If Jordan Pickford managed to harmlessly punch a routine mishit over the bar in the 96th minute of Sunday’s Merseyside derby, Everton would have, for the second time in three matches, traveled to one of the three best teams in the Premier League and come away with a point.
Perhaps most importantly, no one could have seriously argued that the Toffees weren’t good value for such a draw. As was the case against Chelsea, Everton’s performance was good enough to earn a point.
But, we don’t live in a world where Pickford made that routine save. Instead, we’re left with a 1-0 loss to Liverpool at Anfield — a bewildering and frustrating result, fairly filled with enough emotion and despair to cloud the overall big picture.
But the big picture remains an aggressively positive one, something that Evertonians cannot lose sight of.
Let’s start by giving credit where it’s due — this is a very good Liverpool team that still has a significant advantage over Everton in quality and talent. They’re very clearly, to me, the second-best team in the Premier League behind Manchester City.
It is because of this (unfortunate) fact that Sunday’s performance must outweigh it’s overall result.
Consider just Marco Silva’s tactics in this match.
Everton without doubt dropped deep and absorbed pressure at times, but this was by no means Silva’s default setting in this match. There were points during which Everton out-and-out high pressed Liverpool on goal kicks or keeper clearances.
Even when the high press wasn’t on, the Toffees applied moderate pressure in the midfield, at least throwing some resistance at Liverpool ahead of the defensive third. Take a look at the map of Everton’s defensive actions.
Yes, there’s plenty of action quite deep, but there’s also a reasonable chunk of defensive plays in the middle third, and even a few in the attacking third.
Silva’s side was also actually interested in trying to keep the ball and attack for long spells, a completely foreign idea for Everton in most derby matches.
Liverpool brought the high press — something that you probably generally associate with Jurgen Klopp, but the German has suppressed or largely bypassed altogether the press at times this season, retaining an element of surprise when he uses it.
Everton and Silva...didn’t really care. Take a look at the passmap for the Everton center-backs from this one.
Unless the Yerry Mina and Michael Keane were at six-yard-box depth, they looked to pass out of the back rather than simply hoof the ball out and hope for the best. This is particularly pronounced in the case of Mina, whose Barcelona background has been clear with the ball in his feet.
The same was true of Idrissa Gueye and Andre Gomes in the midfield — they very rarely looked to just hopefully kick the ball long. Instead, at least for most of the match, there was a concerted Everton effort to keep the ball and move it forward into attacking position.
Take a look at their combined passmap.
It wasn’t perfect — especially from Gana, whose passing deficiencies are often on display in matches like this one.
But it speaks volumes about the improvement we’ve seen under Silva in just a few months’ time. In last year’s derby at Anfield, a 1-1 draw in which Everton earned a penalty in what was literally it’s only foray forward of mention, the Toffees were out-possessed 79%-21%. 36.5% of the match occurred within the Everton defensive third.
This year, possession was a much tighter 57.6%-42.4%. 29.9% of the match occurred within the Everton defensive third.
Based on the first 14 matches of the season, Everton’s end-of-season goal has become clear. The Toffees are unlikely to catch any of the five teams ahead of them in the table, but they have a more-than-realistic shot of breaking up the traditional top six by finishing ahead of Manchester United.
A sixth-place finish — and the likely (though not guaranteed) Europa League spot that goes along with it — would represent an unequivocally successful season coming directly after a ludicrously underwhelming 2017-18 season. So — what does this game tell us about that race?
Well, let’s take a look at how United has fared against the top six so far this season.
Before the November international break, United faced its big away derby match against Manchester City, falling 3-1 in a match that was largely one-way traffic.
United’s only other away match against a top-six side was at Chelsea in October, when a late Ross Barkley goal (thanks, Ross!) pushed the match to a 2-2 final. United earned a draw at Chelsea then, just as Everton did a few weeks ago.
Manchester United also faced Tottenham at home early in the season, losing 3-0.
My point is this — if beating out United for sixth place is the goal of this Premier League season, the Liverpool match shows pretty conclusively that Everton is on its way to that goal.
Everton’s results against mid-to-lower table teams have been better than United’s over the past two months, and United ‘s only result against a traditional top-six side is one that Everton managed as well — a draw against Chelsea. In Jose Mourinho’s other two matches against the top six, his side couldn’t claim being anywhere near as competitive as Everton was against both Liverpool and Arsenal.
Everton’s head-to-head loss against Manchester United obviously complicates proceedings, but that match was at Old Trafford and relatively tightly-contested match. It, at the very least, continues to prove that Everton has shortened the gap between itself and the top six.
So yes, the loss of a point against a bitter rival in bizarre circumstances stings — a lot.
But the performance in this match continues a trend we’ve seen since mid-September. Everton is beating the teams it ought to and playing tight against traditional top-six teams.
The Toffees still sit above Manchester United in the table heading into the hectic December fixture crunch, and Sunday’s performance against Liverpool is yet another data point that suggests they have what it takes to stay there the rest of the season.