The rest doesn’t really matter, does it? The who and how often fade into the background when it comes to derbies — get a result, and everybody’s happy, even if it’s ugly.
And oh boy, was it ugly on Sunday. The Toffees don’t have the talent, especially with Seamus Coleman and Yannick Bolasie injured, to get into a heavyweight bout with Jurgen Klopp’s men. Sam Allardyce, in response, did his best to keep Everton away from potential Liverpool knockout blows, and was largely successful in doing so.
To understand exactly what went down on Sunday though, you first have to understand the way that Liverpool plays. The Reds, under Jurgen Klopp, look to apply high pressure to their opponents at every turn.
Now, it’s important to understand that this isn’t simply the case of a striker or winger sometimes trying to run down an opposing player who is on the ball. The entire tactical setup revolves around a cohesive effort to win the ball back in as advanced a position as possible.
This effort starts essentially from the moment Liverpool loses the ball in the attacking area. In the most general of terms, the Liverpool front three looks to apply pressure to the opposing back line, while the midfield three tries to cut passing lanes into the opposing midfielders. Liverpool’s defenders play right on opposing strikers, trying to eliminate the possibility of direct ground passes from the back to front.
Liverpool wants you to try to pass out of the back through its players. Klopp’s men want nothing more than for their opponents to try to play intricate football through the midfield, because they believe they can take the ball from you in dangerous positions.
Once they win the ball, their opponents are usually spread wide across the pitch, and transitioning back to defense from attack proves very difficult. Liverpool has lightning pace up top with Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino, and can be behind the back line in a flash following a poorly-timed turnover.
Unless you’ve got defenders and midfielders who are outstanding in possession, trying to play through the midfield against Liverpool is suicide. So, Big Sam bypassed the midfield, trotting out this lineup:
The defensive structure here is quite straightforward. Two deep-lying blocks of four were designed to frustrate the Liverpool attack, which has at times struggled to create chances against a bunkering opponent.
The exact midfield personnel used was a little surprising, but Big Sam did have a decent idea with choosing this group. The challenge, naturally, was always going to be getting the ball forward to Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Oumar Niasse in a way that was effective, but more importantly, safe enough that Everton didn’t give Liverpool an easy counter-attacking chance following a high-press forced turnover.
The solution? Put Gylfi Sigurdsson and Wayne Rooney, the team’s two best attacking passers, in wide positions. There’s likely to be a little more time and open space out wide than in the middle, particularly against a team looking to apply as much pressure as Liverpool.
The plan, at least in theory, was to get the ball out to one of those players when possible, then have them try to pick the perfect long diagonal ball forward to Calvert-Lewin or Niasse. It was a low-risk strategy — one that eliminated the need for playing through the crowded center of midfield, but utilized a little more creative thinking than simply “hoof it and pray.”
In reality though, it never quite panned out. For most of the half, the Toffees couldn’t find their two creative players without substantial risk of turning the ball over, and elected to play it safe.
Take a look at Sigurdsson and Rooney’s passmaps from the first half, courtesy of EvertonFC.com.
This isn’t a slight on either of those players, or the defenders either, really. The Toffees put forward a decent plan against a superior side, and it just didn’t quite go the way they hoped.
Obviously, Mohamed Salah’s late first half goal changed the way the Toffees needed to approach the second half, and Allardyce made two sensible changes at the break. He brought on Aaron Lennon and Morgan Schneiderlin for Oumar Niasse and Tom Davies, moving his team from a 4-4-2 into a 4-3-3.
These substitutions brought a couple of positive changes for Everton, including:
- The addition of a player, Aaron Lennon, with raw pace and 1-v-1 ability to test Liverpool on the counter
- The addition of a player, Morgan Schneiderlin, capable of helping his team to hold possession for longer spells
- Schneiderlin also brought better defensive awareness than Tom Davies, allowing Wayne Rooney to push more forward into an advanced role.
1 and 2 occasionally popped up in the second half, but it was really point 3 that made the biggest difference. Because Rooney had a more advanced role, he was free to try to find space behind the Liverpool midfield line in transition, rather than existing as part of one of the deep-lying blocks of four.
On the play that led to the penalty, he did exactly that. It’s ironic, really, that Rooney found the ball in a wide right area — the space Allardyce wanted him to be a difference maker in during the first half — and played an inch-perfect ball over the top to Calvert-Lewin.
Discussions on the penalty call that ensued can happen in another time and place — but the point here is that Big Sam made a change that allowed his playmaker to make a play, which he most certainly did.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Allardyce and Everton following this match is not feeling the need to discuss the team’s defensive shape at all. The two blocks of four were compact, largely effective, and utterly boring — the best kind of defensive structure.
That hard-drilled defense, combined with a reasonable attacking plan and a fair bit of luck helped Everton to take a point from Anfield — an outstanding first derby of the Sam Allardyce era.