Everton – Liverpool: Liverpool No Longer Premier League Leaders After Dearth Of Offense (0-0)
Despite Liverpool’s excessively direct attack, Everton defended their increasingly desperate crosstown rivals quite well. During the first half, Liverpool struggled to progress past Everton’s press. In the second half, some tactical changes and substitutions allowed Liverpool to move forward, but their creative issues in the final third appeared once again.
Tactical analysis and match report by José Pérez.
Liverpool continues to fight Manchester City in an intense battle for the Premier League title. However, with four draws in the last six games, valuable points and momentum have been conceded to Manchester City, who seem to be in good shape entering the business end of the season. Liverpool’s series of draws, including a worrying performance against an injury-ridden Manchester United, have reminded us that their attack, while still very productive, is not perfect. Chance creation relies heavily on the fullbacks and front trio, and Liverpool can struggle to disorder opponents when the front trio is not in peak form.
Against Everton, Klopp came out with most of his usual 4-3-3 starting lineup. The goal of Alisson Becker was defended by Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joel Matip, Virgil Van Dijk and Andy Robertson. In front of them, the midfield trio of Fabinho, Jordan Henderson and Georginio Wijnaldum was fielded, with the ever-productive James Milner being left on the bench this time around. Roberto Firmino was still not ready to start after recovering from his injury, so Klopp went the same forward trio that pummeled Watford mid-week. Divock Origi played on the left, Sadio Mané as the striker and Mohamed Salah on the right.
Much to the dismay of their fans, Marco Silva’s Everton are the definition of bang average, being tenth in the league in net expected goals. However, things are quickly getting worse as Everton’s underlying numbers have fallen off a cliff in this second half of the season. This decline has been reflected in their results, with three wins, one draw and no less than six losses in the last ten games. Everton are an intense pressing team with a very direct attack, but perhaps the offense has been a bit too direct. The attackers have shockingly little interplay among themselves. Everton’s offense is a bunch of individual players crashing against the opponent’s defensive wall rather than a coherent unit that disorders opponents as a collective.
Against Liverpool, Everton lined up in their nominal 4-2-3-1 shape, which in reality turns into a 4-2-4 formation both when pressing and attacking. Ahead of keeper Jordan Pickford laid a back four of Lucas Digne, Kurt Zouma, Michael Keane and Seamus Coleman. In the double pivot, 4-2-3-1 is one of the most frequently occurring formations in football. The two most defensive midfielders are called a ‘double pivot’. Idrissa Gueye was accompanied by Morgan Schneiderlin, who started ahead of André Gomes after a positive display in the prior game against Cardiff City. Up front played an attacking midfield trio of Bernard, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Theo Walcott, spearheaded by Dominic Calvert-Lewin. Richarlison was surprisingly left on the bench.
🔴 DERBY DAY 🔴
— Liverpool FC (@LFC) March 3, 2019
Liverpool cannot play through Everton’s press
Everton’s defensive approach with a 4-2-4 high pressing block proved very effective throughout the game. Sigurdsson and Calvert-Lewin would not press Liverpool’s central defenders up close, but instead would block their passing lanes to Fabinho. Meanwhile, wingers Bernard and Walcott would push up to press the fullbacks whenever they had the ball, trying to force them into sending long balls.
Liverpool’s 4-3-3 build-up phase against Everton’s 4-2-4 pressing block.
With Fabinho’s influence in Liverpool’s build-up reduced, the away side had to look for different paths forward. Long passes to the front three were often ineffective due to Everton’s solid aerial game, with midfielders Schneiderlin and Gueye and defenders Keane and Zouma winning several aerial duels. Sometimes Mané would try to come short and play the “Firmino role” – a striker dropping into midfield, combining with midfielders who can then feed the wingers – but was inaccurate in his passes and controls.
On the left wing, Liverpool could struggle to progress since Origi – who was fixed on the left wing and seldom left it – often blocked Robertson’s space to make forward runs. Things looked better on the right, as Salah and Alexander-Arnold had better chemistry and knew when to stay out of each other’s way. If Salah stayed wide, Alexander-Arnold could make good runs through the inside lanes, and if Salah moved central Alexander-Arnold would then progress on the wing. Occasionally Henderson would move wide to help them create overloads, too. However, Liverpool could just get into shooting positions in two ways: Salah beating his man or crossing into the box.
Besides that, with Everton playing past midfield zones, Liverpool could not create any chances through their pressing system and pressing traps. A pressing trap is a predefined plan to leave a particular player or zone open, to invite a specific pass. Upon a pass to that player or into that zone, a rapid coordinated team press on that player or zone is exerted. The one time Everton tried to string some passes through midfield, they lost the ball in a dangerous zone and conceded the biggest chance of the game, in which Salah failed to beat Pickford. In general, the best way to nullify Liverpool’s pressing is too not play through the middle, something Bayern Munich for instance were also very keen on.
