Just nine days on from what can be prematurely referred to as “The Sean Dyche Era” blasted off at Goodison, the new boss and his reinvigorated team travel across Stanley Park to face off against local rivals Liverpool at Everton’s old ground. It’s fair to say that the mood has lifted somewhat from the dog days of Frank Lampard’s days in charge, when it was tough to see where the next result would come from.
Without indulging in hyperbole, the difference in performance levels and organisation, compared to what fans had been witnessing for an awful lot of Lampard's tenure, was stark, nothing short of transformational, really. That this came against Arsenal, league leaders and a team with a record of 16 wins, two draws and just one loss coming into the match offers testament to the motivational and tactical coaching skills of Dyche and his staff.
This was not a smash-and-grab type of result, a grind or a fluke. It was built on a foundation that should offer a springboard for repeatable performances.
So it is that the Blues arrive at Anfield tonight to face off against Jürgen Klopp’s surprisingly vulnerable Liverpool side.
Entering the eighth season of what has been a highly successful period at the helm of the Merseyside club, one which has seen them emerge as primary challenger to the dominance of North West rivals Manchester City, everything appeared to be going as expected for Klopp. After all, Liverpool had just come off a campaign in which they played every game possible, in with a chance of winning all four competitions, ultimately falling short in the Champions League final and the Premier League on the final day, though securing both domestic cups.
The Reds seemed their usual well-oiled machine, intense, aggressive, full of goals and self-belief. OK, they had failed to beat Real Madrid in Paris, despite entering the game as favourites and largely dominating much of the final and had seen the league snatched away when it looked like City may stumble at the final hurdle, but they appeared well positioned for another push at glory. A 3-1 win over City in the Community Shield seemed to confirm that it would be these two teams battling it out for the big prizes again this season.
But after that showpiece “kind of” friendly was over, the cracks begun to emerge straightaway. Winless in their opening three league games, a 9-0 obliteration of Scott Parker’s hapless Bournemouth followed by a 2-1 home win over Newcastle United helped settle nerves somewhat, even if the latter game saw Alexander Isak’s second goal fortuitously chalked off for offside and a last-gasp winner scored deep in extra time. However, the slump reasserted itself, the Reds looking toothless in a goalless draw at Goodison Park and then embarrassed 4-1 in Europe against current runaway Serie A leaders, Napoli.
Klopp’s outfit shipped three goals in a home draw against Brighton & Hove Albion, but did pick things up a little heading towards the break for the World Cup, winning nine of their next 12 matches across all competitions, despite poor defeats to the likes of Leeds United at Anfield and Nottingham Forest. Following the resumption of the league campaign, they kicked off with two wins, before entering the current slump, consisting of just a lone victory in seven outings and lasting for more than a month. During this spell they’ve faced Wolverhampton Wanderers three times, benefitting greatly from some appalling officiating to salvage a 2-2 home draw in the FA Cup, winning the replay against a surprisingly lacklustre opponent at Molineux, before being badly beaten last time out.
The Reds sit in 10th spot in the table currently, though with games in hand.
Style of Play
Klopp’s approach to football is well-established by now, being one of high intensity and on the front foot. He loves his 4-3-3 formation, though has deviated away from this at times as he’s searched to get his side going. The German is one of the most famous exponents of gegenpressing or “counter-pressing”, which is to pressure the opposition immediately after losing the ball, with the aim being to create turnovers - ideally in dangerous positions - which can then be exploited by rapid, decisive attacks. It’s fair to say this has brought him a great deal of success, both in the Bundesliga with Dortmund and at Liverpool.
Quite why Klopps’ tactical setup has failed this season is down to structural deficiencies and personnel problems. First off, the system requires energy - and this means players with athletic qualities at the peak of their physical powers. Of the eleven Liverpool outfield players to play over 900 minutes this season, five are aged over 30 and two more in their late twenties. Counter-pressing requires a lot of intensity to work properly and the team looks a yard slow. Whether this is simply due to ageing, or the after-effects of a long, punishing season in 2021-22 is a moot point.
