* Just as the gap looked to be closing, just as Merseyside was preparing to replace its red coat of paint with a royal blue, just as the roles were promising to be reversed, normality is restored. Everton had the chance to close the gap to three points on their bitter rivals, but Liverpool now sit nine points above their neighbours.
There is nothing quite as effective as a Merseyside derby to assert one’s superiority over the other. Everton started the week being referred to as the best Premier League team of 2017 and outsiders for Champions League qualification, but the red corner delivered a knockout blow to the blue corner. The predicted overthrow of power in the region is still some way off.
* With Dejan Lovren chosen alongside central-defensive partner Joel Matip, and both Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino starting despite midweek fears, Liverpool’s only problem area was in their midfield three.
Jordan Henderson’s absence since February has certainly been noticeable, but Liverpool have managed to cope without their captain. The impact and importance of Adam Lallana in Jurgen Klopp’s system is rather harder to replicate, and would be tested to its limits at Anfield.
Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum were the obvious selections, but the identity of the third midfielder was a point of contention. Lucas Leiva was entrusted with the role, and the Brazilian proved his worth once more with a fine performance. But was Klopp at all tempted to start Marko Grujic?
Would've given Grujic or Woodburn a run out instead of Klavan to be honest. Lucas and Lovren have been surprisingly brilliant today.
— LFC Fans Corner (@LFCFansCorner) April 1, 2017
It must have at least crossed his mind. Klopp described the Serbian as a “wonderful” player in September, and injuries alone have restricted his game time and development this season. The fit-again Serbian was named on the bench. Given the choice between experience and a player more suited to the requirement physically but not necessarily mentally, Klopp opted for the former. His managerial rival would choose the latter option, and it would cost him.
* Ronald Koeman described it as “one of the worst” international breaks of his managerial career, and there is little wonder why. The horrific injury suffered by Seamus Coleman was compounded with news that Ramiro Funes Mori and James McCarthy would be sidelined. This squad would be stretched to its limits.
The manager’s response was to name a starting line-up featuring four players who started the season in the Under 23s. Matthew Pennington, Mason Holgate and Tom Davies would all make their first appearances in a Merseyside derby. That trio, along with Dominic Calvert-Lewin, had just 34 career Premier League games between them.
With Gareth Barry on the bench, this was a youthful Everton side, even with Phil Jagielka at the heart of defence. Koeman, criticised for not affording younger players enough opportunities at Southampton, is certainly proving his point. But an important game at Anfield is perhaps not the best time to field your youngest, most inexperienced starting line-up of the season.
* The game started as predicted. Just 23 seconds had passed before Ross Barkley launched himself into the first questionable tackle of the day. The whistle of referee Anthony Taylor put in the biggest shift of the afternoon.
Not that Taylor warrants sympathy for having to oversee a fixture full of late challenges, snide stamps and flagrant disregard for the rules. The referee had an opportunity to set a marker for the players, to assert his own authority on the game in the first minute. He failed to do so, and thereby lost control.
Refereeing a derby such as this must be difficult, and for that reason it is always tough to criticise the officials. These games are often painted as battles between two warring factions, where players are not only expected to ‘leave one’ on their opponents, they are fully encouraged to do so. It is a thankless task to manage that sort of environment.
Anthony Taylor is refereeing the 'letting it flow' narrative instead of the actual game.
— Glenn Price (@GlennPrice94) April 1, 2017
But that is what Taylor is there to do, and he failed. From the moment he did not punish two poor and mistimed Barkley tackles in the opening five minutes, he could hardly show Nathaniel Clyne a regulation yellow card for preventing an Everton counter and pulling the shirt of Leighton Baines. Barkley could have been sent off at least once, Ashley Williams’ stamp on Emre Can went unpunished, as did the German’s on Barkley, and both sets of players, fans and managers felt aggrieved on a number of occasions.
The excuse afforded to referees is often that they want to ‘allow the game to flow’, but Taylor’s reluctance to set a precedent for the players to follow threatened to harm the spectacle more than anything. Just uphold the rules next time.
* Neither Liverpool nor Everton started the game in particularly confident fashion, but one moment of inspiration would soon change that. Sadio Mane cost the Reds £34million in the summer, but the Senegalese has emerged as one of the bargain signings of the season. His energy, drive and determination embodies this most potent of attacks.
Eight minutes had passed when he robbed Everton of possession in their own half. He played a one-two with Roberto Firmino, ran at the defence, and placed an excellent shot beyond Joel Robles from a tight angle.
It was Liverpool at their finest. Everton were caught off guard by Mane’s pressing, while Firmino dropped deep to assist his teammate. Philippe Coutinho’s clever run then opened up the space for Mane to strike. The telepathic understanding of the front three belongs in the Champions League, and it might well get them there.
* Everton failed to heed the warning. Liverpool’s game plan revolved around one man, and he was not one of the individuals in a red shirt. Pennington, making only his fifth Premier League appearance, was the target.
