16 Conclusions: Liverpool 0-2 Everton

Date published: Saturday 20th February 2021 10:30

* A first derby defeat at Anfield in over 20 years since September 1999. A first defeat of any sort to Everton in more than a decade. The first run of four Premier League defeats since 2002. And the first time Liverpool have lost four consecutive league games at home in 98 years.

Unlike the Manchester City and Leicester defeats, Jurgen Klopp can’t put a positive spin on this one. The Reds have their excuses, some of them fair, especially where injuries are concerned. But once again, Klopp’s ‘mentality monsters’ were a soft touch in the face of their neighbours’ resilience.

After the Champions League victory in midweek, here was an opportunity to prove that Red Bull really can give you wings. If so, they were clipped inside 10 seconds, when both sides set the tone for derby defeat that will live long in the memory for Reds and Blues on Merseyside for vastly contrasting reasons.

 

* “Carlo’s poker face!” exclaimed Klopp through his giggles upon being informed of the Everton team and the absence of Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Allan by Geoff Shreeves. Ancelotti was rather less successful in disguising his intentions in his pre-match broadcast interview, struggling to stifle a wry smile while he tried to sell the idea that Everton’s system won’t change.

Everton’s system always changes. And, as Klopp might say, that’s cool. Liverpool and Manchester City are completely wedded to their formation because they know that when it works, few can match them. Marcelo Bielsa is similarly stubborn, even if Leeds remain some way off the ‘unplayable’ category. But Everton, like everyone else, have to react to their opponent.

Ancelotti has played back threes and fours – Sarurday’s was almost a five. Wary of the threat of Liverpool’s full-backs, which has been increasing again in recent weeks, Everton’s rearguard pivoted to get Seamus Coleman and Lucas Digne, who was listed as a left midfielder, closest to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andrew Robertson.

The pair performed their task brilliantly, allowing Tom Davies to shut down and seal off the middle of the park. Davies is growing into the screening role quite wonderfully and this was him coming of age, as he flitted between Curtis Jones and Thiago, giving neither an inch.

Ancelotti may have had little choice but to play Richarlison in a lone striker’s role, but the manager was brave enough to make sure James Rodriguez was always close enough to the Brazilian, before leaving on the scorer of the opening goal when most expected a like-for-like change when Calvert-Lewin was introduced.

Carlo played his hand perfectly and his plan, carried out to the letter by his players, was too clever for Klopp.

 

* It was windy at Anfield. Seemingly for the first time in recent history, if the players’ reactions are anything to go by.

Everton played the conditions better, engaging with the gusts sweeping across an empty Anfield from the kick-off, pumping a ball over Ozan Kabak’s head which the centre-back hopelessly misread.

Liverpool never seemed to get to grips with the gusts, even in the second half when it was said that they would find playing into the wind easier. Not in the park on a Sunday it isn’t.

The Toffees were willing to employ similar tactics to those us plebs might use while turning out with a hangover, and it worked for them. Balls over the top of Liverpool’s defence spread panic throughout the hosts, especially when Calvert-Lewin, a centre-forward capable of winning first and second balls, entered the fray.

At this level, the wind really shouldn’t make such a difference. But having offered ‘cold feet’ as an excuse for Alisson’s aberrations recently, you can bet it crossed Klopp’s mind.

 

* Klopp chose to laugh rather than cry at the sight of Jordan Henderson hitting the deck in the 26th minute, but you might understand had he chosen the former at the loss of yet another centre-back. Or in this case, a central midfielder moonlighting as a centre-back.

Once it became clear that Henderson was unable to make himself the first player to ever run off a groin strain, Klopp was down to his fifth and sixth-choice central defenders, forming the 18th partnership of the season. Whether you feel Liverpool’s maudlin hasn’t helped their cause, it is certainly unfathomable to expect any side to absorb such absences.

That isn’t to say that Liverpool don’t have any centre-backs left. Nathaniel Phillips came off the bench, where their first deadline day signing, Ben Davies, remained.

