Having finished above Liverpool last season and started the season superbly, Everton may have gone into the game feeling confident they could come away with a win, particularly with two of their rival’s defence out injured, but then things are never that simple in the Merseyside derby. The clichÃ© of form going out of the window when a derby comes around has been particularly true in the Merseyside derby for the last few seasons – Everton capitulating when they come up against Liverpool regardless of their form. If David Moyes wanted to show his team was genuinely making progress this year, an improvement against their neighbours would be a good way to show it.
Both teams lined up in broadly the same shape – Everton in a 4-4-1-1 and Liverpool in a 4-2-1-3 – and used similar defensive tactics by sitting back but pressing on a man-to-man basis. It’s this sort of defending that has resulted in the aggressive, red card-ridden derbies of recent years and, although both teams avoided any sending offs, the same could be said of today’s game – niggling challenges a constant throughout the game. The other factor that comes from this style of defending is that the stop-start acceleration of defenders having to rush out to meet their opponent makes it easy to turn them, so, if that attacker passes the defender, they either have time and space or force a defender cover so someone else does. This was noticeable in Liverpool’s opening goal, where Jose Enrique evaded Seamus Coleman’s challenge to cross.
A set-piece goal helped by some poor defending gave Liverpool a two goal lead without, some good passing moves at the start aside, really doing anything. Not that Everton had done much either. With Glen Johnson injured, they opted to target Jose Enrique at the start fo the game – Marouane Fellaini drifting right to fight him in the air and Seamus Coleman was picked ahead of Tony Hibbert to pose a bigger attacking threat, while Steven Naismith would make himself difficult to track by coming inside whenever Steven Gerrard ran forward to press one of Everton’s players. He started well, however – his physicality has never been a problem so an unfit Fellaini didn’t pose him too many problems and his pace was mainly able to cover up when he got turned, although this did pose some porblems.
It was when they shifted their attention to Andre Wisdom that Everton started to make some headway. The 19 year-old looked out of his depth, getting constantly twisted by the excellent Kevin Mirallas and receiving little support from the lightweight Raheem Sterling, who did little to stop Leighton Baines’ charges forward. Given Everton are typically stronger down the left it remains odd that they weren’t targetting Liverpool’s teenage right flank from the start, but it was from here that they got their equalising goal – a cross deflecting into Fellaini’s path so he could pick out a horrifically marked Naismith.
By the time half time came, Liverpool had totally lost their footing in the game. Everton had started to press higher up the pitch from about the 30 minute mark, having found out that they could force Liverpool to pass it back to their goalkeeper. Usually this wouldn’t be an issue, as Pepe Reina would simply loft a pass into the gaps they left, but Brad Jones is less comfortable with his feet and would simply punt it forward for Everton to win in the air. If he managed to get it out into the full-back areas, they could make a dangerous curved pass in behind the Everton defence, but these moments were few and far between. The result was that Liverpool couldn’t keep the ball – the main gameplan of Brendan Rodgers – which left the likes of Nuri Sahin and Suso Fernandez anonymous.
Rodgers responded by substituting the pair for Jonjo Shelvey and Sebastian Coates, changing to a 3-5-2. The extra defender gave the full-backs more defensive cover and Shelvey added more bite to the midfield (crucially however he didn’t go over the top as he most notably did against Man United), while Sterling joined Luis Suarez up front. The only real issue was that it made it easier for Everton to overload the full-backs, ensuring they focussed even more on the flanks than in the first half. This had its benefits for Liverpool though: Baines and Coleman’s ventures forward left Phil Jagielka and Sylvain Distin alone against the mobile pairing of Suarez and Sterling, meaning any quick balls forward were troublesome for the defenders.
Eventually Jordan Henderson replaced Wisdom at right-back and found it a much easier job, effectively killing off the game until the injury time goal from Suarez. Fortunately for Everton, the goal was incorrectly ruled out, yet it doesn’t change the fact their defence was gifting an awful Liverpool side cheap chances.
Everton had the better of the game and yet they still came out quite fortunate not to lose. Nevertheless, the result and performance marks an improvement on previous seasons that will suit Everton. What Liverpool gain from the match is less obvious. The youngsters all struggled, suggesting they may not be ready to shoulder so much responsibility, yet they have all impressed in their other appearances and will rarely have to face the atmosphere of a derby. Everton stopped them from playing their own game, but Jones is unlikely to start long-term over Reina, who would completely change Liverpool’s ability to build from the back. The only real thing for Rodgers to take from the game is that the switch to 3-5-2 was moderately successful, giving him a safe extra option should he need it.