Given the discrepancy in quality and form between Everton and Liverpool coming into the 227th Merseyside Derby, the Toffees were always going to need everything to go right to get a victory. Even a draw was going to take an excellent, gutsy performance.
Perhaps this is what makes Everton’s most recent derby shortcoming so infuriating — despite the team’s obvious inferiority, Ronald Koeman’s side was evenly exchanging blows with Jurgen Klopp’s side for the opening 45 minutes, before things disintegrated in the second half.
Let’s start by taking a look at Koeman’s lineup choices for Monday’s match.
Koeman sent the team out in a 4-3-3 similar to what we saw against Arsenal. Aaron Lennon and Enner Valencia got the start at the wings, while Ross Barkley, James McCarthy, and Idrissa Gana Gueye started in the center of midfield.
To get a better idea of how this lineup worked in reality, take a look at @11tegen’s passmap for the match.
Keep in mind that this map is only for the match’s first 65 minutes — so it is primarily, but not exclusively, data from the first half.
The midfield trio is definitely an inverted triangle, with Barkley and McCarthy playing significantly higher than Gueye. Along with Valencia and Lennon, the pair was tasked with getting in the face of the Liverpool midfielders, making it difficult to work through the middle third.
Make no mistakes, Everton didn’t utilize a pedal-to-the-metal gegenpress that put constant pressure on Liverpool’s defenders and midfielders. The Toffees don’t have players who can do that for 90 minutes, nor do they have defenders capable of putting out the fires occasionally caused by playing this aggressive style.
Instead, Koeman’s side picked its moments to press and otherwise simply made life difficult for Liverpool once Klopp’s team began encroaching upon the final third. The result was a first-half Liverpool passmap that looked like this (courtesy of FourFourTwo.com):
There’s a lot of Liverpool passes here, but essentially nothing dangerous. Once the Reds crossed the halfway line, they struggled to generate anything in the center of the pitch, instead forced to go sideways to the full-backs or backward to the center-backs.
When applying moderate or high pressure, that’s exactly what you want to see — opportunities to selectively press the players who are less comfortable on the ball in high-stakes areas of the pitch, in which a turnover will likely lead to a good scoring opportunity.
Of course, playing for turnovers like that only works out if your opponent does make a mistake in a dangerous area. Liverpool had a few close calls in the first half, but avoided giving away anything too tragic. The result was an Everton first-half passmap that looked like this:
As 11tegen11’s passmap above suggested, most of Everton’s attacking play came through Valencia and Coleman down the right. There are a lot of attempted passes from those two players toward Lukaku illustrated here — a combination of attempted quick, direct passes after forced turnovers and some passes resulting from building out of the back.
In all, the first half featured a lot of (mostly productive) running from Everton, which created only a few chances, but ultimately kept a dangerous Liverpool team at bay.
The second half brought an injury-induced change, with Gareth Barry coming on for James McCarthy. This change brought about...well...exactly what you’d expect it would.
Barry slotted in as the deepest midfielder, taking Gueye’s spot at the base of the midfield. From pretty early in the second half, it was clear that Everton was going to sit deeper, reducing the amount of space the 35-year-old midfielder had to cover.
It’s unclear to what extent this was by Koeman’s design or simply by necessity as the early minutes of the half played out, but it substantially altered the match.
Everton’s deeper defensive position meant the Toffees won the ball from Liverpool significantly closer to their own goal in the second half. As we’ve seen a lot this season, Koeman’s team isn’t great at passing its way out of the back. This was even more obvious against Liverpool, a team with a manager who is known for his high-pressing tendencies.
The result for Everton was two-fold. Most obviously, the deeper defensive posture meant Liverpool could get closer to the Everton goal before meeting resistance. Though the Toffees defended well for most of the match, they couldn’t keep everything out of dangerous areas after allowing the Reds 15 extra free yards in attack.
The result was a second half for Liverpool that looked like this:
Compare this to Liverpool’s passmap from the first half — it’s absolutely night and day. The Reds had substantially more passes in the final third, and missed out on way fewer passes in the midfield. So the Toffees were not only conceding more chances, but also winning the ball in less fruitful areas.
The result for Everton’s attack was, as we’ve seen too often this season, a choice between two bad options:
- Try to have Barry and the full-backs play out of the back through Barkley and the wingers, or;
- Launch long-balls toward an isolated Lukaku, hoping that he out-muscles two or three defenders for long enough to bring Barkley and the wingers into the attack.
If you think neither of those options sound great, you’re right. The result was a second half for Everton that looked like this (brace yourself and get a stiff drink ready):
If you’re like me, you immediately wonder: “Is there any way this could have been avoided?”
Given the current state of the squad, I’m not sure.
The most obvious alteration at Koeman’s disposal was to bring on Tom Cleverley for the injured McCarthy instead of Barry. Cleverley isn’t great at anything, but he’s at the very least a willing runner and tackler. But the McCarthy role was so crucial to the team’s success in the first half, I’m not sure I’d have been comfortable replacing the Irishman with Cleverley — Koeman clearly felt the same.
The team could have continued to apply the same about of pressure after the sub, but that just seems like a recipe for disaster. Barry just doesn’t have the speed or stamina of Gueye, and it would have been simply a matter of time before Liverpool’s dangerous attackers isolated and exploited him.
The final option is one I’ve mentioned in previous analyses, but we’ve yet to see given a real chance in a match. Consider this:
Koeman could have forgone the illusion of playing out of the back with his current personnel and adopted a 4-4-2 with Barry and Gueye both tasked with shielding the back four and the attack centered on being as direct as possible.
Defensively, it wouldn’t have looked all that different. The central midfielders and wingers would have been tasked with a primarily defensive role, playing relatively deep to ease the physical burden on Barry and simplify the defensive decision making of Kevin Mirallas.
Ahead of the two blocks of four, Valencia would play just off Lukaku, giving him a player to help in hold-up situations. Valencia’s pace and ability to get in behind defenders would also have kept Liverpool’s back-four honest and potentially created one or two direct chances from the long ball.
I can acknowledge two problems with this setup.
- Kevin Mirallas would have been asked to do a fair amount of defending. I don’t really know how Koeman could have worked around it — with Lennon already in the game on the left, the Toffees don’t have another defensively sound winger to help out there.
- Valencia was clearly tiring pretty early in the second half. Ultimately Dominic Calvert-Lewin came in for Valencia out wide, and potentially could have come in for the Ecuadorian up top as well. Would he have filled the role as I envision Valencia doing? It’s tough to say.
At any rate, Koeman didn’t opt for the 4-4-2, which admittedly would have been experimental and risky, particularly in the second half of a tightly contested Merseyside Derby. This clearly speaks to an obvious problem at Everton right now though: the Toffees don’t have depth in case of injuries or a plan B when things aren’t going according to plan.
With the January transfer window on the horizon, Ronald Koeman will surely look to sort out these two, related problems, at which point we can begin to more fully judge the Dutchman on his work so far at Everton Football Club.
With the way the 227th Merseyside Derby ended though, there’s no arguing that he’ll need an influx of new players to take the club back into Europe and beyond.