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Everton at Liverpool: Tactical Preview | When counter pressing becomes counter productive

Anfield will host the 243rd Merseyside Derby on Monday with both teams in need of a crucial victory

Everton FC v Liverpool FC - Premier League Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images

Monday’s Merseyside Derby could prove to be a watershed moment for either the blue or red half of Liverpool. Both teams have struggled mightily this season, but Everton have signs of life after Sean Dyche’s first game in charge saw an upset victory over league-leaders Arsenal at Goodison Park last weekend. Liverpool, on the other hand, look a side completely devoid of hope after limping to an embarrassing 3-0 defeat at Molineux last Saturday.

That made it four games without a win in the Premier League for the Reds, conceding nine goals while only scoring once on their way to three defeats and a draw during that stretch. Jurgen Klopp looked exasperated in his post-match press conference after the heavy defeat to Wolves, who were in the relegation zone beforehand, but he will need to fix many of the issues which have plagued his side over the last few matchweeks in order to overcome Dyche’s feisty side which has found new energy and confidence after emerging victorious from last week’s battle with the Gunners.

Winning at Anfield has been checked off of Sean Dyche’s managerial bucket list for a few years now, as his Burnley side ended Liverpool’s 68-match home unbeaten streak in January of 2021. In this Coaches’ Voice video, Dyche illustrated his exact approach to that game, and his tactics were in line with the traditional “Dyche-ball” principles which have already been implemented at Everton. The first of these is “Crunching the Pitch”. This is the practice of quickly moving the entire defensive structure towards the player with the ball when it is circulated to either side, effectively prioritizing the mitigation of easier combination passes rather than a much more difficult 50-yard diagonal switch, as shown in the graphic below.

Crunching the Pitch

Should a player like Alexander-Arnold or Andy Robertson hit that 50-yard switch to perfection, which is comfortably within their capabilities, this tactic then relies on the recovery speed of the team in order to swiftly crunch the opposite side and quell the attack. This is part of why Dyche-ball requires top-level fitness; a trait held by many of the players he has inherited at Everton. Alex Iwobi, Dwight McNeil, Amadou Onana, and Abdoulaye Doucoure immediately come to mind. The second principle he explains is “Protecting the V”, which is what Dyche estimates to be the most dangerous area of the pitch to defend. Despite being afforded just a few days to impart his strategies on the team prior to the clash with Arteta’s Arsenal, Dyche’s new-look Everton side protected the V extremely well throughout the 90 minutes, and Jordan Pickford was only forced to make two saves as a result.

Protecting the V

These two principles are core to Dyche’s footballing philosophy out of possession, but the way he will look to attack in possession will likely differ on Monday from what we’ve seen in the past. Both of the prior graphics show the 4-4-2 shape which has become synonymous with Dyche-ball, but the Toffees do not have the personnel to effectively employ that formation in possession at Anfield given recent team news. Contrary to what many expected pre-match, Dyche used a 4-5-1 against Arsenal which could still shift to a situational 4-4-2 out of possession whenever one of Doucoure, Onana, or Gueye pushed up towards an opposition midfielder or inverted fullback when they received the ball, as shown in the graphic below from Tifo IRL’s video “How Dyche Stopped Arsenal”.

Dyche tailored this tactic to work well against the Guardiola-inspired system that has served Arsenal so well this season, but Klopp’s system keeps the fullbacks much wider in possession than Arteta’s. Despite the fact that Liverpool will not try to create as many overloads in midfield nor as many attacks down the middle as Arsenal typically do, I still expect Dyche to stick with the 4-5-1 in possession due to the fact that Dominic Calvert-Lewin is now a major doubt for Monday due to discomfort in his hamstring, and with Simms and Maupay the only back-up striking options, Everton simply don’t have the roster to field two up-top when DCL is out. As a result, I expect Maupay to start amongst an otherwise unchanged Everton lineup in which either Onana or Doucoure will continue to push up and create situational 4-4-2’s in certain out-of-possession scenarios, as that structure remains Dyche’s preferred method of neutralizing the 4-3-3, but that pressing player won’t play as a striker when the Blues have the ball.