The choice of Phillips was an interesting one. Davies was an emergency signing. If this isn’t an emergency by now, what will it take to see the former Preston defender in Liverpool red?

 

* How bad has Davies been in training if Ozan Kabak is considered two choices ahead of him?

Kabak started the first half by conceding a needless corner after 10 seconds and he ended it with one of the most inevitable bookings dished out in the Premier League this season.

In between, Kabak got himself in a terrible muddle for Everton’s opener. A poor clearing header found its way, via a Thiago giveaway, to the feet of James Rodriguez, who played piggy in the middle with the Liverpool new boy. Kabak got himself on the half turn, the wrong way, twisting in the opposite direction of Richarlison’s run. Kabak turned inside because he stepped forward with his left foot, initially tempted to approach the ball pulled so expertly out of the air by Rodriguez, before thinking better of it. Once the Colombian identified Kabak’s confusion, Rodriguez played one of the simplest passes of the evening, which Richarlison converted with aplomb.

Kabak was more solid against more familiar German opposition in midweek, but his first two Premier League appearances are a cause for concern. If Thiago, a world-class star, is entitled to a settling-in period having arrived from the Bundesliga, with less hustle and bustle, then so too is Kabak. But Kabak is there to cover for Thiago. Who can cover for Kabak?

The Turkish defender may well go on to be a fine player for Liverpool. Maybe he will end up with a statue. But he and Davies needed to hit the ground running. Kabak has had the bumpiest of landings, while Davies is nowhere to be seen.


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* Klopp felt the need to gather his Liverpool players in a huddle before the start of the second half either to re-emphasise a message he’d had 15 minutes to get across, or add something new. Either way, it seemed to highlight again that the hosts needed rallying.

But it worked. Whatever Klopp said, it helped to give Liverpool an injection of intensity, which was needed in possession more than off the ball. Within moments of the restart, the hosts created two headed opportunities for Sadio Mane and only a superb recovery from Michael Keane denied the Senegal star an easy finish.

Liverpool dominated possession as they usually do  – 83%-17% in the opening 10 minutes after the break – and they created openings, especially down the right, where Alexander-Arnold began getting either side of Digne.

 

* But then around the hour mark, Liverpool just stopped. And they reverted to the passive tendencies that have crept into their game of late.

It cannot be a coincidence that Liverpool faded when Curtis Jones was replaced. Three times now in the last four games the Reds have dwindled in the absence of the 20-year-old in midfield.

Jones was withdrawn against City with scores level and at Leicester last week, Liverpool were leading when the youngster was replaced by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.

In midweek, when Klopp wanted to freshen up his midfield against Leipzig, Jones saw out the 90 minutes, while Thiago was the player hooked. A repeat here certainly would not have made Liverpool any worse.

Jones can press and he carries a greater threat on the dribble that Thiago. Against low-block opposition, when passing through massed ranks isn’t working, you need a penetrative threat from deep to draw defenders out of their shape. Without Jones, Liverpool did not carry that threat.

 

* Ah, Thiago.

After Leicester we had the backlash. Jamie Carragher said he was a ‘defensive liability’, while John Barnes and Dietmar Hamann were also critical.

Then came the backlash to the backlash. And truths lie in either extreme. But after another ineffective performance, it is becoming harder not to watch Thiago and not see Juan Sebastian Veron.

Like Thiago, Veron came to England and seemed the closest thing to a guaranteed success that you might find in an import. The Argentina midfielder was just too good to not succeed in a side already comfortably the best in the Premier League.

But Veron didn’t suit United and, in its current guise, Thiago is struggling to show he can thrive in Liverpool’s midfield.

As has been covered, Thiago deserves some time to bed in, especially given the stop-start nature of his season so far. But Klopp must examine the way he is using his big summer signing.

