On Saturday, Everton and Liverpool will meet to contest the 227th iteration of the Merseyside Derby. Most supporters are keenly aware that the Toffees haven’t won at Anfield since 1999 and that they have beaten Liverpool just 4 times in the 17 years since.
Since their last meeting, Everton have been on a prolonged run of good form. In 12 matches, they have accrued 27 points (8 wins, 3 draws, 1 loss), which is more than any other team in the league, and have outscored opponents 2.50-0.75 on average. A 1.75 average goal differential is significant; league leaders Chelsea are averaging 1.36 this season. In terms of expected goals (xG), the per game margin has been 1.63-0.90 according to Michael Caley’s model. Although this is closer than the actual goals tally, together they suggest that Everton have been legitimately good over this period, which roughly amounts to a third of the season.
The Toffees’ form has allowed them to consolidate their grip on 7th place. Looking at the table, 6th place might seem within reach, but Manchester United and Arsenal’s two games in hand will likely prove decisive in that regard:
Updated Predictions following Week 29. pic.twitter.com/oUtj24wAeK— 8Yards8Feet (@8Yards8Feet) March 22, 2017
With United having won the EFL Cup and the remaining teams in the FA Cup all near-locks for the top 6, Everton will almost certainly be taking part in the Europa League next year, at least at the qualifying level.
Liverpool, meanwhile, entered January in second place but failed to log a league win until February 11. Impressive wins against Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were accompanied by losses to Swansea City, Hull City, and Leicester City. Their average xG over this period has been 1.5-1.1, which isn’t bad, but the inconsistency has been a source of great frustration. Fortunately for the Reds, Arsenal’s horrendous form means that the chances for Champions League football at Anfield next year remain high:
#AFC & #MUFC kind of need little miracles to reach the top-4.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) March 19, 2017
But that's not what they've been putting on display recently.#EPL pic.twitter.com/s7OOYMA8Nh
In short, Liverpool are near-locks for the Champions League and Everton are near-locks for the Europa League. This isn’t to say that motivation will be low; this is the derby, after all.
Liverpool’s attack is one of the best in the league. They are in the top three across all the main categories: goals, shots, shots on target, expected goals. Furthermore, they like to dominate games: 2nd most possession in the league, most time spent in the attacking third, and least time spent in their own third. Another similar way to look at territory is to measure the difference between passes made in the final third and passes conceded in the defensive third. By this metric, Liverpool are first in the league. The Reds like to have the ball and they like to have it in the opponent’s territory.
Defensively the picture is a little less clear: 7th in goals, 3rd in shots, 6th in shots on target, and 5th in xG. Put another way, one could say that Liverpool are pretty good at suppressing shots but less good at suppressing shots on target; similarly, they are pretty good at at preventing chances but less good at preventing goals. If you know Jürgen Klopp or know Liverpool under Jürgen Klopp, this actually makes sense. This because Klopp’s tactical system is based around pressing and counter-pressing.
Tactics and pressing
I’m not going to attempt a deep explanation of pressing, counter-pressing, or Klopp’s system. Frankly there is a lot I don’t understand. This article and this article are great places to start. However, while the intricacies are complex, the overall idea is fairly simple and can be seen by all but the most unobservant viewer: pressing aims to use pressure to regain the ball. That’s pretty much it. Counter-pressing is simply pressing immediately after losing the ball.
In the case of most pressing schemes, such as Klopp’s, the more specific goal is to regain the ball in dangerous situations. “Dangerous” here generally refers to both the area (high up the pitch) and the placement of defenders (out of position). This not only leads to chances but negates the need to build up from deep, which is not always easy, especially against good teams. We can already start to see why Liverpool spend so much time up the field and not in their own third. We can also start to see one of the reasons why Liverpool’s attack is so prolific:
So, here's a plot to cherish for #LFC fans, Kloppoholics and fans of the pressing game alike.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) March 5, 2017
So much danger created from high turnovers! pic.twitter.com/CMSxO0du16
The takeaway is that Liverpool are really good at winning the ball in dangerous areas and creating chances.
Pressing schemes are intense and aggressive, and Liverpool are certainly those things. At their best, this makes them incredibly fearsome. Of course, there are always tradeoffs. From the second Spielverlagerung article linked above (emphasis mine):
Focusing on counterpressing rather than dropping deep to regain structure is an inherently aggressive tactic. Klopp’s system is focused more on quickly closing the space around the ball with large numbers of players converging from all directions. The upside, as mentioned previously, is that this can allow the team to quickly regain possession and even start its own attacks.
The downside is that an aggressive counterpress from deep in midfield can allow the opposition more opportunity to transition if the initial press is beaten. This effect is magnified if the team prepares poorly for the counterpress when in-possession, and does not have good pressing access from all sides of the ball to immediately flood the new opposition ball-player.
