It was April Fools’ and the Merseyside Derby conjured up one nomination following Ronald Koeman’s surprisingly “proud” assessment of his team’s performance as Everton failed to win at Anfield for the 17th consecutive season.
Both sides came into this match in good form with seventh placed Everton accumulating the most league points in 2017. Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool, meanwhile, were in better spirits having drawn at Man City and beaten Arsenal ahead of the international break.
Key players for both sides were unavailable due to injuries suffered during those internationals.
Klopp had to decide who he should use to replace Adam Lallana. Dropping Philippe Coutinho and bringing Divock Origi into the frontline was one option, but the German manager instead utilised the experience of Lucas Leiva so not to disrupt his fluid forwards.
Everton were without the unfortunate Seamus Coleman as well as Irish compatriot James McCarthy. Ramiro Funes Mori and January signing Morgan Schneiderlin was also out injured as Koeman opted for a 3-4-3 formation.
The Toffees used a similar approach during their emphatic home win against Man City. But on that day, they started Gareth Barry, Kevin Mirallas as well as the aforementioned Coleman Funes Mori. But due to the injuries, Everton lacked the balance and experience with Mirallas a notable exclusion while Matthew Pennington, Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Tom Davies all made their first Derby starts.
As a result, Koeman selected his youngest starting 11 since arriving at Everton in the summer and it undeniably showed.
Between the lines
Davies and Idrissa Gueye were exposed by the formation as Ross Barkley and Calvert-Lewin found themselves in no man’s land failing to support the isolated Romelu Lukaku or help cut out the penetrating passes to Liverpool’s forwards.
Sadio Mané and Coutinho were able to receive the ball between Everton’s midfield and back-three far too easily which led to the opening goal.
Mané and false nine Roberto Firmino were able to exchange passes under little pressure before the Senegalese wideman dribbled towards Everton’s penalty area. As the defenders backed off with Coutinho providing a decoy run, Mané drilled a left-footed strike through Pennington’s legs and into the far corner past a static Joel Robles in goal.
The visitors only looked dangerous from a couple of corners with Phil Jagielka first heading over and then helping the ball on from which Pennington – who hadn’t played a single minute of first-team football this season – equalised.
Liverpool looked most dangerous when man of the match, Coutinho, had possession. The Brazilian put on the sort of performance that preceded the ankle injury he suffered against Sunderland in late-November.
The playmaker restored his side’s lead just after the half-hour mark and only a couple of minutes after Pennington’s goal as he first beat Gueye and then cut inside Everton’s scorer to curl beyond a helpless Robles.
Everton nearly equalised almost immediately after the break, once again via a set-piece. This time it was the other centre-back, Ashley Williams, who got on the end of Barkley’s free-kick but failed to cushion it back across goal and away from Simon Mignolet’s grasp.
Despite returning from international duty on Thursday night by private jet with teammate Firmino, Coutinho looked sharp and provided the assist for Divock Origi’s 60th minute goal. The forward had only been on the pitch for a few minutes after replacing the injured Mané and his shot deceived Robles who wrongly tried to pre-empt where the effort was going.
From then on, Liverpool managed the game both in and out of possession, as they created opportunities on the counter. Holgate did force Mignolet into a good reactive save following his deflective strike towards goal but Everton and the league’s top scorer, Lukaku, did little to suggest they were capable of creating a nervy finish.
Reflecting on the Derby, Koeman should have deployed a 3-5-2 with a deeper defence as the ageing Williams and Jagielka lack the sufficient pace to chase Liverpool’s attacking but narrow trio. Pulling back and tightening the wing-backs would frustrate the hosts and encourage their full-backs, James Milner and Nathaniel Clyne, further forwards to provide the width. This would then leave Liverpool’s centre-backs and holding midfielder, Lucas, more exposed which Lukaku and Mirallas – who should have started ahead of the inexperienced Calvert-Lewin – could exploit with their speed and power.
There was a clear change in Everton’s attacking approach a few weeks ago at Tottenham when Mirallas was introduced and the Belgian nearly pulled a goal back after dribbling across Liverpool’s area.
Koeman could then put the peripheral and inconsistent Barkley into a midfield three from which Davies has played his best football since breaking into the first-team.
Klopp on the other hand was vindicated in his selection of Lucas who helped nullify Lukaku’s impact. The Brazilian also finished top for completed passes and tackles.
The Reds will be delighted to once again enjoy bragging rights on Merseyside but the victory was tainted by the potential loss of another key player to injury. It looks like they’ll need to address their issues against those lower down the table without Lallana and now possibly Mané. Their lack of squad depth was exposed during his absence in January when he was representing Senegal at the African Cup of Nations. But that blow has since been softened slightly by Arsenal and Man Utd both dropping points over the weekend as the race for the top four continues.
Lukaku vs Top Six
There’s been plenty of speculation regarding the future of the former Chelsea forward, including a possible return to Antonio Conte’s side. But this fixture raised questions over his impact against the top teams as he failed to have a single attempt at goal.
Below is Lukaku’s goal return against the current top six since he arrived at Goodison Park in 2013:
Over the course of nearly four seasons, he’s managed a return of one goal every four and a half appearances.
But any critics should take into account Lukaku’s age and the consistency of supply he’s receiving compared to the forwards at those top six sides.
It is, however, right to liken him to Didier Drogba because of his size, power and goal tally. But the Ivorian was a late bloomer who wasn’t occupying defences and scoring goals in the Premier League until he arrived from Marseille at the age of 26.
Lukaku turns 24 next month and is likely to enjoy far better service against the top teams once he regularly plays for one. Everton are the best of the rest at the moment but there is still a gulf between them and the sides above which often results in less possession, support and ultimately chances.
The table above shows Lukaku has a better rate than Drogba despite playing in a less dominant team and still being at least several years shy of his peak level. He may not be so prolific in the bigger games, leading to suggestions he’s a flat track bully, but the expected move in the summer should prove it’s too soon to judge.
Top 7 Head-to-Head
Much has been made of Liverpool’s form amongst the top six but that’s improved even further when Everton are included as top-four outsiders.
Having played all six teams both times, Liverpool can look forward to what should be an easier fixture list for their remaining eight matches. Their return of 26 points is far better than any of their rivals and only Chelsea can get to within a point if they beat Man City (home), Man Utd (away) and Everton (away).
Liverpool’s struggles to consistently defeat those further down the table is an easier problem to resolve than failing to beat their nearest rivals. Arsenal’s situation is alarming with just one win against their fellow top four challengers – at home to Chelsea in September – this season, which suggests they, along with Everton, will end up with Europa League qualification.
EPL Results (Gameweek 30):
Liverpool 3-1 Everton
Burnley 0-2 Tottenham
Chelsea 1-2 Crystal Palace
Hull 2-1 West Ham
Leicester 2-0 Stoke
Man Utd 0-0 West Brom
Watford 1-0 Sunderland
Southampton 0-0 Bournemouth
Swansea 0-0 Middlesbrough
Arsenal 2–2 Man City