At Bayern Munich, Thiago played in a deeper role as half of a double pivot, usually alongside Joshua Kimmich. He rarely weighed in with any goals or assists – he had a hand in five goals in 40 appearances for all-conquering Bayern last season – but that wasn’t his game. He assisted the assisters.

But, as Klopp acknowledged when he signed Thiago, Liverpool don’t play like Bayern. So, unless he wants the lone job of screening whichever centre-backs Klopp can cobble together in any given week, the Spain star has to play further forward, where there simply isn’t the same space. Unless Liverpool play RB Leipzig every week, and Julian Nagelsmann continues to ignore what the champions of England are actually good at.

Liverpool could comfortably switch to a 4-2-3-1 to give Thiago a better chance of thriving in the Premier League, but Klopp seems completely wedded to his current system. Which obviously works for the champions. But it doesn’t work for Thiago.

* Was it a penalty? Chris Kavanagh thought so, even after being urged to check again.

Twitter, as always, wasn’t so sure. Reactions ranged from ‘never a pen’ to ‘why hasn’t Alexander-Arnold been sent off?’ and everything in between. Opinions are like wins at Anfield these days. Seemingly everyone has got one.

You could certainly see why Kavanagh stuck with his original decision. Alexander-Arnold probably doesn’t mean to stop Calvert-Lewin reaching the loose ball in front of the gaping goal, but he certainly impedes the striker. Lifting his foot towards Calvert-Lewin didn’t help his pleas for leniency either.

Alexander-Arnold was probably expecting a reprieve once Kavanagh began his trot towards the monitor but the referee wasted no time in ratifying his decision. Such decisiveness is to be welcomed if the alternative is for officials to take 25 looks at the same incident before being swayed by the indecision prompted by being sent to the monitor in the first place. But Liverpool fans, and everyone else, would certainly benefit from greater clarity over the justification for his certainty. Why the conversation between VAR and his colleague on the pitch must remain private is an unnecessary mystery.

 

* Everton will cherish a long-awaited victory that they richly deserved. But once the euphoria subsides, perhaps around June, the Toffees will reflect on a triumph in which they did not have to be at their very best.

At the back, they were resolute and solid; in attack, they made some of their moments count. Aside from their goals the visitors created other opportunities, notably with Coleman in the first half and Richarlison in the second with the score still precarious at 1-0.

But their best win of the season – many seasons – hardly came as a result of their best performance of the season. They were organised and stronger in the key moments, but they were also quite wasteful in possession. Has Abdoulaye Doucoure played worse all season? Especially early on, he rivalled Kabak for wretchedness, falling way below his own high standards, certainly in possession. But he made up for it with his customary graft to help Davies, Andre Gomes and Gylfi Sigurdsson swamp Liverpool’s stodgy midfield.

But Everton, apparently, don’t need possession and they didn’t on Saturday. Only once since New Year’s Day have they had the greater share of the ball against top-flight opposition in all competitions, and that resulted in a 2-0 home defeat to Newcastle.

In the unlikely event they bother to even consider it, the fact that they did not have to be at their absolute best to pile on Liverpool’s misery will only make this a sweeter victory for Evertonians.

 

* For all Liverpool’s gripes about their lack of centre-backs, Everton were also without one half of their best central defensive partnership.

Prior to the short trip to Anfield, Everton had not won without Yerry Mina this season. Four times he had been absent, four times they lost.

But Mason Holgate moved inside alongside Michael Keane and both were magnificent. Holgate was arguably Everton’s best centre-back last season but he has struggled to replicate that form in the middle this term. This performance should give him huge confidence for the remainder of the season.

Holgate was certainly helped by Keane’s immense performance…

* Get the rave on, Jordan Pickford. But the England goalkeeper looked as though he might prefer to celebrate this famous win with a cuppa and some soothing whale sounds, such was the uncharacteristic serenity of his performance.

There was no sign of the daft puppy in gloves that we have become accustomed to, which was even more surprising since this was a repeat of the game which earned him such scorn for his antics in the Goodison derby.

