Night and Day
Watching Everton comfortably handle a league-leading Arsenal side a little over a week ago, it was easy for success-starved Blues fans to get a little over-excited heading into the Merseyside Derby on Monday night. After all, the team’s cross-city rivals have been enduring (in relative terms, of course) an awful season and entered the game on a run of just one win in seven across all competitions, including two 3-0 humblings against Brighton & Hove Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers. What better time to secure a rare victory on enemy turf, than this? - was the thought shared by many Toffees fans.
Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way.
Sean Dyche had brought an instant turnaround in terms of organisation against the Gunners, but on the Anfield turf that cohesion was little in evidence. The shape was identical: the 4-5-1 formation that had proven so resolute, structured and effective at Goodison Park, but there all similarity ended. It was apparent from the opening moments that Everton were hesitant, uncertain. If Liverpool had any nerves coming in, considering how uneven their performances have been this season, they dissipated rapidly, the home side taking the initiative and dictating play.
Still, the Reds are not quite the force they have been in recent years and the visitors were hardly blown away, even if they were being generally outplayed. The Blues stayed in the game, without offering any significant threat to Jürgen Klopp’s outfit and if James Tarkowski’s header from Alex Iwobi’s corner in the 36th minute had found the back of the net, rather than glancing off the upright then the course of the match would possibly have been entirely different. Poor positional defending resulted in Liverpool’s breakaway goal and - just like that - the Toffees had conceded yet again from a counterattack, a league-leading (in a bad way) eighth of the campaign.
Sadly, shipping a goal in such a manner had become familiar under former boss Frank Lampard and whilst all teams will occasionally be caught in transition and punished, it was disappointing to see this happen in what was only Dyche’s second game in charge. Unfortunately, for Blues fans in attendance and those watching on TV, there was no real response to falling behind. A second goal shortly after the restart effectively killed the game off as a contest. Everton enjoyed more of the ball in the last half hour, as Klopp’s side sat back on their two-goal lead and looked to play on the counter. Although Everton managed to fashion a chance for substitute Tom Davies with ten minutes to go, that was an isolated incident; the visitors made no impression and the Reds were comfortable seeing the game out and actually squandered some decent chances to add to their tally.
Ignoring the hope engendered by Dyche’s positive start, this showing should have come as no surprise. Everton’s record on the road - going back to the start of last season - is appalling: just three league wins and eight draws, set against 19 losses. Away from Goodison, this side has no expectation of victory, no confidence from the outset, no resilience to a setback. The Blues being so shy of goals this season amplifies the latter point; fall behind and I don’t feel the players have any belief that they can come back, when deprived of the enthusiastic backing provided from their own fans. Home form will be everything to Everton going forward, as they battle to avoid the drop, but Dyche must find a way to turn the team’s away-game mentality around, in order to secure some vital points on the road.
The Flanks Exposed
If Everton’s fragile away mentality was exposed on Monday night, under the Anfield lights, then their structure and general game plan fared little better. The Blues trio of Idrissa Gueye, Amadou Onana and Abdoulaye Doucoure, so dominant against Arsenal and primed to overpower and outrun Liverpool’s midfield, did nothing of the sort. Klopp had clearly done a good job preparing for the visitors, for his side largely vacated the centre of the park, making no effort to play through the middle. Instead, the Reds went front to back with directness, targeting Everton’s fullbacks.
Seamus Coleman and Vitalii Mykolenko, so assured last time out, were exposed. Liverpool often isolated Coleman against the rapid Darwin Nunes and the veteran Irishman struggled badly. On the right flank, Mohammed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jordan Henderson formed a triangle time and again, exploiting Mykolenko’s weak positional defending with fluid movement, creating overloads. Cody Gakpo, operating centrally, proved highly effective leading the line, the Dutchman dropping off to link play and troubling the Everton defence with his mobility and work rate.
Liverpool constantly pressured and created overloads out wide, making the pitch big and popping the ball around. Iwobi and Dwight McNeil were rarely able to double up defensively with the Blues fullbacks. Fabinho and Stefan Bacjectic sat deep, too far off for Everton's midfield to press them effectively without leaving gaps for runners to exploit, moving in behind them from out wide. From this stable base, the ball was moved rapidly around from one flank to the other. Dyche was unable to make any adjustments in shape and the strongest part of his team had no impact on the game.
In the second half, Everton had to chase a result. The defensive line pushed up higher and the midfield were sent to press Liverpool. This failed spectacularly almost immediately following the restart, the hosts winning the ball near the touchline, two quick passes bypassing the opposition midfield’s counter-press, leading to Gakpo’s goal in the 49th minute. The same scenario happened a few more times subsequently and Everton were lucky not to have been punished further.
Not all teams have the technical ability, pace and quality that Liverpool possess, so it’s not that Dyche’s setup is fatally flawed. Any approach will be more vulnerable away than at home, as outlined above. That extra bit of confidence, players committing more forcefully and a half-step quicker can make all the difference. We’ll see an improvement on Saturday, against Leeds United, I am sure.
It’s tempting to throw the baby out with the bathwater and overreact to an isolated result, making wholesale judgement calls on players who have underperformed, changing the team lineup as a consequence. As I’ve suggested above, Everton’s efforts on the road are so off-kilter that they really do not inform what will likely happen in the next home game. Nobody in Blue played above mediocre on Monday and the whole team can’t be changed out. I hope and trust that Dyche will give the players that did so well two games ago another chance to show their quality at Goodison at the weekend.
The above being said, I’d sit Conor Coady in favour of Yerry Mina. Staying fit is the Colombian’s major problem, not his ability or consistency. Mina is the team’s best centre half and since Everton have been unable to move him and his high salary on - with his contract due to expire in the summer - it makes sense to use him. Coady initially added some personality and leadership to the backline after arriving on loan from Wolves, but he is a seriously flawed defender, particularly in a back four. Devoid of pace and agility, the 29-year old cannot defend in space, drops back instead of engaging and leaves too much work for his partner, Tarkowski to do. He was awful for Gakpo’s goal, playing the forward onside and failing to make the clearance.
Ellis Simms was surprisingly chosen to lead the line in Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s absence, presumably because it was thought he could best emulate the England man. He started the game reasonably well, winning a few aerial challenges, but was so isolated that Liverpool simply collected his flick-ons. Following a series of poor touches in the middle of the first period, he faded from the game. My take on Simms is that, despite his imposing size, he is not a target man. His hold-up play is not great, he lacks aggression in challenges and intensity in his pressing. It was a big ask for him to start in such a difficult game, considering his lack of top-flight experience and he did about as well as I’d anticipated, so deserves no criticism.
Stats provided courtesy of fbref.com, whoscored.com and fotmob.com