The back of Thursday’s Liverpool Echo crystallised how the perspectives of the sides contesting the Anfield derby have changed utterly in the space of nine months.
The teams stormed into the same fixture last January as two epitomes of attacking football with young managers, influenced by or born into the Catalonian culture, who were breathing new life into Merseyside. Yet now this: “We can work it out” stated the Echo’s dominant headline, capturing Kolo Touré’s vow that Liverpool’s defensive problems will be ironed out. “Defending’s in our DNA,” summarised Roberto Martinez’s similar promise.
It was no more than the usual pre-match propaganda. No one will be clinging to Touré’s assurances, given his midweek performance against Middlesbrough in the League Cup, while Martinez does not seem such a Messiah now that his Everton side have conceded 13 goals in their opening seven league games. That’s more than any Everton side since 1994-95, when Mike Walker was at the helm and sacked by early November. Proclamations about fatal flaws in a football team are always preposterous after seven fixtures of a season, but the bold new face of Merseyside football seems to be beset by a serious structural problem.
Brendan Rodgers introduced some derby-day prickle to the pre-match conversation when he reflected on how Everton ought to come across Stanley Park in fear for their own defence after the 4-0 Anfield defeat in January. That game first raised questions about a high-flying Everton’s ability to defend – and made it 15 years since their last league win on that turf. “I think [that game] certainly gives them more to think about,” Rodgers said. “Going into last season’s game they were probably in as good a form as they could ever have been coming to Anfield and having not won there for so long. But they were fortunate not to go away from the game losing by seven or eight...”
Everton actually conceded only 19 further goals after that thumping last season, to Liverpool’s 22, and it is the Goodison side’s weakness which is more difficult to fathom, in this campaign. They have defended these past six weeks like many Everton fans feared they would, when Martinez arrived from a Wigan Athletic side who’d just shipped 73 in the course of relegation. Yet only two sides conceded fewer goals than them last season.
Underpinning a culture of free-wheeling attacking football with a player who will be 37 in December – Sylvain Distin – does seem risky, despite the Frenchman’s extraordinary physical regime which leads Martinez to his paeans of praise for the player.
The drop in Phil Jagielka’s standard may be one of those periods of poor form that just happen in football, though his struggle since he was rushed back from hamstring trouble after that last Anfield derby is worth reflecting on. Within a month, Jagielka was out again for 10 weeks, returning for only two league games before being plunged into the crushing personal disappointment of the World Cup. Jagielka reflected yesterday on how he was brought back too early for that game. “Antolin [Alcaraz] played 60 minutes with a hamstring sprain and I had one [too],” he said. “It was all over the shop. A horrific night.”
Martinez said it was important “not to blame defenders, but our defensive record. We want to defend as a team; we attack as a team”. Juggling European and domestic commitments seems more of a problem than he is willing to admit. Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith, his two best attackers this season, were rested against Crystal Palace, and Everton lost 3-0. Were Everton actually unprepared for a new season which saw them start strongly and concede late against Arsenal and Leicester? Only Arsenal and Tottenham played fewer pre-season games.
Rodgers talked of the difficulty in getting his new-look defence to gel. “When you are integrating younger players, that is much more difficult,” he said. “If you look around at the Manchester City team or Chelsea team you can see the level of experience they have. That is the challenge of it for me.” But any manager who needs to call on Mamadou Sakho – as Rodgers has been, with Martin Skrtel injured – lacks the required depth.
Dejan Lovren has admitted that the simple act of communicating in English across that back four is proving difficult. He is not yet the commander Liverpool need and neither is goalkeeper Simon Mignolet. Victor Valdes will certain threaten Mignolet’s jersey if he does arrive next month.
Martinez was the most cavalier of the two as the Anfield match approached, insisting ahead of the occasion that his philosophy could not and would not change. “I’m not going to hide anything,” he said. “I don’t get any extra enjoyment if you keep a clean sheet if that’s not going to win you a game. I’ve always believed that you build football teams to achieve things in the long term to create a philosophy that is strong enough and good enough to win you things – rather than just go game by game and going through under the radar because they are defeats that everyone accepts.
“I feel as hurt losing 1-0 as losing 6-0 but if you lose 6-3 trying and having a positive from the performance that helps you to take something into the next game, I’ll accept that. I know there are managers who are from a school of wanting to win through keeping a clean sheet and having a team that’s difficult to beat with their main goal-scoring threat coming from set-pieces – and I say this with respect – but I’m from a philosophy of always wanting to win through scoring goals.”
Rodgers was marginally more circumspect. “We look to impose our style on the game but you always have to respect your opponent,” he said, though he also admitted that on derby days like this the more humdrum concerns tend to be dispensed with. “It’s also for me about getting back to performing well and even though this is a difficult game, the rules of football often go out of the window in a derby,” he said. “It’s important we get a victory and that will give us confidence going into the next one.”
Defeat for Liverpool turns a poor start to the season into a source of serious concern. Defeat for Everton potentially pitches them into the relegation zone, come Sunday night. The teams who had something to prove last January now have something to fear, as well. These occasions are always exceptional but this one is, as Andy Hinchliffe, a veteran of 11 of them put it yesterday “a lot more than a derby”.
No defence - Merseyside misery
Liverpool’s one clean sheet in the Premier League this season came in their 1-0 win over Tottenham at White Hart Lane in August...
...but Everton are worse
Roberto Martinez’s Everton side have the worst goals-against record after seven games since Mike Walker’s team 20 years ago.
How Everton eras compare
Everton have conceded 13 goals in five league games (the same as Walker’s 1994-95 team) and 17 in seven in all competitions – Walker’s team managed 18 in seven.Reuse content