Everton’s direct attack nullified by a spectacular Van Dijk
Everton’s attack is very direct, with defenders bypassing midfield entirely and trying to reach their forwards through long passes. However, using this approach against Liverpool was tricky due to the aerial supremacy of Van Dijk, who is winning a ridiculous 75% of his aerial duels in the league. This is probably the reason why Pickford and Everton’s defenders aimed their long balls to the right sideline, hoping that Calvert-Lewin and Walcott would could take on the more beatable Andy Robertson in the air.
However, this strategy was not particularly effective. Walcott is poor in the air, and even though Calvert-Lewin beat Robertson several times, the towering but also agile Van Dijk would quickly sweep up the second ball. All in all, the moral of this story should be: “don’t send any long balls near Van Dijk”.
And if Everton managed to avoid Van Dijk at first and successfully get the ball to a winger or fullback in crossing position, they would still have to deal with him in the box. Van Dijk expertly anticipated and intercepted attacks outside the box, cleared any danger in and around his box (a massive thirteen clearances throughout the game) and made any necessary last-ditch interventions in cases of emergency or teammate mistakes. This is how one explains why Everton only produced a single shot throughout the first half.
— Everton (@Everton) March 3, 2019
Match opens up in the second half
As the second half began, we saw some significant changes in behavior from both teams. Liverpool took more risks in their build-up phase: fullbacks took on more aggressive positions while central defenders moved wider in search for better passing options. Meanwhile, Fabinho sometimes dropped between his central defenders to help with the buildup and escape the attempts of Calvert-Lewin and Sigurdsson to cage him in.
Perhaps due to the behavior of Liverpool’s fullbacks, Everton wingers moved back and overall Everton seemed to defend with a slightly deeper defensive block. This allowed them to lure Liverpool in and exploit more spaces on the counter. Most importantly, however, Everton stopped insisting so much with their “long ball to the right side” strategy and tried more variation in their buildup phase. Still very direct, though.
With Liverpool getting better at beating the Everton press and Everton getting more unpredictable with their vertical passes, the match became a higher-paced affair. However, even if teams exchanged attacks more frequently, they still crashed against their opponent’s defensive wall.
The subs change the game, but not enough to change the result
That is when the substitutions came in. In the 59th minute, Silva replaced Walcott with Richarlison. In the 63rd minute, Klopp replaced Origi and Wijnaldum with Firmino and James Milner. With Fimino acting as linkup between midfield and attack and a more creative midfielder in Milner, Liverpool’s ability to progress through midfield and quickly move the ball from side to side improved. However, the issues in the final third, the same ones we saw against Manchester United, showed up again. The one-versus-one of Mané and Salah was not good enough to get consistently into goal scoring positions, and Liverpool lacked other ways to disorder Everton’s defensive block. It did not help that central defenders Zouma and Keane were having a good match, clearing any incoming danger out of their box, or making good last-ditch interventions.
In the 76th minute, Everton replaced midfielder Schneiderlin with André Gomes, which further improved Everton’s capabilities on the counter, but they still crashed against Liverpool’s defensive wall. Klopp took a surprisingly long time to make his final substitution, switching an underperforming Mané for Adam Lallana in the 84th minute. Too late, and little impact did it have, with Naby Keïta and Xherdan Shaqiri ending the match as unused subs.
Hopefully this can serve as a turning point in Everton’s poor second half of the season. Their direct attacking strategy was destined to crash against the defensive superpowers of Van Dijk, but they successfully stifled Liverpool’s attacking prowess throughout the game. Their pressing prevented Liverpool’s midfield progression throughout the first half, and their solid defense of the final third kept their goal mostly safe throughout the second half. However, the fundamental problem in Everton’s attack remains: they are too direct and individualistic.
Liverpool’s decreased chance creation issues continue. The attack still seems too predictable and wing-oriented, and too dependent on fullbacks and forwards for chance creation. While Klopp’s second half adjustments improved Liverpool’s midfield progression, he couldn’t find the key to improve in the final third. Liverpool’s midfield has always been more focused on off-the-ball pressing tasks rather than on-the-ball creativity, and this does not help the team’s ability to create chances. Naby Keïta and Xherdan Shaqiri were signings meant to improve Liverpool’s creative ability in midfield, yet Klopp was surprisingly reluctant to use them in this game.
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— Premier League (@premierleague) March 3, 2019