Twenty minutes had passed when the hosts, very much in the ascendancy, broke down the left-hand side. Coutinho was released, and had a free run at Pennington. The 22-year-old’s legs were tangled in an almost cartoon-like fashion as Coutinho weaved in and out, running, as Mane had minutes prior, with pace and directness. Everton could not cope.
Coutinho cut inside with ease before testing Joel Robles, who was equal to the effort. But Koeman must be questioned as to why, when it became obvious early on that Pennington could not cope defensively, he did not look to change the formation or the personnel. Pennington was the red rag to a bullish Liverpool attack, and the manager continued to offer him no protection.
* But this is Liverpool, and no team is more adept at aiming a gun at their own feet when in a position of dominance. Calvert-Lewin soon won a corner after positive work down the left, and the home fans waited with bated breath.
A few minutes earlier, Jagielka had spurned a goalscoring opportunity when he headed over after racing to the near post from a corner. Liverpool failed to heed the warning. The defender stole a march on the statuesque Can, headed the ball down into the penalty area, and Pennington atoned for his earlier mistakes by tapping home in front of the Kop.
Klopp has identified a fine central-defensive partnership in Lovren and Matip, who are now undefeated in 11 Premier League games when starting together. But his side continues to struggle with the basics at times.
“I was an under-average player, but if I was good at something it was defending set-plays,” said Klopp in January 2016. “It’s not that difficult.” And yet it continues to prove one of Liverpool’s biggest problems more than one year later. Be it through employing a different defensive coach, deploying a different system or purchasing a new player, the manager absolutely has to rectify it in the summer. There are no excuses.
* Parity would last just 177 seconds. Coutinho received the ball, evaded the attentions of Idrissa Gueye, left Pennington with no hope once more, and curled the ball beyond Joel Robles.
The Brazilian was a delight to watch throughout, and this will hopefully herald a return to form after three difficult months. In 13 games since returning from an injury suffered in November, he had just one goal and one assist. He matched that return in 74 dazzling minutes at Anfield, having scored for Brazil in midweek. His confidence had returned in abundance, and this was crucial, morale-boosting progress after an alarming regression.
* It was difficult not to compare Coutinho’s game-changing performance to that of his spiritual opposite number. Liverpool’s No 10 created three goalscoring chances and completed six dribbles. He was a class above every player, but a few school years separated him and Barkley.
His two early tackles have been discussed, but his third foul was the worst by far. A poor touch allowed Lovren to dispossess him fairly just as Everton threatened the counter, and Barkley’s response was to plant his studs halfway up the defender’s shin. Taylor’s first-half performance reached a crescendo as he brandished only a yellow card.
Coutinho embarrassing Barkley pic.twitter.com/F4tz41t2o2
— ️️️️️️ (@NoGrujicNoParty) April 1, 2017
Barkley’s recent improvements under Koeman should not be forgotten, but after a week in which his lack of playing time for England was roundly questioned, this was hardly a compelling argument. He was sloppy in possession, dangerous in the tackle, and harmed more Everton attacks than he helped.
At 23, Barkley is entering the stage of his career where he can no longer performances littered with such naive, reckless, immature mistakes. A pass completion rate of 65.2% is shoddy, while no player was dispossessed on more occasions (6). His game has developed for the better under Koeman, but there is considerably more work to do.
* Having spent some of Friday evening mockingly referencing Martin O’Neill’s description of him as a “master tactician”, Koeman chose perhaps the worst game to get his approach wrong.
The Dutchman’s hand was admittedly forced by a succession of injuries to his squad. Everton were undefeated in the previous six Premier League games in which they started with three at the back, and so the manager trusted the same system at Anfield.
It was a mistake. Koeman played into Liverpool’s strengths, as Holgate and Baines failed to offer enough protection in defence, and were ineffective going forward. That left Everton’s defence stretched and overrun against the Premier League’s top goalscorers.
Even Gueye and Davies, impressive as they have been this season, struggled to make an impact, and were bypassed a number of times. Few occasions call for the talents of Gareth Barry, but his presence would have helped cancel out Liverpool’s three-man midfield, or at least level the numbers up.
In the first half in particular, neither Gueye nor Davies had the time or the space to drive forward or find a killer pass. They were completely overloaded. That no Everton player completed more take-ons than Simon Mignolet in the first half is damning.
By the time Koeman changed his formation, it was far too late. Liverpool had scored a third before Barry, Enner Valencia and a four-man defence were introduced with 23 minutes remaining. The Everton boss lost this tactical battle more than his Liverpool counterpart won it.
* “When I saw him in the dressing room, it didn’t look like he’ll be ready for Wednesday,” was Klopp’s early diagnosis after the game, Mane having been substituted before the hour mark. A collision with Baines left him hobbling away with a knee injury.