In my match preview in December I mentioned this and noted that for such a good team, Liverpool rank pretty poorly in chance quality conceded (measured by xG per shot). It also sort of explains the defensive stats I mentioned above—the defense is good in general, but when they are beat they tend to be especially vulnerable. So they are good at preventing shots from happening, but when they do, they are likely to be from good areas and therefore more likely to be on target. Indeed, only Arsenal have seen opponents shoot more accurately than Liverpool’s opponents have. It’s also worth noting that Liverpool’s opponents are outperforming xG pretty significantly and that they have the 4th worst save percentage in the league. Sometimes these sorts of things are attributed to bad luck or bad goalkeeping but at this point it really seems like a feature of Liverpool’s system under Klopp.
What does this actually mean on the field? A few recent examples can hopefully illustrate. The first thing to remember is that Liverpool almost always use a 4-3-3 as a starting formation (in fact, as far as I can tell, they are the only side in the league to started every single league match in the same formation). The midfield three is aligned with one player in a purposely deeper role and the other two ahead, very roughly something like this:
Liverpool’s aggressive approach to both pressing and attacking means that the 4-3-3 frequently becomes something like a 2-3-5 when they have the ball and are pushed up the field. This leaves just one player, the defensive midfielder, responsible for defending the middle of the pitch in the event that Liverpool lose the ball. This can be problematic, for obvious reasons. (For Liverpool, typically this player is Jordan Henderson but his injury has meant that Emre Can has needed to step into the role).
Here are some examples from two games in early March where Liverpool was exposed in central areas due to aggressive positioning. I’ll focus on the positioning of Liverpool’s midfield three. Again, Emre Can is usually meant to be the deepest, with Georginio Wijnaldum and Adam Lallana further forward.
First, against Arsenal, we see Wijnaldum pushed out to the wing. Can is in his usual zone. Lallana is roaming around a bit trying to link play. Note also that Liverpool’s other attackers are quite high up the pitch. Already we can see that in stressing compactness to link play, Liverpool have left a huge gap in the middle of the park. When James Milner’s hopeful long ball comes to nothing, it is Can alone who must deal with the resulting counter attack. Other players track back, but not quickly enough to disrupt Arsenal’s passing. The result is a good chance for Olivier Giroud.
Perhaps a better example was Arsenal’s goal. Again, notice that Liverpool are aggressively positioned, with 5 players around the box and both wing backs pushed fairly high up the field (the 2-3-5 I referred to earlier). When Firmino loses the ball, the attackers (to their credit) immediately begin to track back, but Arsenal’s speed and skill allow them to progress quickly up the field with no resistance whatsoever. Can is where he should be, but with no help around him, he is inevitably bypassed with little effort. Liverpool are on the run and Alexis Sánchez and Danny Welbeck do the rest. Up 2-0, this struck me as a bit naïve from the home side.
Finally, a bit from the following week against Burnley. In the opening frame, the Clarets have deep possession and are not looking threatening. Liverpool are compact and fairly well positioned. A simple combination in the midfield triggers the Red’s press, and Philippe Coutinho leaves his position to attack the ball carrier. Suddenly it becomes extremely easy for Burnley to break Liverpool’s first line. Once they do so, it’s - you guessed it - Can who needs to come out and deal with things. He has too far to go though, and Matthew Lowton is able to pick out a nice ball for Ashley Barnes to finish.
I am absolutely cherry-picking some examples here, so take it with a grain of salt, but I think much of the evidence converges on the idea that once you break Klopp’s press, Liverpool are often there for the taking.
Matching up with Everton
December’s derby was a tale of two halves. In the first, Everton were all-action, hassling and harrying, and generally disrupting everything Liverpool tried to do. However, the strategy was unsustainable, James McCarthy went off injured for Gareth Barry, and Liverpool eventually took over. Everton rarely offered anything in attack for the entire match.
For all their physicality & presence, #EFC were never close to #LFC's goal.— 11tegen11 (@11tegen11) December 19, 2016
Excellent #LFC shot locations paid off in the end.#xGplot pic.twitter.com/DfWGf6jfgJ
I was surprised by Koeman’s approach and suggested that Everton ought to sit back a bit and look to hit Liverpool on the counter. Liverpool enjoy high tempo games and have more than enough skill to pass around a weakly-organized defense, even if they are pressing aggressively. Everton’s exposure in this particular example was frightening:
With Morgan Schneiderlin and James McCarthy both likely unavailable due to injury, Koeman will probably need to use Gareth Barry alongside Idrissa Gueye (though there are other options). This is worrying for a two reasons: first, that Barry tends to struggle in high tempo affairs, and two, that Gueye’s aggressiveness tends to leave Everton exposed. Both of these traits seem to play right into Liverpool’s hands.
The goal for the Toffees should be to minimize exposure to pressing and counter-pressing. These probably means a more direct approach and a de-emphasis on passing out of the back. Liverpool will want to camp out in Everton’s half, and at some point Everton will have to let them.
Mathematically, chances for a win remain low, but there are lessons to be learned from December’s games and from Liverpool’s video archive. If Koeman can impart them on his players and if they repay him with an inspired performance, anything is possible.