With Liverpool coming into the game on the back of 3 consecutive league defeats – the first time since 2003 – and David Moyes celebrating a decade of service to Everton by being on an impressive 9 match unbeaten run, there didn’t seem to be a better opportunity for Moyes to finally break his unwanted record of having never won against Liverpool at Anfield. Yet so often in football, when Derby Day arrives, anything can happen.
Everton’s starting XI was the match’s first significant topic of discussion: Moyes had made wholesale changes to his side. He had Leon Osman and Nikica Jelavic on the bench; the two star players responsible for the assist and the goal in their last game, a 1-0 win against Spurs. In addition, half of Everton’s back 4 were changed, with John Heitinga and captain Phil Neville dropped for Phil Jagielka and Tony Hibbert respectively. Osman’s place in midfield was taken by Steven Pienaar and Tim Cahill (Everton’s top Merseyside derby scorer) replaced by Denis Stracqualursi, as Moyes ditched his usual 4-5-1 formation for a 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 with Victor Anichebe in attack as well.They were curious decisions to say the least, making so many changes in personnel from a winning side, especially for a tough derby game. Some argued that the changes weakened the starting XI, although the replacements in defence and midfield were hardly poor players. Others pointed to the derby being played just 3 days after Everton’s last game, and their upcoming FA Cup quarter-final 4 days later. In any case, the strangest decision seemed to be the shift in formation which resulted in Everton having one less body in midfield – a brave choice at Anfield.
Liverpool matched Everton 4-4-2 for 4-4-2, Jamie Carragher being preferred over Seb Coates to partner Martin Skrtel in central defence after Daniel Agger’s injury. Kenny Dalglish rightly dropped Charlie Adam, who had a repulsive game in his last match away at Sunderland, for captain Steven Gerrard who was warmly welcomed back after missing the last two games. Craig Bellamy, unable to play 2 matches in 3 days due to his consistent knee problems, was left out of the matchday squad entirely, with Stewart Downing taking his place on the left-wing. Finally, record-signing Andy Carroll was chosen over usual derby day hero Dirk Kuyt.
While both sides played a 4-4-2 formation, they didn’t play with two flying wingers like Spurs tend to do in Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. Instead, the Merseyside teams’ right-sided midfielders tucked in rather centrally: Liverpool’s young Jordan Henderson, as has been throughout the season, is a central midfielder played in a right-midfield role, whereas Seamus Coleman looked to attack Liverpool more centrally after consistently failing to beat left-back Jose Enrique.
This resulted in both teams almost having an extra man in the centre of midfield, but more crucially, both teams had to rely on their right-backs for width down that flank. Liverpool’s Martin Kelly did just that, as he repeatedly stormed down his right flank, even indirectly leading to opening goal as his blocked shot fell to Gerrard, who then beautifully swept the ball into the top corner. Kelly continued to advance from his right-back position, and had another good chance to double the score in the 37th minute: Henderson dropped into the centre as expected and dragging Everton’s left-back Leighton Baines out of position with him, before displaying his underrated awareness by passing the ball on the swivel to the onrushing Kelly, who had eaten up the space on the wide vacated by Henderson.
As an aside, it was great that Kelly was motoring forward superbly as all Liverpool fans know he can, but it was also frustrating that he hadn’t been doing so more regularly prior to the Merseyside derby, considering that he has played behind Henderson in majority of the games he’s started in. It’s especially crucial, as exemplified in this particular match, to have full-backs advance from their deeper positions when the midfielders in front of them are playing centrally, if only to provide width and stretch the opposition.
On the other hand, Hibbert rarely looked to venture forward, and even when he did, he faced the peerless Jose Enrique. Enrique, who looked to have a slight dip in form in recent times, was back to his outstanding defensive best for this game, making 4 tackles (the highest in the whole Liverpool team, on par with Kelly) and 3 interceptions. Even though he continued to offer frustratingly little going forward bar one excellent cross for Kelly, Stewart Downing’s defensive contribution in this match should be acknowledged. Unlike his Everton counterpart (Anichebe and Piennar took turns taking the left-midfield role when Everton were without the ball), Downing was hardworking and disciplined in tracking back, ensuring that Enrique was never caught in a 2v1 situation.
It’s no surprise then, that the majority of Everton’s attacks came from their left side. Pienaar constantly looked to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, at the same time creating space for Baines to attack. Despite being undoubtedly hardworking, Henderson is nonetheless still a forward-thinking player, and he failed to effectively close down Baines when he needed to do so.
This was evident very early on in the match, right from the 8th minute as Pienaar cut inside and took Kelly with him, and then played a through ball to Baines who had outpaced Henderson. Baines then exhibited his quality on the ball, shrugging off Kelly, stepping inside of Henderson, drawing both Jay Spearing and Carragher out of position before laying the ball back to Pienaar, who shot wildly over. Straqualursi had a good chance to equalise in the 38th minute through that same left-sided combination: Pienaar received the ball from Baines’ throw-in, and once again looked to cut inside and take his marker Kelly with him, and then played a through ball for Baines who had escaped the attentions of Henderson. Unfortunately for Moyes, Baines’ cross found Straqualursi, who could only head the ball into Pepe Reina’s arms.
