Everton v Liverpool: Will passing replace the blood and thunder on Merseyside?
This fixture usually means bad tackles and red cards yet, with two managers urging their teams to keep the ball, the fury may be over
After all the years of sound and the fury, local arguments won and lost, Liverpool and Everton have discovered ahead of their 221st football match this lunchtime that they actually see eye-to-eye, after all, about the way that the game should be played and teams built.
Roberto Martinez, the man Liverpool’s owners were not willing to erect a management structure around, faces Brendan Rodgers, the one who persuaded them to do just that.
The argument still rages in south Glamorgan about whether Swansea owe most to Martinez, who laid their Premier League foundations, or Rodgers, who took them over the threshold. Rodgers handled the glorious part and, by an unscientific survey, edges it, though there are very many people who vote for the Spaniard.
Inside the Liberty and out, people will tell you that he had less of an eye on his career than Rodgers, despite leaving for Wigan, though it is impossible to push Martinez beyond jokes on the subject of whether Rodgers owes him one for the Swansea inheritance on which he built a reputation. “It would be very cheap of me to take the credit for his career,” the Everton manager said.
They are not close, despite their common experience and belief systems and the inexorable draw of Spain. In his high-profile role at Liverpool, Rodgers is less inclined to discuss the countless Sunday afternoons he spent during his Swansea years, watching televised games from Martinez’s country. He frequently embarked on discussions about them, on and off the record, with South Wales football journalists.
It was his own football philosophy that Rodgers discussed ahead of the derby, with the Martinez symmetries seemingly more marked than ever. The Spaniard has talked often of playing without fear, “sin miedo”, and passing with “sang-froid”, courage and heads up in front of the opposition, not taking the coward’s long-ball way out. But on Thursday “courage” was in the Rodgers lexicon, too.
“For me as a manager the most courageous players take the ball 20 yards from their own goal,” Rodgers said. “Not the guys at the top end of the field, who are so far away from their own goal. It is the guys who accept the ball and accept the pressure, and that takes a bit of time to get through to players.
“Once the players understand you are with them and working on that on a daily basis, then they start to see the fruits and they believe in it. You have to get results with it, too, though. Once you do that and continually encourage them to work that way, it becomes natural.”
A reason why Liverpool might have the edge – in a game which gives them the chance to level the number of wins in the Goodison derby at 40-40 – is their one year’s headstart with this philosophy. Learning to play the Rodgers/Martinez way takes time.
There was no better view of that than at Goodison in October last year when, despite his side’s 2-0 lead, Rodgers was forced to remove the youthful Suso and his loan signing Nuri Sahin at half-time. “They have a much greater idea of how we work [now],” said Rodgers, who also sent Raheem Sterling and Andre Wisdom into battle in that match. “It was [a] very young [team] then but now I feel we’re seeing a lot more signs of where we’re at. Now we’re going there with players who are used to the model, with a much greater idea.”
His Liverpool are more penetrative and more resilient, though certainly in need of the kind of win, away from Anfield, which can deliver a statement of intent. The manner of the 2-0 defeat at Arsenal at the start of the month was felt throughout the club.
Rodgers said he needs “two more [transfer] windows” to complete the restructuring and expects Martinez to require time to make Everton a team in his mould. “It will take him [Martinez] a wee bit of time to totally get the idea across. [His players] have been used to playing a certain way. Now they are wanting to connect it more through midfield, so that longer ball from behind to the striker is not in as much prominence.
He added: “I remember Swansea playing Everton, a team which had been together a few years. There is no doubt they’re being asked to work a different way.”
Martinez is wasting no time moving on from the David Moyes approach, though the presence of the new manager generates an energy of its own. It also raises the prospect of a derby today in which both teams seek to “dominate with the ball rather than without it, and play attractive, attacking football”, to quote words from Rodgers which could just as easily belong to Martinez.
Rodgers rejected the notion that we could be looking at a more saccharine derby which, as Gareth Barry put it this week, creates one mental image, “red cards”. He said that his team’s game was “based on intensity”, which promises plenty of what he had seen in the past. But Everton’s perennially vivid sense that they must achieve with a fraction of Liverpool’s money also adds spice.
Martinez made no bones about the gulf in wealth in his first major newspaper interview as Everton manager, with The Independent in August. “Huge,” he said of the comparative resources available to Liverpool. “People don’t realise. But I think it speaks volumes of the character of Everton to be able to finish in the last two seasons above Liverpool. That shows you that it can be done.”
Less calculating in his career progression the Spaniard might have been, but there can be little doubt that the opportunity to manage Liverpool dissolving, after his meetings with the club’s owners in Miami, was a disappointment. To the question of whether some things are just meant to be, he said: “Yes – not just in football but in life too. Things happen for a reason and everything has to come naturally. I do feel that was the case, not just with Liverpool but with other clubs.”
His discussion of money and what it can and cannot bring in football is revealing. The sense of satisfaction he will feel by getting one over today’s opposition manager, who is seven months his junior, will be as great as anything Moyes felt in 11 years of railing against the financial imbalance on Merseyside. Whatever the type of football on display, there is always a subtext and an edge to Everton versus Liverpool.
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