Fans of the Blues have enjoyed a relatively relaxed couple of weeks off during the international break, the positive mood courtesy of a 3-0 demolition of Bournemouth in the team’s last outing. This meant that Everton had collected three good wins from their last four outings in all competitions, with the awful home loss to Luton Town as a sole negative.
It’s been a strange start to the campaign, with results not necessarily following performances, as Sean Dyche has often opined. The club has pulled away from the abject position it had occupied in the league table in the initial weeks, but must now find consistency as we enter a period of challenging fixtures.
The high-flying pair of West Ham United and Brighton & Hove Albion follow in the next couple of weeks, but first up is the simple matter of the Anfield derby, against city rivals Liverpool.
The Reds endured a disappointing campaign last term, by their high standards, finishing fifth in the Premier League, exiting the Champions League to Real Madrid at the Round of 16 stage via a 6-2 aggregate scoreline and collecting only the minor trinket that is the Community Shield. With the season in danger of drifting abysmally, Jurgen Klopp managed to put together a late winning run of seven league games in the spring, salvaging a Europa League qualification from the rubble. Of course, failure for a club such as Liverpool is a relative thing, but compared to their previous campaigns, 2022-23 was a low point.
Clearly there was a need to do some major work with the squad in the offseason. The attack looked as powerful as ever, but a creaking long-neglected midfield had proven insufficient and exposed weaknesses in the defence. The club splashed out a net spend of €117m on new recruits, with the centre of the park being targeted exclusively. Incoming were talented youngsters Dominik Szoboszlai and Ryan Gravenberch from the Bundesliga for a combined €110m, along with World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister from Brighton and defensive midfielder Wataru Endo, from another German club in VFB Stuttgart.
Departing the club was captain Jordan Henderson, now entering the veteran stage of his career, in addition to the influential Fabinho, the underperforming Naby Keita and the ageing James Milner as Liverpool rebooted the midfield entirely. The long-serving Roberto Firmino was another former favourite to leave, though the team could afford to see him go, given their strength in depth in forward positions.
It’s fair to say that the Reds have rebounded strongly from last term’s setback, drawing the season opener with Chelsea, before winning seven on the bounce, five in the league. Victories over tough outfits in Newcastle United, Aston Villa and West Ham have been particularly impressive results. The lone reverse has been the appallingly-officiated away game at Tottenham Hotspur, where they can feel rightly aggrieved to have come up on the wrong end of a 2-1 scoreline. Since, they’ve gotten back on track with a routine continental win over Belgian outfit Union SG, before being held by the Seagulls on the South Coast in an exciting match.
They entertain the Blues sitting in fourth spot, three points behind Spurs and Arsenal.
Style of Play
Liverpool offered plenty of goal threat last season and didn’t actually ship that many in return, but both numbers were well down on the previous term’s imperious totals and nine league defeats indicated something was wrong with the machine that Klopp had constructed. An ageing engine room lacked the legs to provide the intensity required to cover the team’s defence, which was often exposed to more attention than it was comfortable with. Virgil van Dijk displayed previously unguessed at vulnerability and Trent Alexander Arnold, although fantastic going forward proved a weak spot defensively and was often targeted by the opposition.
Clearly, the midfield needed a complete rebuild and despite the Reds being outmanoeuvred during the summer in their pursuit of several high-profile targets, the German manager will feel happy with those players he was able to bring in. In these, he has a combination that provides sufficient energy and ball-playing ability, rather than being the three hard-running defensive shields of yesteryear, so we’ve still seen them look a bit open and susceptible at the back. This Liverpool team resembles those from Klopp’s early “heavy metal” phase at the club, albeit with a more powerful attack. The Reds have conceded 9 times from an xGA (Expected Goals Against) of 11.5.
Klopp isn’t going to reinvent the wheel at this stage of his career, so the Merseysiders are wedded to his 4-3-3 formation and the gegenpressing approach which has served them so well since he arrived. They will dominate possession today against Everton, having failed to do so only against the stronger sides they’ve faced. We know what to expect by now with the German boss, though one significant trick has been in his use of Alexander-Arnold, who sets up at right back, but comes into midfield when the team has possession. Unlike late last season when this was tried, he’s occupying a deeper playmaking role, rather than roaming forward. It’s an interesting tweak and one that’s worked well so far.
Mohamed Salah, a persistent target for Saudi Arabian clubs in the summer, has shown no signs of being unsettled by an approach for a huge fee which was rejected by Liverpool. He’s as dangerous as ever, scoring five league goals and providing four assists. At 31 he doesn’t press from the front with his old intensity, but he’s still at his peak in terms of being a threat to the opposition.
Other than Alisson and Andrew Robertson, new addition Szoboszlai is the only player to complete 90 minutes in all eight league matches to date, underlining the immediate impact he’s had and how quickly he’s settled to a new country and club. The former wonderkid has shown unexpected work rate and a great attitude to playing in Klopp’s system which I hadn’t anticipated from the skilful midfielder. The athletic Hungarian leads the side in ball recoveries, with 7.38 per 90.
Anfield has long been a graveyard for Everton’s hopes, so it’s a tough ask to expect much different from the current boss, Dyche and this team. The Reds appear to have put last season’s slump behind them and will likely be in contention at the top end of the table this term. Still, the Toffees are showing nascent signs of becoming the sort of outfit Dyche wants, now he’s had a transfer window and a fair bit of time under this belt at the club.
Coming off such a good display against Bournemouth, it would be surprising to see the visitors ring the changes from the team that ran out comfortable 3-0 winners at Goodison Park, though it is possible that the fit-again Idrissa Gueye - a late scratch from the side last time out - may come back in. The veteran is defensively very strong, and my feeling is Dyche will want to use him, though at whose expense is hard to fathom.
James Garner was instrumental in the centre and Jack Harrison, now looking close to being match fit will be a fixture on the right for the rest of the season, so it is unlikely the young midfielder will be shunted back out wide again. Thing is, Gueye’s replacement on the day - Amadou Onana - had a excellent game himself and gelled well with Garner and further forward, Abdoulaye Doucoure has arguably presented Everton’s primary goal threat since Dyche arrived, so for now it appears the Ghanaian will be the one to miss out.
I’m expecting an energetic defensive approach today, with the Blues playing without the ball for long stretches, but looking to jump on Liverpool whenever they get the chance to spring forward. Encouragingly, they’ve played well as the away side this term and there’s no reason this shouldn’t continue. The hosts are dangerous going forward, but leave plenty of gaps and Everton have the offensive tools to hurt them if given the opportunity.
This is undeniably a hard game for the Toffees, but they certainly have the capability to get a draw, even if a win appears a more distant, optimistic prospect. However, the Reds should have too much at home and the nearest comparator is their 3-1 win over the Hammers at Anfield last month.
Prediction: Liverpool 2 Everton 1