However long Mane’s absence proves to be, Divock Origi wasted little time in staking his claim for the 24-year-old’s spot. Within three minutes of his introduction as a substitute, Coutinho found the Belgian who struck with a lovely finish from outside the area.
Origi’s career at Anfield has been painfully stop-start, and while he does not possess the same talent as Mane, he has enough to help fill that void. His previous Premier League goals this season all came in four consecutive games during Coutinho’s time on the sidelines. Even if Daniel Sturridge returns ahead of Wednesday’s clash with Bournemouth, Klopp might still trust Origi with the responsibility.
* Each Liverpool goal followed the same pattern: Possession was won in Everton’s half, one of three forwards left the defence backtracking with a pacy, direct run, and the ball would nestle in Joel Robles’ goal, the keeper rooted to the spot every time.
Robles’ reluctance to dirty his kit by not even making an attempt to save any of the three goals must have been infuriating for Everton fans. His own positioning was his worst enemy on each occasion, and Liverpool’s forwards took full advantage.
It's a weakness in Robles we've picked up on before. Panics, rushes forward, never gets set and gives himself little chance of a save.
— David Preece (@davidpreece12) April 1, 2017
Maarten Stekelenburg arrived in the summer, but a 34-year-old keeper signed from Fulham is rarely the answer to any question outside of an Edwin van der Sar convention. Koeman and the fans both recognised the need to sign a top-class goalkeeper when he was appointed, and that must be the priority again at the end of the season.
* Lucas Leiva will never command complete adoration from Liverpool fans, and he might yet still leave the club in the summer when his contract expires. But the Brazilian does have a timely knack of performing when he is least expected to.
Perhaps his best game of the season came when many expected Harry Kane and his Tottenham teammates to expose his fallibility at centre-half in February, but no player was more responsible for Liverpool’s clean sheet in that 2-0 win than Lucas.
On Saturday, he would make only his fourth start as a central midfielder this season, the latest of which was in the 2-1 defeat to Wolves in January. His last Premier League start in midfield came on April 20, 2016. The opponents on that day, of course, were Everton.
Yet, despite being deployed more often as a centre-half this season, Lucas was quietly excellent. His nine tackles were the most of any player, while he also made three interceptions and three clearances.
The 30-year-old is no longer of the required standard to be a regular starter, but his versatility and experience is a valuable asset to this squad. Klopp could do far worse than handing him a contract extension.
* Peter Reid spent much of the build-up to this game demanding a performance from one Romelu Lukaku. The former Everton midfielder wanted to see the Belgian “do it against the big boys”.
Lukaku, of course, has scored five goals against Liverpool, five against Manchester City, and two against both Arsenal and Chelsea during his nascent career. His hat-trick against Manchester United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game should not be forgotten either.
The Belgian struggled here however. He had 30 touches, fewer than both goalkeepers, and could not register a single shot on goal. Jamie Redknapp was one of many to question how this was a player commanding a fee upwards of £70million, and looking to leave his club in search of Champions League football.
Granted, Lukaku was poor at Anfield. Much of that was down to Lovren and Lucas doubling up on him, and the Everton midfield and forwards offering very little support. The Belgian is not the perfect striker at 23 years of age.
Yet those criticising him, scoffing at his reluctance to stay at a club who cannot offer the highest level of competition possible, really are missing the point. Lukaku is the top-flight top scorer with 21 goals. Everton’s next highest scorer has four. Lukaku has 81 goals in 178 Premier League appearances. This was one poor game out of 38 in a season.
Of the many tags attributed to the Everton striker, ‘flat-track bully’ is the most common. The same phrase has been used to describe Sergio Aguero, Luis Suarez and many, many more. Perhaps just appreciate his obvious talents?
* Jamie Carragher positively revelled in delivering the missive that Everton have a “mental block” in games against more illustrious opponents, but the former Liverpool defender struck the nail on the head. The Toffees have still not won at Anfield since 1999, and have not won any of the last 14 Merseyside derbies, including defeats in the last three.
The billionaire investment of Farhad Moshiri will help, as will plans for a new stadium and the perks that come with it. Koeman will be afforded plenty of patience during this project, but there is a considerable amount of work to do for the Toffees to ever be considered as part of the elite. This season has been one of undeniable progress, yet they are still likely to finish it closer on points to West Brom than to any of the top six.
* And so Liverpool enter the home straight in as good a position as they could have hoped after their New Year collapse. The highest-placed side they have yet to face is West Brom, and they face more sides stranded in mid-table with little to play for than they do sides battling relegation.
The gap to Everton in seventh is nine points. The gap to Arsenal in sixth is the same, albeit the Gunners have three games in hand. The gap to Manchester United in fifth is six points with two games in hand. They have a two-point cushion on Manchester City, who also have two games in hand. But crucially, many of their opponents for a top four place face each other in the run-in. It would not be a disaster if Liverpool finished fifth or lower, but it would be a massive disappointment. Champions League qualification is in their hands.