Without an intense press, Liverpool’s high defensive line is exploitable, particularly behind their aggressive full-backs and on the counterattack. They’ve conceded five times to fast breaks this term, behind only Frank Lampard’s Everton. The side looks comparatively unathletic in the centre of the park and not well-suited to the style of play Klopp demands. Liverpool have needed to revitalise their engine room for some time, but once again failed to do so during last summer. Instead, their big signings were in forward areas, replacing Sadio Mane and in January in order to cover for in juries to the likes of Luis Diaz and Diogo Jota.
The best they’ve looked was back in October, when they managed only 37 percent possession against City, but managed a 1-0 win, holding the defending champions to an xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) of 1.0. In that match, they invited Pep Guardiola’s side onto them and didn’t attempt such intense counter-pressing and it worked well. But they’ve reverted to type since and surely will continue in that vein against a relatively Everton at home.
€80m man Darwin Nunez has shown flashed of the threat he offers, with his pace and direct style of running off the shoulder of the last defender. However, five league goals from an xG (Expected Goals) of 8.1 is quite a big underperformance and demonstrates that the Uruguayan has not yet stepped up as anticipated. The 23-year old has just one goal in his last eleven appearances (nine starts). Playing with a more conventional number nine, as opposed to Roberto Firmino has exacerbated problems in Liverpool’s midfield.
Mohamed Salah is way down on his usual numbers, only hitting the back of the net seven times in the league from an xG of 9.2. Part of this is probably due to a shift in the way Liverpool’s front three have been set up this season. With Nunez staying high and central, there is less space for the Egyptian to drift into onto his left foot and consequently he’s been deployed much wider than has been the case throughout his time at Anfield.
Guarding the net, Alisson continues to prove himself as one of the world’s best. The Brazil number one has conceded 28 league goals, but is outperforming PSxG (Post-shot Expected Goals) which stands at 33.8 and has a save percentage of 72.0. Alarmingly, he’s already faced 93 shots on target from 20 games, just six shy of last season’s total, which shows how exposed he’s been this term.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has seen his chance creation numbers fall off a cliff this campaign. The full back racked up 53 assists over the previous four seasons but sits at only one so far this term. Partly this is down to poor finishing up front, as his xGA (Expected Goals Assisted) is 4.3, but even so the dip is considerable. Although the academy graduate has faced criticism for his defending - unfairly, considering this has been part of a generalised systemic breakdown - he is spending more time operating as an inverted fullback, moving into midfield and the team has accordingly lost a lot of his crossing threat from out wide.
A lot of what Everton can do tonight will depend on if Dominic Calvert-Lewin is able to take to the pitch. Going front-to-back directly, which is what Dyche wants to do, is heavily reliant on the striker’s size and athleticism and there was a noticeable drop-off when Neal Maupay came on for him in the last half hour against Arsenal. Assuming the forward’s troublesome hamstring rules him out, the boss will have to choose between Maupay, who lacks the height to compete aerially and Ellis Simms, who has no top-flight experience and who, despite his size is not a conventional target man.
Unless Simms has responded to Dyche’s coaching in a remarkably short time and is ready to battle up top as a lone frontman, I see Maupay being given the start, with a brief to drop into midfield in order to link up with forward runners. Alternatively, for a pure counterattacking game plan, Demarai Gray could be used, with a licence to roam around and look for spaces in behind to use his pace. Neither are ideal solutions.
Regardless, the manager has to stick with the team and formation that played so well in his debut. This game could be won or lost in midfield and I highly favour Everton’s central trio of Amadou Onana, Abdoulaye Doucoure and Idrissa Gueye to outrun and physically overpower whoever Liverpool line up with.
Everton’s plan will likely be the same as against the Gunners, attempting to win the ball in midfield in order to spring attacks, with Onana and Doucoure carrying the ball forward and Alex Iwobi and Dwight McNeil offering support out wide. Set-pieces will be important, though the hosts don’t appear overly vulnerable in this regard. The Blues problems in attacking areas are well-documented but the Reds are looking particularly vulnerable at the moment, so there could be more goals in this than anticipated.
Prediction: Liverpool 1 Everton 2
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, transfermarkt.co.uk and whoscored.com