Playing without 60,000 Reds baying for blood undoubtedly helped, but Pickford’s calmness was almost more impressive than his handling, which was flawless.

He made superb, athletic saves to keep out Henderson, Alexander-Arnold and Wijnaldum, but his ability to get fingertips to shots taller keepers can’t reach has never been in doubt. His mentality and concentration certainly have, but neither were found wanting.

Arguably his most impressive save was to deny Salah when Liverpool were on top early in the second half. The Egyptian, with the aid of Alexander-Arnold broke Everton’s ranks, but when facing down Pickford, Salah saw a goalkeeper standing tall, suppressing his rabid urge to chuck himself at the danger in the name of spreading and smothering.

Instead, Pickford trusted his positioning and used the block technique with Salah seeing little of the goal, certainly nowhere to dink the ball over a goalkeeper he probably expected to hurtle towards him.

It was just one facet of a performance which Pickford must now build upon to cement his place for club and country.


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* Liverpool’s No.1 has been under even greater scrutiny of late, but Alisson was perhaps the only Liverpool player who could slope off the pitch with any credit.

Klopp’s problems are everywhere ahead of his keeper. There is mitigation in his defensive woes and those problems have adversely affected his midfield. Up front, there are no such excuses.

In attack, Liverpool look limp and impotent. They created some opportunities – Salah should have scored when he was denied by Pickford, but the Everton keeper was troubled mostly by efforts from outside the box. Mane might have done better with one of two headed chances early in the second half, but Everton took the chances they created, whereas Liverpool failed to make the most of what openings they had.

There is no easy fix. With Liverpool’s centre-backs being so delicate, their full-backs aren’t marauding forward with the same intensity and the three forwards collectively appear to be suffering from the yips.

In only two games since Christmas have Liverpool matched their xG rate – the wins at Spurs and West Ham which seemed to have jump-started their season. But they have since fallen back into their wasteful habits, which cannot be tolerated while they remain so fragile at the back.

 

* Referee Kavanagh showed some leniency to Liverpool to excuse three second-half dives which highlighted their exasperation at Everton’s stubbornness and their own failings.

Salah was guilty of two, choosing to go to ground instead of capitalising on promising positions, before Mane threw himself to the floor in the box upon feeling Keane’s breath on his neck.

Desperate times, desperate measures.

 

* So what now for Liverpool?

Nothing has changed in the grand scheme of the season. The European Cup remains their only prospect of a trophy while they face a fight in the Premier League to ensure they retain a place in next season’s Champions League.

But this defeat marks another nadir in a miserable season for the Reds. By the end of the weekend, the 10th-placed side could be within a win of the champions. And the concern has to be that Klopp doesn’t seem to know how to arrest their slide.

Really, what can he do? His squad doesn’t possess the necessary depth in quality for wholesale changes, even when it isn’t ravaged with injuries.

Klopp is all about belief but even his is being sorely tested. The Liverpool manager has to come up with an answer other than ‘hoping and playing’ through it.

 

* “We want to compete against Liverpool and Manchester City. Honestly, we were not able to compete against City on Wednesday but we were able to compete against Manchester United, we were able to compete against Leicester and I think we are able to compete against Liverpool. This is our target. If you ask me if the progress was good, then the progress this year was really good.”

Ancelotti summed up Everton’s standing perfectly before he was proved right about competing with their neighbours. There is no side below the leaders that Everton should fear.

But the Toffees still have a nasty habit of tripping themselves up. Had they been not been found so badly wanting for consistency this season, then they would be a some way clear of Liverpool instead of only hauling themselves level.  And that must be the aim for the remainder of the season as they eye a top-four finish: rein in the fluctuation in performances and results, especially in the next four games, against Southampton, Chelsea, West Brom and Burnley, before they face the one side they can’t yet match in the FA Cup.

But, more immediately, savour the fact that Merseyside is blue.

 

Ian Watson

 

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