Although I expect Liverpool to have the vast majority of possession in this game, it is a common misconception that Dyche wants his team to park the bus. When the time is right, Dyche wants his team to engage in a higher press and look to force turnovers in dangerous positions, leading to dangerous chances. @TacticallyMatt on Twitter discussed this on his brilliant post-match tactics thread. Matt also discusses pressing triggers, or specific scenarios in which the team is instructed to press, such as goal-kicks or certain players receiving the ball. An example of a pressing trigger would be the aforementioned creation of a situational 4-4-2 when either Zinchenko or Partey received the ball last weekend. Check out the rest of Matt’s thread to learn more.

Set pieces will almost certainly play an important role in Everton’s goal threat, as without Calvert-Lewin, the Toffees will find it difficult to relieve pressure, get up the pitch, and create meaningful opportunities outside of dead-ball situations. Neal Maupay has shown his inability to be a like-for-like DCL replacement on many occasions this season, but I do not expect Dyche to fall into the same trap as his predecessor Lampard who so often stuck the Frenchman up top without changing the way his team looked to play despite having an entirely different profile of striker on the pitch. Executing Dyche’s previous attacking strategy will be very difficult without an aerially capable striker, and so the direct approach which worked so well for the Blues last weekend will likely see very limited success.

Rather, they must look to play passes through the Liverpool midfield which has been so porous over recent weeks. Having an overload of numbers in the center of the park should be even more of an exploitable advantage for Everton due to how weak Klopp’s side is in that area of the pitch. Liverpool fans and the media alike have been slating the performances of the Reds’ central midfielders as of late, and with Thiago Alcantara looking unlikely to participate on Monday due to a hip injury, those issues will only persist.

In their recent video “What The HELL Has Happened to Liverpool?”, Football Daily highlighted the significant difference in Liverpool’s Passes per Defensive Action (PPDA) stat from the 2020/21 (9.1) and 2021/22 (8.1) seasons to this season (10.8). These numbers show the diminishing effectiveness of Liverpool’s counter-press, which is when the team pushes up to quickly win the ball back after losing possession. Counter-pressing, coined as gegenpressing in Klopp’s native Germany, is the pillar of the system he has utilized during his tenure at Anfield, but it is now becoming counter-productive.

Wolverhampton Wanderers v Liverpool: Emirates FA Cup Third Round Replay Photo by James Gill - Danehouse/Getty Images

The PPDA metric shows that Liverpool’s counter-press has become significantly easier to play around this season, meaning that Klopp’s players are making themselves even more vulnerable in defense whenever they attempt to counter-press. Defensive injuries to Van Dijk and Konate as well as the many individual errors by the likes of Matip and Alexander-Arnold have only made this situation worse for the Reds.

However, despite these recent awful performances, Liverpool still undoubtedly possess far more quality across their squad than Everton do. Klopp will be praying for a vintage performance from Mohamed Salah who has so often terrorized the Toffees’ defense over the years. Cody Gakpo has struggled to make an impact during his short Liverpool career thus far, but we saw his quality shine through on the biggest stage during the World Cup just a few months ago. Darwin Nuñez proved to be a handful for the Everton backline during the reverse fixture in September at Goodison Park, and despite his continued under-performance in front of goal,

Coady and Tarkowski would be foolish to leave him space in the final third. Everton’s 34.4 xG conceded ranks 4th worst in the Premier League this season above only Leicester, Bournemouth, and Fulham, so I highly doubt that Jordan Pickford will keep a second consecutive clean sheet against Liverpool considering the Blues’ permeable defense and the quality of those who will be attacking it.

For this reason, I think the first goal will be of crucial importance. If Everton score first, they could easily hold on for a point or more. Should the Reds draw first blood though, Dyche’s side will find it very difficult to come back from behind given the system and lack of quality going forward.

Everton’s last win in front of fans at Anfield came back in 1999 when Kevin Campbell’s 4th-minute goal proved to be the winner. Of course, Carlo Ancelotti managed to end Everton’s 22-year winless run at Anfield in February of 2021 during the spectator-less lockdown season, but the Blues winning in front of a full Liverpudlian crowd is something we’ve never seen in my lifetime. I can truly see Monday’s game going either way, but I think the match will eventually end honors even. It should be a game of cat and mouse, with each team prodding at the glaring weaknesses of the other, but when the dust settles, I predict that both sides will walk away licking their wounds with just one point gained and a sour taste in their mouths.