* Amongst the many canards in the English football lexicon is the idea of the “perfect away performance” – park the bus, soak up the pressure, and hope the opposition a mistake that allows you to nick a goal.
By taking a point despite having just 21% of the possession and three shots on goal, Sam Allardyce made that principle look more sensible practice than hoary old cliché.
In terms of territory, possession and shots, Liverpool were by far their old rival’s superior; yet Everton defended so superbly that it’s hard to argue they deserved more than the single goal they got via Mohamed Salah. Given Liverpool’s near-unimpeachable record over the past two months, that speaks volumes about the quality of Everton’s execution…at one end of the field, at least.
* With Liverpool back in European competition this year, some rotation was to be expected. Klopp has rested Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane against Chelsea; Salah, Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho against Stoke; Mane against Brighton; and Henderson against Spartak Moscow.
“We’re at the part of the season where you have to make the changes when you can make the changes,” said Klopp before the game.
True though that may be with another six league games to come between December 13th and January 1st – followed by another derby in the FA Cup and then the visit of Manchester City in the first two weeks of the near year – his lineup against Everton still raised eyebrows so far that I swear I saw Graeme Souness’s disappear over the top of his head and stop only upon reaching his shirt collar.
* Leaving out Firmino and Coutinho was a big, big shout from Klopp. Fans could quite reasonably ask: if the two Brazilians needed rest, why did Firmino stay on against Spartak until the 72nd minute, by which point Liverpool were already 5-0 up? And why did Coutinho stay on for the full 90 minutes, having completed his hat-trick after 50?
Everything about the circumstances around this game made Klopp’s changes a remarkable throw of the dice. Quite aside from being a derby, two of the other top big six had already dropped points (Chelsea and Arsenal), and at least one of the two Manchester sides was guaranteed to do likewise in the later kickoff. Taking such a gamble only served to make it even more vital that Klopp came away from Anfield with all three points, and all the more concerning that they didn’t.
* “We have a lot of English players on the pitch today so they know about it, for sure,” Klopp added in his pre-match interview, hinting that his selection may have been as much about getting Brits onto the pitch for the derby as it was about rotation.
Of the six Brits in Liverpool’s starting XI, only Jordan Henderson and Joe Gomez could really count themselves as first-team regulars. Dominic Solanke had just started just one of Liverpool’s 15 league games this season, Andrew Robertson three, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain three (for Liverpool), and James Milner six. On the bench were Trent Alexander-Arnold (five league starts) and Danny Ings, whose last Premier League appearance came in May 2016 and whose last start was as the goalscorer in the 1-1 draw at Goodison Park in October 2015 – Liverpool’s last game under Brendan Rodgers.
In the end, the battling quality that British players supposedly bring to the table in games like these was scarcely needed. This was the very antipathy of a 50-50, end-to-end game settled by passion and desire. It’s easy to say in hindsight given that Liverpool couldn’t afford to lose to Spartak, but one can only imagine Klopp wishes he had reversed the lineups for the two games.
* Everton’s game plan was apparent from the opening seconds, when they launched a ball over the top that went nowhere before setting up with two incredibly narrow banks of players to defend.
I’ll come onto that defensive plan in a moment, but first a word on the Everton attack, which played out like some grotesque parody of a Sam Allardyce dside. Although they had scored six goals in their last two league outings, Everton had just nine shots on target across those two games. They didn’t manage a single effort on the Liverpool goal until first half injury time. They managed just two more in the second half, one of which was Wayne Rooney’s penalty. That should paint as accurate a picture of Everton’s approach as you’ll ever need, even if that picture looks like one of Francis Bacon’s tortured, perpetually screaming mouths.
Every single Liverpool player – including Simon Mignolet – had at least as much time in possession as every single Everton outfielder. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had by far the most time on the ball of any Everton player, registering at least twice as many seconds in possession as any of his outfield teammates. As they launched long ball after long ball to nowhere in the first half, it could scarcely have been clearer that Everton were playing for 0-0.
