If you had offered a scoreless draw to Everton supporters for the majority of Saturday’s Merseyside Derby, many probably would have taken it.
Sure, getting battered for stretches at a time by a Liverpool B-team is embarrassing, but a draw would have been better than a loss at least. And for those stretches, it certainly looked as though Everton would never find a goal.
But in the last 15 minutes of the match, the Toffees turned up the pressure intensely, nearly coming away with a winning goal on more than one occasion.
After such an underwhelming opening 75 minutes, what happened to turn things around?
Let’s start by looking at the Everton lineup for the match.
I was, first and foremost, very happy to see that Sam Allardyce didn’t break up the back four of Seamus Coleman, Phil Jagielka, Michael Keane, and Leighton Baines after last week’s beatdown at the hands of Manchester City.
Much like that Manchester City match, Everton’s problems in this one weren’t caused by any shortcomings on the back-line or in goal. No, the issues primarily came from the midfield, where Big Sam used a more sensible midfield than against the Citizens — but only marginally.
On the bright side, Morgan Schneiderlin had maybe his best match of the season. He was solid if unspectacular in distribution (33 of 42 passes completed), did a reasonable job of shielding the back four, and perhaps most importantly maintained his composure and discipline for 90 minutes.
The midfield issues came from the two players in front of him, Tom Davies and Wayne Rooney.
Watching the match, the issues with Rooney and Davies may not have been entirely evident — without a doubt, the most glaring issue is the one made painfully clear by the average position map below (courtesy of EvertonFC.com).
Yannick Bolasie basically played right on top of Leighton Baines at left-back, constantly defending the right-sided Liverpool threat from Danny Ings and Nathaniel Clyne. It was this factor that kept Everton penned into the defensive third for so much of the match — but that wasn’t Bolasie’s fault.
Take a look at the Liverpool average position map from the match.
With Ragnar Klavan, a center-back by trade, standing in at left-back, Jurgen Klopp elected to build almost exclusively down the right wing through Danny Ings and Nathaniel Clyne — in fact, 50% of Liverpool’s attacking third possession occurred in the right channel.
Liverpool achieved this by having Ings occupy the space between Baines and Keane. With Keane, naturally, occupied by the Liverpool central striker, someone else needed to handle Ings in the half space.
This brings us back to the players I mentioned in the opening, Tom Davies and Wayne Rooney.
Rooney, as we know, is not exactly a defensive powerhouse. He wasn’t particularly useful in defending the line of players queuing up off the ball in the left-central channel as Liverpool built down the right, forcing Morgan Schneiderlin to remain relatively central, instead of helping with Ings.
Tom Davies seemed the natural option to drop deep between the center-back and left-back to mark Ings, but he just...didn’t.
The result was a pair of seemingly jobless midfielders roaming around when Liverpool had the ball. Davies and Rooney weren’t cohesive and aggressive enough to press the Liverpool midfield into mistakes, or at least to keep them out of the dangerous areas. Yet, they weren’t defensively sound enough to track Liverpool attackers either.
The result was that Leighton Baines was forced to pinch toward the middle to mark Ings, leaving Bolasie as the only option to pick up Clyne’s overlapping runs. The same effect occasionally occurred on the opposite side with Theo Walcott as well.
An intelligent manager would have brought on Idrissa Gueye for Tom Davies at half, telling the Senegalese midfielder: “Just handle Ings in the half space, and when you get the ball, set Bolasie loose down the left wing past the attacking Nathaniel Clyne.”
Everton’s manager is Sam Allardyce though, so the Toffees made no changes at the break, and the team’s first sub was Gana in for Wayne Rooney on the right side of midfield — which didn’t really solve the problem.
Gana was certainly more able to help Schneiderlin handle the Liverpool left and central channels than Rooney was, but it didn’t really solve the problem Everton had on the Liverpool right.
A few minutes later, Big Sam brought on Dominic Calvert-Lewin for Yannick Bolasie on the Everton left wing — another move that was helpful, but didn’t really address the actual problem that was occurring. DCL is better defensively than Yala, and made a few important tackles on Clyne during his appearance.
But, the Everton left winger was still essentially playing full-back, and the Toffees couldn’t generate any offense.
Finally, mercifully, Allardyce replaced Davies with Beni Baningime in the 79th minute, and Everton almost immediately starting putting pressure on Liverpool. With Gana and Beni sitting deeper alongside Schneiderlin, the Everton wingers were finally able to get further up the pitch and pressure Clyne and Klavan.
A smarter manager would have figured out much earlier that the way to beat Liverpool was to put pressure on their full-backs — one who is truly a center-back, and the other who was in his first match of the season.
Unfortunately, Everton still just has Sam Allardyce, so we only got to see 15 minutes of Everton pressure before the clock ran out.
It was encouraging to see all three of Everton’s holding midfielders performing well, though perhaps somewhat surprisingly all at the same time. It was encouraging to see Everton’s attacking players get a little bit of freedom to create, and grab a chance to do so firmly. It was encouraging to see Everton’s full-backs, tremendous as they are, finally get a chance in the attacking third.
But we only got to see those encouraging signs in the match’s final quarter of an hour — another blunder from the idiot-in-chief.