Liverpool 3 - 1 Everton
So not this year, then. Another Anfield derby, the passage of another season without a victory on Liverpool’s patch and another painful post-mortem for Everton following a third successive defeat in the all-Mersey tussle. It’s so routine now, Blues fans have become numb to it, although the pain can never truly be dulled enough.
On this occasion, the form book favoured Everton but ultimately the league table was a better indicator of the likely destination of the points and on an occasion that demands that star players rise above the fray, Liverpool were simply better. Needing to be on top of their game themselves, the Blues were found badly wanting in almost all departments.
The injuries that disrupted Ronald Koeman’s back line were significant, particularly that of Seamus Coleman, but it was hard to see the Blues winning this game had the Irishman been fit because, not for the first time away from home against a top-four side, the manager got his tactics wrong and he was let down by his main enforcer, Idrissa Gueye.
Once more the Dutchman opted for a five-man defence with three centre halves and a five-man back line and, just as it was at Chelsea and Tottenham, the space in front was exposed, with Pennington’s inexperience, Gueye’s dereliction of duty and Koeman’s mystifying delay in addressing a demonstrably flawed formation important factors in the 3-1 defeat.
The young defender was pitched into his first derby on what was his first first-team appearance of the season alongside another 20-year-old, albeit one with more Premier League minutes under his belt, in the form of Mason Holgate. With Tom Davies, 18, in midfield and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, 20 up front, it was a very youthful Blues line-up but it was the failure of Koeman’s “big-game” players on the one hand and the success of Jürgen Klopp’s on the other that ultimately proved to be the significant difference.
And it only took eight minutes. While Everton, and Ross Barkley in particular, succumbed unnecessarily to the increasingly out-dated imperative to indulge in the blood-and-thunder fare of the local grudge match — the Blues’ No. 8 was fortunate to avoid a yellow card just six minutes in and then a red card later in the first half — Liverpool (Emre Can aside) largely eschewed the frenetic and played the way they often do these days under Klopp: with speed and energy going forward.
Sadio Mané evaded a limp attempt at a tackle by Gueye in the centre of the park, accelerated past Davies’s despairing lunge and then sucked three Everton defenders to one side of the box before screwing a shot across Joel Robles and into the far corner of the goal. The defending was atrocious really and it threw a harsh spotlight on both Pennington and the decision to select him in such a difficult match.
The Reds were finding feet with crisp passes while the Blues struggled to build cohesive moves and they were guilty of affording Philippe Coutinho far too much room in which to operate at times. In a move that foreshadowed Liverpool’s second goal, the Brazilian side-stepped Pennington too easily cutting in from the left side of the area but was foiled when Robles pushed his shot into the air and Phil Jagielka headed the ball off his own goal line.
Everton levelled in the 28th minute, however, with their first chance of the game. Leighton Baines’s out-swinging corner was flicked on by Jagielka at the near post, Dejan Lovren couldn’t react quickly enough to hack it clear and the ball fell invitingly to Pennington who couldn’t miss in front of goal.
The return to parity lasted just three minutes, though, and once again it was a failure to close down and to show Coutinho inside that would prove costly. The Reds’ midfielder picked the ball up in space in central midfield and with no one closing him down until Gueye threw a lazy leg at him as he danced past, he advanced into the box, tied Pennington up in knots before curling an unstoppable shot inside Robles’s left-hand post.
Liverpool’s match-winners were showing up; Everton’s were hugely disappointing and Barkley benefited from leniency from referee Anthony Taylor when he went over the ball and caught Lovren mid-shin, seeing his name go into the book rather than receiving his marching orders. Truth be told, apart from his failure to book James Milner for deliberate handball in the second half, the much-maligned official managed the game very well.
The anticipated changes from Koeman at half time never came. The manager has not been shy about replacing players or switching formations when it’s been clear they weren’t working already this season but there was no activity from the bench until the 67th minute and by then it was too late.
Everton had shown a couple of glimpses that they might get back into the game, first when Ashley Williams popped up on the end of a free kick but couldn’t get enough purchase on the ball to test Simon Mignolet and then when Barkley forced a second save from the Belgian keeper with a deflected shot. But there wasn’t enough to suggest that retaining the five-man back line or persisting with the willing but limited Calvert-Lewin up front was going to be enough to turn the tide.
Klopp, meanwhile, was forced into a change when Mané pulled up injured but his replacement effectively sealed the game with a moment that eclipsed his compatriot, Romelu Lukaku at the other end. Divock Origi was introduced in the 57th minute when it became clear that Mané couldn’t continue and within three minutes he had scored.
Pennington played Holgate into trouble against the touchline, his attempted pass back infield was picked off by Coutinho who once again breezed past the lead-footed Gueye and slipped a pass to Origi behind the back-pedalling Williams. The Belgian took aim from 20 yards and smashed a shot almost down the centre of the goal.
That was the after-the-horse-has-bolted catalyst for movement off the Everton bench but while the switch involving Enner Valencia for Pennington was an obvious one, there appeared to be precious little logic in withdrawing Davies in favour of the veteran Gareth Barry. Worse was the fact that Kevin Mirallas remained on the bench until he was finally brought on in place of Calvert-Lewin with nine minutes left.
In between, two chances for Holgate, the first a shot from the angle that Mignolet palmed away and then a free header that he miscued wide, were about all the Blues could muster until Mirallas went on an excellent mazy run in the closing stages but could hammer a shot at the end of it high over the bar.
At the other end, meanwhile, Robles had to be alert to bat a curling Trent Alexander-Arnold shot wide as Liverpool threatened to pad their lead.
That would have been harsh on a depleted Everton side but the margin and manner of the Reds’ victory were emphatic enough to render thoughts of a late push by the Blues for the top four as fanciful. Even allowing for the injuries that prompted Koeman into his ill-advised line-up, there was an unsettling gulf in ability between the two teams that sharpened the focus once more on the Dutchman’s task this summer when the transfer window re-opens.
It will also have reignited the debate over Lukaku who was, again, virtually anonymous against a top-four team and failed to register a shot in the entire 90 minutes for the third time this season. (The other two times coming against Chelsea and Manchester United.)
There is much to be said for the argument that a striker of his style can’t do anything without support and without his team-mates giving him the ball. Certainly, he was starved for service, just as he was in the Goodison derby in December. On the rare occasions he saw the ball, however, his touch was poor and his distribution just as bad; a let-down when Everton needed him to be on razor sharp, inventive and unplayable. He was anything but.
So a defeat, then, that in many pundits eyes cements Everton as a top-seven side at best this season and the only way to reopen the discussion is for the Blues to go to Old Trafford on Tuesday and win. It will take a wholesale change in attitude and approach, though, Ronald Koeman throwing off his failed safety-first defensive strategy and the collection of players responsible for another unacceptably below-par derby performance taking a long, hard look at themselves. If they don’t, their manager surely will be.
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