It was certainly an eventful Merseyside Derby on Saturday, even if it wasn’t football of the highest quality some possibly expected to see. An early goal from Richarlison and and a late Gylfi Sigurdsson penalty made sure Everton beat Liverpool at Anfield for the first time in 22 years.
Liverpool’s poor luck and poor form mixture
Injuries in the centre-back department have defined Liverpool’s season, and this run of bad form shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Captain Jordan Henderson, who forcibly started in the heart of defence again alongside newcomer Ozan Kabak, was taken off after 30 minutes. The team was thoroughly disrupted as it was, but now it’s plainly a disaster for manager Jurgen Klopp.
Once again, everything that’s been happening on that front left its mark on the performance of the whole team. The midfield, bereft of Fabinho and Henderson as well as Naby Keita for a long time now, wasn’t able to press as efficiently as they did through the last couple of seasons. Consequently, there was no proper link between that section and the forward line, and the Reds struggled to break through the compact ranks of players in Blue. And when they did, they were thwarted by either a last-ditch tackle from Michael Keane or a superb save from Pickford.
At the back, 23-year-old Nathaniel Phillips looked solid after replacing Henderson, though it has to be said that he and Kabak were rarely tested through the match with Everton mostly sitting deep. Nonetheless, the opening goal was a clear defensive mistake between Henderson and Kabak who allowed Richarlison to dart in behind and latch onto a clever ball from James Rodriguez.
But having gone down in the third minute, Liverpool simply had to do something upfront, and that’s where they failed. Sadio Mane had two decent opportunities to score with his head and Trent Alexander-Arnold broke into the box down the right flank a few times, but Everton survived and that was about it. Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah did put in the effort, but they found no way through the tight ranks of Carlo Ancelotti’s defence.
Everton – discipline and opportunism pay off
Who knows how the game would have unfolded if Everton hadn’t taken such an early lead? But they did, and it gave them the option of dropping deep, defending in numbers and patiently waiting for a chance to hurt the wounded hosts further on the break. That’s exactly what they did, winning the game comfortably with only 28% of possession.
Ancelotti has recently been using left-back Lucas Digne further up on the flank, with Ben Godfrey, a versatile defender himself, behind his back. It’s obviously a great way to close down the goalward paths from that side, and when you face a player like Salah there, it’s certainly something you need to do. This call paid off big-time for Ancelotti, as the Egyptian, who is still the Premier League’s leading scorer, was rendered relatively harmless. Whenever there was need, Godfrey would tuck in as the third centre-back with Digne dropping deeper to form a line of five.
But the two players of the match for the Toffees were undoubtedly Keane and Pickford. The two of them were always there to dash the final hopes of the opposition of finding the back of the net. All these factors, combined with fine efforts from Seamus Coleman on the right and Andre Gomes and Tom Davies ahead of the back four, contributed to nullifying the recently bleak threat of Liverpool’s attack.
At the other end, Everton took almost every opportunity they had. The only time they came close to scoring and didn’t was a first-half close-range header from Gomes which prompted a great save from Alisson Becker. But Richarlison made the most of his opportunity early on, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin did practically the same in the 83rd minute when he earned the penalty converted by Sigurdsson.
Regardless of any other aspects of the game, Everton deserved the three points from this derby.
Referee in the spotlight again
It says a lot that rarely a Premier League match goes by without the referee bringing some unwanted attention to himself. This one didn’t either.
All was fine, with Chris Kavanagh, arguably one of the better officials in the English top flight, keeping the usually high tempers of the Merseyside Derby under control. But then came that penalty call.
It may have looked like a penalty when seen live and at full speed, but at a closer look from several angles, it seems the only contact between Calvert-Lewin and Alexander-Arnold came from the Everton striker whacking the Liverpool right-back in the back of the head with his knee. Calvert-Lewin then simply stumbled and went down on his own accord.
Kavanagh blew his whistle and pointed to the spot immediately, but then he was warned from the VAR room about a potential mistake and asked to take another look on the monitor. He went, threw a careless, disinterested glance at the footage from one angle, turned back quickly and confirmed his initial call.
Former referee Mark Clattenburg recently revealed how he himself tailored the football rules to his own purpose once, in order to avoid being the man who decided the title race. In the end, he ended up being exactly that.
We may have seen another example of such behaviour here. It was not about the title race; Liverpool are out of it and would likely still be out of it even had they won this match. But it may have been a case of Kavanagh wishing to avoid a nervy, exciting, high-tempered finish to the contest, something we’ve often seen when Liverpool and Everton face each other. Something which would certainly have made his job much more difficult in the final few minutes.
It’s all speculation of course, but the poor refereeing standards the constant criticism of decisions being made, even with the presence of VAR, have done considerable damage to the reputation of the Premier League. That much can hardly be disputed.