year-old. Young Tyias Browning, who has significantly better recovery pace, than Hibbert, came on a result.
Where does this leave them?
Both sides have had rather disappointing starts to the season, and find themselves in the bottom half of the table. But the standings are yet to take shape, and neither side will see this result or their start as one that defined their season. It is what the subsequent matches produce that’ll prove to be vital with sides that they are supposedly competing with, also dropping points in this early stage of the season.
Written by Sami Faizullah. Chief Editor of this website.