If all the world’s a stage, where does the audience sit? On their sofas? A socially-distanced two metres (pending review) apart? Nowhere? Certainly not, you know, in the actual theatre itself, anyway. Or its environs, for that matter. Stay at home, folks. Or is it ‘stay alert’ now? Whatever it is, the football’s back (ish). Rejoice!
Perhaps a lesson of this whole ordeal, as the English game takes its primitive steps into this brave - if mercifully temporary - new world, is that the real king here is content. Even with Sky’s stranglehold on broadcasting rights before coronavirus, to have all remaining 92 games shown across four hand-rubbing platforms for our viewing pleasure over little more than a month is about as unprecedented as these unprecedented times get. At least in the football world, anyway. You see, Liverpool, you can monopolise the Premier League as best you can, imperious as you may be; you will never outrun the product. Nor, even, will a global pandemic. Or the null-and-voiders and points-per-gamers, for that matter.
And so, here we are. Clinically christened ‘Project Restart’, a five-week overdose of bio-secure Barclays is upon us, soundtracked by the dulcet tones of Neville and Carragher, artificial crowds and Roy Keane as good as offering out Manchester United goalkeepers. At this point, so deep into the twilight zone we have delved, you half-expect the Premier League lion to jump out of your screen, freshly-groomed and reeking of pungent cologne, while telling you to “call me PR, I’ve re-branded.” Still, if nothing else, it beats 100 days of cold turkey.
But enough with the politics of it all, because there is actually a game to discuss here, if not much of a contest. And in some respects, perhaps we should be indebted to Everton and Liverpool who, on Sunday, offered the ‘new normal’ an invaluable element of continuity amid the madness, a reminder that the remnants of life one worldwide health crisis ago still remain, that not quite nothing is the same. The world could burn and Goodison Park would still deliver a tepid, stodgy, goalless Merseyside derby, pockmarked by sporadic waves of pressure amid a sea of shoddiness.
Truly, have two consecutive Goodison derbies ever returned the same result, yet contrasted with one another so wildly? The sights and sounds of about 35,000 bloodthirsty Blues roaring their scarred, imperfect side through this game last season felt like Everton’s great equaliser against a patently far superior team, conspiring to earn one of football’s more glorious 0-0s. Liverpool went for their hosts’ throats that day. Everton at least attempted to respond in kind. There was a feverish, frenetic intensity, an electricity abuzz.
In stark contrast, here we had two sides arriving in the new world still shaking off a wearing jet lag, the serenading of a nearby saxophonist outside Goodison as audible to the few inside as Seamus Coleman’s choice words for referee Mike Dean, in possibly Merseyside’s most deserted event since Eleanor Rigby’s funeral. Similarly drab derbies have been played out to full houses before, and while this may be the least-worst solution in the current crisis, it was difficult to shake that feeling that, without the usual twanging acoustics, this was a match with its life draining out of it, played with a plastic bag tied around its head.
From an Everton perspective, there are caveats, of course. Trying to judge a team with an injury list so lengthy it’s rather silly, in their first game in 15 weeks against the best side in the land and - crucially - their bogey team, is about as futile as screaming in space (which, by the way, was the recipient of far fewer Jordan Pickford goal kicks than usual, here). The result might not show it, but home advantage was undoubtedly eroded without that feral following. The at-times sluggish, lethargic pace was inevitable as both sides clicked through the gears again, but did occasionally render this less the ‘Friendly Derby’, more a derby friendly.
And yet, though Carlo Ancelotti was not the manager in the Goodison dugout who will soon celebrate one of the most resounding title victories in Premier League history, he may well emerge the happier of the two. Jurgen Klopp’s side dictated much of proceedings - they were always going to - but, disrupted by the absence of Mohamed Salah and Andrew Robertson, there was always a sense of a piece of their jigsaw missing. They pummelled Everton at times in last season’s fixture, not least when Salah brought the best out of Pickford and later Michael Keane. December’s 5-2 thumping at Anfield was like watching hyenas hunt down a wounded gazelle. Here, other than a few speculative free-kicks, England’s number one had a peculiarly light workload.
Truth be told, Ancelotti may even feel a little aggrieved Everton did not nick this. Having barricaded the door down manfully, thanks mainly to the nerveless Mason Holgate and the faultless Coleman, the final ten minutes offered up another gilt-edged derby chance that slipped through Everton’s fingers. First came Tom Davies shaving the inside of the post via the slightest of touches from Joe Gomez, then Richarlison selfishly going for glory when it looked more sensible to square to the admittedly dreadful Alex Iwobi. Another classic chapter written in the never-ending story of hard luck in this impossible fixture. Another one that got away.
In many ways, this felt an entirely apt, ‘on-brand’ match and result. Goodison served up another bitty tale of what might have been, Project Restart served up another televised damp squib. Indeed, if ever there was an incentive to behave appropriately during the lockdown the UK ostensibly remains in, this game should be it; in that the sooner we all get through this and we can feel safe in shelving behind-closed-doors football, the better.
Yet a point against the champions-elect, no matter how rusty they may have been, should never be sniffed at; nor a clean sheet, a feat only Watford FC had previously managed in the league this term. This may have been, for the most part, more stoic than stimulating from Everton, but after the disintegration of Marco Silva’s team into a brittle, feeble shell of a side, it’s encouraging to see how, Chelsea and Newcastle debacles notwithstanding, Ancelotti has at least begun to restore some much-needed backbone. That, and the ability of his team to actually execute game plans.
Everton’s season concludes five weeks and eight games from now which, with a wafer-thin squad and without the Goodison faithful, will doubtless transpire as a gruelling boot camp, of sorts. Early days yet, and a trip to bottom club Norwich on Wednesday may make for a far more telling assessment of where exactly Everton are.
But at least on the evidence of the first 90 minutes, where a dreadful game yielded a decent point, they haven’t come packed with a suitcase full of old bad habits.