The statistics back up Everton’s left-sided duo as their side’s most potent offensive weapon: Out of the whole Everton team, Baines and Pienaar made the highest number of accurate crosses (2 and 1 respectively), as well the most key passes (3 and 2). Baines was also his team’s most effective dribbler, making 3 successful dribbles, the same number as Suarez.
Liverpool’s second goal didn’t come from any tactical advantages, but from catching Everton out of position, winning the ball back after Everton tried to build from their left flank. Kelly successfully tackled Pienaar and the ball fell to Henderson near the halfway line. Henderson again displayed his keen offensive awareness by driving infield before picking out Suarez, who had made one of his clever runs down the right flank that was left unguarded after Baines had advanced forward. Everton were in all kinds of trouble by then, centre-back Sylvain Distin forced to follow Suarez out wide. Suarez however, skipped past him as any regular follower of the Premier League would expect him to do, darted away from Jagielka who had come across to cover Distin, and then moving out of the way to allow Gerrard to smash home Liverpool’s second goal.
At this point, it’s important to highlight Liverpool’s central midfield make-up, and the battle in the centre of the park. Both Liverpool and Everton played just 2 proper central midfielders, and with both teams also employing a right-sided midfielder playing slightly centrally (the aforementioned Henderson and Coleman), there was no numerical advantage for either side. However, what was different was the manner in which each side’s 2 midfielders played. Spearing was predictably the more defensive of Liverpool’s pair, sitting in front of the back four.
Spearing is clearly Liverpool’s best choice to fill in for Lucas’ defensive midfield role, but has had a pretty tough time replacing his more talented, but injured, teammate; the error-ridden loss to Manchester United springs to mind. Thankfully for Dalglish and Spearing himself, he produced a great performance in this derby, breaking up attacks less rashly than he used to, and sensibly playing shorter safer passes to help his team keep possession. Not only did Spearing make the highest number of passes out of his Liverpool team, he also achieved a remarkable 89% passing accuracy, the highest of all the players on the field that day.
Spearing’s midfield partner and club captain Gerrard, was a much needed improvement from Adam’s shocking performance against Sunderland. At 32 years of age, Gerrard definitely isn’t as mobile as he was in his younger days, but he’s still easily much more mobile than Adam is. Gerrard gave Liverpool what they’ve been missing for a good part of this season: more players in the box willing to take chances and increase the likelihood of scoring goals. The perfect example is of course Gerrard’s second goal, but the warning signs for Everton came as early as the 6th minute when Gerrard surged onto Suarez’s pass just inside Everton’s penalty box, sprung past the riveted Jagielka who was afraid of fouling Gerrard and giving away a penalty, only to have his side-footed effort palmed away by Tim Howard.
Throughout this game, Gerrard attacked Everton’s penalty box, giving Everton’s midfield pair a torrid time. Marouane Fellaini and Jack Rodwell utterly failed to effectively track Gerrard’s frequent runs forward, thus resulting in the numerous chances Liverpool carved with Gerrard playing a significant role. Fellaini did his best to try and stem the Liverpool attacks, managing 5 tackles (the highest of all the players on the field) and 2 interceptions, but it was not enough. Rodwell’s main attributes are his energy and strength, yet that was sorely lacking in his defensive contributions.
Fellaini and Rodwell were much better going forward than defending, and on the whole, Everton were able to match Liverpool’s possession. The blue team of Merseyside earned 49% overall match possession and used that possession well, often pinning Liverpool back. That was due to Gerrard and Henderson not being defensive-minded players and often defensively unaware, and Dalglish had probably noted it, replacing Henderson on the right with the tireless Kuyt on 73 minutes. Rodwell continued to pose a threat with his total of 4 shots, one of them cleared off the line by Enrique, after receiving a cross from none other than Baines, who had gotten behind Kelly, yet another demonstration of Everton’s threat down their left side. Rodwell had another shot in the 91st minute, again as a result from Pienaar and Baines linking up very well on the left, their good work drawing as many as 5 red shirts to them and thus leaving Rodwell unnoticed, but he skewed his shot wide.
Tactically, Liverpool were nearly as vulnerable as Everton were, the only difference being the quality of players – Gerrard is obviously a much better player than Rodwell – and Gerrard took his chances much better, exemplified by his 4 shots, all of which were on target, 3 of which led to his hat-trick. Compare that to Rodwell’s 4 shots, all of which were off-target. Liverpool fans must recognise that while there were some terrific individual performances (Enrique, Kelly, Spearing, Gerrard, Suarez), their team’s tactical shape still need to be worked on.
Liverpool’s wide players, bar Kelly, were ineffective but Everton created all their chances via their left flank. While Liverpool relied on the ever-effervescent Suarez (who had a game-high 6 key passes), and the much improved and aerially dominant Andy Carroll (winning a game-high 8 aerial duels), Everton’s initial strikeforce of Anichebe and Straqualursi were bluntly poor against the relatively comfortable Carragher and Skrtel. Moyes virtually admitted his mistake when he made a triple substitution in the 61st minute, taking off both strikers plus Coleman for Royston Drenthe, Jelavic and Osman, but by then, it was already too late, as Gerrard made his historic stamp on the game with aplomb.
– All stats from Whoscored.com