Having labelled Ronald Koeman a “master tactician of the blame game” on Friday night, Martin O’Neill may well have taken in the Merseyside derby with a smirk on his face as he watched the Everton manager’s masterplan unravel at Anfield.
Koeman set about the task of earning the Toffees their first derby win in 15 attempts by switching to a back three which featured Matthew Pennington, a youngster playing his first game of the season. The system may have been chosen to protect Pennington or because Koeman genuinely believed it was the best way to shackle Liverpool. Either way, it failed miserably, and Koeman cannot deflect the criticism on this occasion.
The Everton boss has flitted between systems this term, with the back-three first used at Chelsea on Bonfire Night. Antonio Conte’s side picked it apart within the first half-hour and Koeman canned the experiment by half-time, by which time they were 3-0 down.
Koeman wasn’t prepared to give up on the idea, though, and the Toffees had more success with the formation when it returned at the start of the year, against Leicester, Palace and Stoke. But those fixtures presented vastly different challenges in comparison to an away derby that they haven’t won since 1999.
Everton also played a back three in the 4-0 win over Manchester City at Goodison in January, and perhaps it was that success that encouraged Koeman to use the system again at Anfield. Against City, Everton won by a convincing scoreline despite having only 23 per cent of the possession, and the manager likely planned for a similar problem.
But against City, because Pep Guardiola’s full-backs tuck inside, Leighton Baines went through the 90 minutes much closer to his centre-halves. Today, Koeman’s wing-backs were high and wide, leaving Ashley Williams, Phil Jagielka and Pennington completely exposed.
Idrissa Gueye and, to a lesser extent, Tom Davies, were their only protection, but Liverpool knew if they could bypass the Senegal workhorse, they could create one-on-ones against the three back-pedalling centre-halves.
It took only eight minutes for Liverpool to capitalise. A simple wall pass in midfield took out Gueye, leaving Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho two versus two against Pennington and Williams. Mason Holgate did his best to cover but his recovery run merely obstructed Pennington, who could not close down Mane before he rolled the ball into the far corner.
Everton were gifted a lifeline 20 minutes later when they Liverpool’s woeful inability to defend set-pieces allowed Pennington to smash in an equaliser against the run of play. But the Toffees completely wasted their hosts’ generosity.
We hear a lot about ‘game management’ in the modern game when often it is a fancy way of describing plain old common sense. Everton showed none of either. After levelling the scores, the priority had to be to remain solid and hard to break down, if not until half-time, then for at least enough time to frustrate Liverpool. A simple instruction to his wing-backs to apply more caution would likely have done the trick, but Baines and Holgate remained tied to the touchline, leaving Liverpool’s front three more than enough space to re-establish their side’s superiority.
The Reds had already had a practice run when Coutinho cut inside Pennington to curl an effort towards the far corner. On that occasion, a combination of Joel Robles and Jagielka kept Liverpool out. Coutinho was never likely to waste the same opportunity twice, and he was given the chance to prove it, when he breezed past Gueye and faced up Pennington.
The young defender has received plenty of stick for allowing Coutinho to cut inside so easily, but Pennington’s fear of being exposed on the outside was understandable. In theory, he should have had cover and support inside, which eventually arrived too late, given Williams had again dropped off too deep. One Coutinho shimmy later, the avenue was clear to guide the ball into the far corner.
The Everton players’ frustration at their inability to keep the ball, or get close enough to Liverpool to win in back, was already manifesting itself in indiscipline. Ross Barkley strayed close to the line on a number of occasions before steamrollering through it – and Dejan Lovren – with a particularly naughty tackle after yet another loose touch on one of the few occasions he received the ball in an area advanced enough to do some damage.
Set-pieces appeared to be Everton’s only avenue back into the game but they rarely got high enough up the pitch to earn them. Even if they did, Everton never looked likely to be able to retain parity, and the game was beyond them when, once again, the back three were exposed by Coutinho and Divock Origi.
It should be said that it won’t matter what system Koeman plays if his goalkeeper is going to be so easily beaten so often. Joel Robles appears to have a major problem with setting himself in time to protect his goal. For Mane’s last-minute winner before Christmas, the Spanish keeper was too far down the line of the ball with both feet in the air when Daniel Sturridge shot from outside the box, making it impossible to deflect what most goalkeepers would reach comfortably.
Today, though his view was perhaps obstructed by Pennington for Mane’s opener, Robles’ feet were still everywhere but where they should have been when the Reds’ forward pulled the trigger. For Coutinho’s strike, he failed to adjust his position quickly enough once the Brazilian had cut inside, but the worst was saved for last. Origi struck from 19 yards, with Robles a yard outside his six-yard box and all his weight on his left foot. Such poor positioning and technique would not be expected of a schoolboy within the Everton academy and it is certainly not good enough for their No.1. The Merseyside clubs have four keepers between them and not one of them is of the standard required.
But the blame for this defeat falls at the feet of the Everton manager. Koeman had spoken pre-match of the fear the Toffees have had of their neighbours in recent seasons, but there is a difference between surrendering and playing to nullify your opponents’ strengths. Koeman’s plan handicapped his side in every department, and Liverpool are unlikely to have had many easier home derby victories in the 18 years since they last lost one.