Everton vs Liverpool: Roberto Martinez is paying the price for not adopting Brendan Rodgers' pragmatism

Last season Everton were entertaining talk of the Champions League. Now they are in the bottom half of the table

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The Independent Football

Behind his surface optimism about a side who have at least rediscovered the concept of the clean sheet, Phil Jagielka must have wondered how on earth it came to be that today’s Merseyside derby conversation contains the words “Everton” and “relegation zone”.

Last season Everton were entertaining talk of the Champions League. Now they are in the bottom half of the Premier League table, six points off 10th and 12 behind Liverpool. “No, it’s not make or break,” Jagielka insists. “As far as the points situation and where we are in the league, if we get a win it won’t change that much.”

That is an optimistic interpretation, with trips to Chelsea and Arsenal two of their next three Premier League games. Lose all three and Everton could be back in the relegation mire they were flirting with before last weekend’s win at Crystal Palace – only their second in 14 games in all competitions.

The progression of both sides since last season, when their managers looked the epitome of modernity, has been disappointing but Liverpool have rallied in the past few months. Everton have, frankly, been found out; the intricate, possession-based build-up which damaged teams last season is something opponents are now willing to let Roberto Martinez’s players try to their hearts’ content. Sides sit back and hit Everton on the counter-attack. It has felt like second-season syndrome for the manager.

 

He has varied the approach on occasions, most notably by using the long diagonal ball to good effect in the 1-1 draw at Anfield in September. But there have not been a great many adaptations to the type of football he likes to play.

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Martinez says the Merseyside derby is always a 'special' occasion

Brendan Rodgers, for whom today will be his 100th Premier League game in charge at Liverpool, has shown greater flexibility. His side’s 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in November left him looking devastated and it was the following week, at Old Trafford, that he first employed the new 3-4-3 system which has turned the team around.

Rodgers can reflect, heading into the weekend, on that new system. “I had to arrest the [negative] momentum,” he says. “I had to find a way that was going to provide the identity and restore the principles of the team… It was looking at each individual player and looking at where I can get a way of working how we want to work with [each one]. It is not a simple system but, once the players understand it, we have good balance in the team. Offensively, we are creating chances. We can be more clinical. But we don’t look like conceding many.”

It is a variation on an idea he once tried at Swansea, where he described it as a “three-diamond-three” – though now the central shape is a square. The Swansea formula featured a three-man front line, with Danny Graham playing in between Scott Sinclair and Kieron Dyer, both of whom were pinned to the wings. On Merseyside, Philippe Coutinho and Adam Lallana are encouraged to operate as inside forwards, with Raheem Sterling central. But it is in the muscular defensive addition of Lucas Leiva that Rodgers has gone most against his instincts. Martinez has been slower to accept that the same pragmatism is necessary.

Rodgers has also shown adaptability by returning to Mamadou Sakho,  who walked out of Anfield before September’s derby after he was not named in the squad but is now one of the three central defenders made to look far more secure by the new 3-4-3 system.

“We spoke about it,” said Rodgers. “Listen, I’m a coach that never turns his back on a player, especially when the player is committed. Everyone will make mistakes. We all do in life. But if people show me they care enough [it’s different]. I knew that he cared.”

Everton could have midfielder James McCarthy and goalkeeper Tim Howard back in contention for today, while Rodgers deliberates over whether to start with Daniel Sturridge in the derby or against Tottenham on Tuesday, with the latter seeming to be his preference. Lazar Markovic and Lucas face late fitness tests.

Liverpool require a win to maintain their push for “not just fourth, but beyond that”, as Rodgers puts it. Everton require a win to stop looking over their shoulders. Their needs are laced with the greater anxiety. “No matter how the season is going, when these games come, if you can pick up a win it spreads a lot of cheer throughout the supporters,” says Jagielka. “They’ve not had too much to get excited about in the league. We’re desperate to give them something to cling on to.”

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