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) December 10, 2017
* I’m wary of hammering Everton too much given the result and the execution of a sensible plan, but this was the 11th time in their 16 games this season that Everton have found themselves behind in a game – a record matched only by Stoke City and bottom club Crystal Palace. They may have come back to claim points on four of those occasions, but a side with Everton’s aspirations shouldn’t have to claw themselves back into games anywhere near as often.
Playing away from home against one of the best attacking forces in Europe, Allardyce’s extreme caution was was understandable, but despite getting the point he wanted here, he will have to cut that worrying trend out if Everton are to continue their rise.
* For all those attacking shortfalls, there was plenty in Everton’s defensive performance to give them heart against a team that who had scored 40 goals in their previous 11 games.
Knowing that Liverpool were unlikely to pump crosses into the box, and cognisant off the threat Liverpool’s inverted wingers Salah and Mane could pose, Allardyce’s defence aimed to put as many men as possible between the ball and the goal. That meant that Rooney and Oumar Niasse were doing the job you’d normally expect a full-back to do and closing down players out wide. The nominal full-backs, Jonjoe Kenny and Cuco Martina, only left the width of the six-yard box as a last resort. Criticise their lack of ambition all you like, but for 41 minutes, the plan worked.
Seven Everton outfielders inside the 18 yard box and within the width of the six yard box. They know Liverpool aren't going to be putting crosses in and are setting up to block shots instead. pic.twitter.com/rxl90wpzxk
— Steven Chicken (@StevenChicken) December 10, 2017
* The problem with that ploy is that there is no margin for error: if a winger is somehow able to draw the full-back out and then turn him, then the attacker is already in prime position to take a shot and the centre-backs are too far away to close him down.
That’s precisely how Liverpool finally found their way through. Rather than tracking back Gomez as an auxiliary left-winger, Niasse could be found hovering around the centre circle as the Liverpool right-back picked up the ball. That left Gylfi Sigurdsson to close down Gomez, meaning that when Gomez played in Salah, Martina had no choice but to step towards the in-form Egyptian. A bit of muscle got Salah past Martina and Idrissa Gueye, and an inch-perfect finish put Liverpool ahead.
* Sadio Mane should have doubled the lead five minutes later, but after bursting through the Everton rearguard from a woefully-defended throw-in from inside the Liverpool half, he dragged the ball well wide of the post with both Salah and Oxlade-Chamberlain screaming for the ball.
It encapsulated a frustrating first half for the Senegalese, who lost his footing when charging towards goal in the ninth minute. With Everton defending so deep, there was no opportunity for the winger to unleash his key strength: using his incredible pace to burst onto balls in behind the enemy lines. Everton’s injury time lapse was the only occasion in the entire first half that Mane was allowed to do that.
* It was strange, then, that Salah – easily Liverpool’s greatest attacking threat – was the first man off while Mane lasted the full 90 minutes.
When you’re up against men dug into their own trenches with machine guns, the pace and mobility of the cavalry is useless; what you need is crafty spies and devastating bombardiers. In other words, it was clear that the only way Liverpool were going to get a second was from either by passing through a resolute Everton defence, or from a set piece or long shot.
Coutinho represents Liverpool’s greatest threat on all those counts, yet he was ignored until after Everton drew level through Wayne Rooney’s 77th-minute penalty.
The attention may very well be on Klopp’s starting lineup, but it is for his substitutions that the German is more deserving of censure.
* If Everton’s game plan was “wait until a Liverpool player makes a mistake”, then one name will have immediately sprung to mind as the prime candidate. Sure enough, Dejan Lovren didn’t fail to disappoint.
Rooney’s ball through for Dominic Calvert-Lewin was exquisite, but with nobody up in support of the young forward, there was absolutely no need for Lovren to push him to the ground.
