For quite some time, Everton appear to have had a mental blockage when it came to the Merseyside derby. No matter the two teams’ form coming into the game, Everton had a habit of folding when they met their local rivals – their sole win over Liverpool in the last decade coming when Roy Hodgson was in charge of the Reds.
With Liverpool currently unbeaten and Everton teetering uncomfortably above relegation, that record didn’t look like changing as the teams kicked off their busy December periods. Liverpool made numerous changes to the team that beat Brighton, bringing in Adrian, James Milner, Adam Lallana, Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri in a 4-2-3-1 formation that hasn’t been seen since last season, whereas Marco Silva set up his team in a 3-4-3 shape.
Everton started the game defending as they meant to go on, sitting back in a 5-4-1 shape albeit with a high defensive line. Dominic Calvert-Lewin would generally stay close to Georginio Wijnaldum, only pressing the centre-backs when Alex Iwobi would push up alongside him to stop the pass to the other one.
Everton’s midfield moved up close behind Calvert-Lewin though, getting tight to the midfielders and full-backs if they pushed forward to ensure Liverpool couldn’t easily play into the midfield. The backline also followed the Liverpool attackers high up the pitch to ensure they couldn’t come short and pick up the ball behind the high midfield. This meant that if Liverpool tried to play short into midfield, Everton would immediately get on top of them. They won the ball back a few times in Liverpool’s half because of this – the counter-attack for Liverpool’s first goal stems from Gylfi Sigurdsson robbing Wijnaldum just inside the Liverpool half and Everton breaking forward – but more often than not Liverpool chose to simply hit the ball straight over the top of Everton.
Liverpool’s centre-backs had all the time and space they needed to pick out their passes and a massive area to aim for because Everton’s defensive line pushed up. Add in the fact that Liverpool’s forwards could beat Everton’s defenders in a foot race without breaking a sweat and Liverpool could create chances at will.
Nevertheless, the first two goals came from counter-attacks rather than these long balls, although they share common features: too much time afforded to deep Liverpool players and too much space in behind Everton’s backline. Both goals saw Everton push men ahead of the ball and then have no one to compete for the second ball once Liverpool cut out the initial attack. Lallana for the first and Trent Alexander-Arnold for the second picked up uncontested balls on the edge of their box and, under no pressure, picked out Sadio Mane on the left flank to get the Senegalese running at a panicking Everton backline.
For the first, Mane played an inch-perfect through ball for Origi to finish and, for the second, he made a fool of Djibril Sidibe before playing in Shaqiri. Liverpool possess such attacking quality that the only way for them not to pose a counter-attacking threat is for the opposition not to attack, yet there are things that can be done to at least make it difficult for them, such as not giving whoever wins the loose ball as much time as they like to pick out a pass to those very dangerous attackers.
Michael Keane pulled one back for Everton with an excellent dinked finish worthy of a striker as Liverpool repeatedly failed to get rid of a corner, however Liverpool soon got a third. Lovren had the time to pick out a superb pass over the top which Origi brought down and finished with somehow even better touches.
In response to this, Silva made a substitution, Bernard replacing Sidibe. Changing to a 4-4-2, Richarlison moved central alongside Calvert-Lewin and the pair started pressing Liverpool’s centre-backs more effectively.
Everton’s attacks had largely been long balls towards Calvert-Lewin. When he was released early enough, he looked a threat, but he was largely struggling to do much with little support. This got better after the switch to 4-4-2: Everton could play forward to Calvert-Lewin, he could play the ball backwards to Sigurdsson and the Icelandic playmaker could pick out a run ahead of him.
Liverpool extended their lead before half-time with another counter-attack. This time Iwobi was on hand to challenge for the second ball following a corner, yet it still didn’t stop the counter. Mane flicked the ball past him, played ahead to Alexander-Arnold and continued his run forward to finish a one-two with a left-footed shot past Jordan Pickford.
Everton immediately pulled another back though. Alexander-Arnold sloppily gave the ball away then, as Sigurdsson looked to play in Bernard running behind him, stopped his run back into defence for a second, giving the Brazilian an extra bit of time with the ball. Alexander-Arnold immediately restarted his run and quickly made up the lost ground, however Bernard managed to pick out a great cross for his compatriot Richarlison to head home. Alexander-Arnold was great going forward but this was far from his greatest defensive performance, and this slow retreat back in line with the rest of the defence is a semi-frequent bug in his game – one of the main tells that he used to be a midfielder.
For all the excitement of the first half, the second was much calmer. Everton went chasing after the ball but Liverpool mainly looked to just keep hold of possession and toy with Everton, dropping back into a 4-5-1 shape when they lost it. The Blues worked hard yet never really looked like getting back into the game, and Mane spurned several chances to put them down for good. Substitute Roberto Firmino skinned Mason Holgate to set up Wijnaldum for a fifth as the game entered stoppage time, but Everton had already accepted their fate – their midfielders barely tracking back as Liverpool attacked.
The individual brilliance displayed in each of Liverpool’s goals might suggest that Liverpool were simply too good for Everton, but they were all pretty simple goals made possible by their rival’s incompetence. Playing a high line without any pressure on the ball is asking for trouble even against lesser sides than Liverpool. One of the most damning indictments of Silva’s set up is that several of his players came out of this game actually looking quite good individually despite being on the receiving end of a thrashing by a weakened team.