The frustration for Liverpool fans is that there is no longer any need to dwell on whether the Croatian is fit to play for a top four club with ambitions of mounting a title challenge over the next couple of seasons. Everything that needs to be said about Lovren has already been with such alarming regularity that it no longer bears repeating: he quite simply isn’t good enough.
* Though the game was so one-sided as to be an inadequate showcase for Everton’s youngsters, it will no doubt have been uplifting for many Everton fans to see Allardyce keep the faith in the kids that Ronald Koeman erred in overlooking for so long.
Jonjoe Kenny started only once for Koeman, in his final game in charge, but has played every minute of every league game since the Dutchman’s departure, looking largely impressive throughout; he was Everton’s best player here. Tom Davies started just three of nine games under Koeman, but has now started five of the last six. Salah’s goal was the only goal Everton have conceded since Mason Holgate was restored to the starting lineup for the 4-0 win against West Ham on 29th November.
When the senior players are given their chance and fail as miserably as Everton did in the first third of this season, the least you can do is give the kids a chance. That their upturn has coincided with that should leave Allardyce in no doubt that they represent his best chance of shooting Everton up the table.
* There was a bit of a silver lining for Liverpool in the return of Danny Ings, who had played 26 minutes of league football in the last 26 months thanks to a devastating knee ligament injury suffered in the aforementioned Merseyside derby in October 2015.
Whether Ings is likely to get many more minutes this season, or however clearly he may be surplus to requirements in a team where Daniel Sturridge can barely get a look in, is immaterial; it’s just always bloody lovely to see a player make their return after such an incredibly long layoff. Even if Ings never played for Liverpool again, he can be proud of the fortitude he has shown just to get back on the field.
* There is a debate about whether defensive walls are appropriate or necessary when up against a superb free kick taker. The case against them, advanced by the excellent goalkeeping expert David Preece amongst others, is that a good dead-ball specialist will be well capable of lifting the ball over the wall, and that if you’re relying on your outfielders to cover one side of the goal and put the goalkeeper on the other side, then he is unlikely to get across to the far post in time to make the save.
Pickford’s easy save from Coutinho in the 86th minute was an excellent case against that prosecution. The Everton goalkeeper effectively set up his wall as a bluff, begging Coutinho to pick the corner he had already decided he was going to shuttle across to anyway. That meant that despite the Brazilian finding his mark, Pickford was easily able to pluck it out of the air without even needing to dive.
With David Moyes now seemingly preferring Adrian to Joe Hart in the West Ham goal, the door is open for Pickford to claim the England number 1 shirt ahead of the World Cup, regardless of what Gareth Southgate may say to the contrary. To put himself in a position to save so easily from a tricky dead ball showed exactly the kind of maturity and intelligence that may convince the England manager that the 23-year-old is ready to be first choice in Russia.
* After such a nightmare start to the season, Everton’s fixtures for the rest of 2017 make for pleasant reading for Toffees fans. Chelsea visit on 23rd December, but other than that they face the teams currently sitting in 16th (Newcastle), 19th (Swansea), 17th (West Brom) and 14th (Bournemouth). Taking each of their last five games league together, that quartet has claimed just two wins from 20 games, and one of those was in a game between two of the four sides (Swansea’s win against West Brom on Saturday). Allardyce may very well end the year closer to the top four than the relegation zone.
* Oddly enough, Liverpool also take on three of those four before the year is out, and it will be on the basis of those results that Klopp’s selection gamble will ultimately be judged.
The issue is not so much the rotation in itself – Liverpool’s 59 lineup changes between league games is by far the most in the Premier League, with West Ham and Everton joint-second with 39 each – but that doing it in a game of such importance to the city and to the fans is a potentially destabilising manoeuvre.
If Liverpool can win against West Brom, Bournemouth and Swansea, avoid defeat against both Arsenal and Leicester, and emerge in 2018 with 11 more points and an injury-free squad, then this result will probably be forgiven. If not, then questions will understandably be asked about Klopp’s tinkering, Champions League last 16 or not.