By Matt Jones
The Pre-Match: Liverpool
On Tuesday night at Everton’s official season ticket launch at the Camp & Furnace I asked Leighton Baines how he’d celebrate if he scored the winning goal at Anfield on Saturday.
A cupped hand around the ear? A finger on the lips? Jump into the crowd? “I’m not really one for big celebrations,” said the ever-sensible left-back. Cool as you like.
But I bet he’s thought about it. Every Evertonian would have done. I have done. We’ve had long enough to do so. 18 bloody years. They should have it choreographed.
There have been plenty of occasions during that era of Anfield misery when Everton have entered a Merseyside derby with momentum behind them. This one is no different. Since they suffered defeat at the hands of their red neighbours in December, no team has taken more points in the Premier League than Ronald Koeman’s Toffees.
Yet Everton, even in-form versions, have regularly found a way to flounder in front of the Kop. Occasionally they’ve been besieged by bad luck, but the main hindrance has been a lack of mental strength and conviction in their own ability. The occasion has got to those in blue so often, with the cooler heads of those in red prevailing.
And it’s easy to see why some supporters decide to unashamedly cry this fixture in. The worst things to endure as a football fan against your rivals is an injury-time loss or watching your team get obliterated. That’s what’s happened to Everton in the last two derby matches.
Koeman and these players need to find a way of turning the tide. Of course, a win on Saturday wouldn’t right plenty that’s been wrong with Everton down the years in derbies or indeed away from home against the traditional top four. But it’d be a reference point.
It’d be a moment this growing team could look back on the next time they go to a massive venue and say “remember when we did that, lads? Remember how we got over the line? Remember Leighton’s boss celebration? Let’s do it again.”
Koeman has a big role to play in this fixture on Saturday and the years to come, and I wrote about it in more detail here. But the players in-game generalship and ability to cope with his hostile environment will be crucial.
There’ll be experience in the team on Saturday in the form of Baines, Phil Jagielka, Ashley Williams and potentially Gareth Barry. Their influence and various forms of leadership will be needed, no doubt.
A little further forward there’s something especially refreshing about the way Everton may line up. Should Morgan Schneiderlin make it, he’ll surely feature in a midfield three alongside Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies. That’d be the most combative and energetic the Toffees have been for many years in this portion of the pitch at Anfield.
Up front, Everton have the Premier League’s top goalscorer in Romelu Lukaku, but he along with plenty of other Toffees forwards have frozen at this venue when donning blue.
Remarkably, Jagielka’s bolt from distance in 2015 is the only goal Everton have scored at the home of their rivals since Jermaine Beckford put the Toffees 2-1 ahead in January 2011. If the predicted XI below starts on Saturday, the veteran centre-back will be the only player in the side to have scored for the Toffees at Anfield. Christ.
That’s a miserly return and it must change. Lukaku must show why he’s the finest forward in the league at the moment, Ross Barkley must continue his resurgence and provided he returns to the XI, Kevin Mirallas must impinge himself on the contest from the left flank.
Of course, the injury to Seamus Coleman is a massive blow for the Blues and his absence will potentially have a knock-on effect all over the pitch, as able a deputy Mason Holgate may be. But it’s worth considering Saturday’s hosts have their own issues to contend with and within their setup, there are weaknesses to exploit.
There was a weekend earlier in the season when Everton lost 5-0 to Chelsea and Liverpool smashed Watford 6-1. “I feel like we’ve lost 11-1,” said a friend of mine to me.
At that point Jurgen Klopp’s side looked every inch potential title winners. They played with perpetual motion in the final third, incredible intensity and had built up some extraordinary momentum. It was worrying for those of a blue persuasion.
Fast forward to this point and it’s staggering Everton have closed the gap down to a meagre six points. Slowly and somewhat inevitably, the Reds’ trademark vibrancy seeped away as a season of tough toil crept up on them, while opposition managers have found blueprints to nullify Klopp’s go-to plan.
Currently, it feels as though Liverpool are somewhere in between the heights of October/November and the depths of January. Against sides happy to open the game up, they’re in their element, with Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino afforded space to wreak havoc. It’s no surprise the Reds are unbeaten against the rest of the top six this term.
But against sides that sit in, stifle and seek to take the sting out of the game, they’ve struggled badly. Koeman, who has been proactive in his team selections for these big games, will be aware of that. It’s why it’s easy to see the Toffees approaching this one adhering to that blueprint.
Adam Lallana, the man who has been key to Liverpool’s attacking incision for much of the campaign, will be absent too, while Jordan Henderson, if he plays, will not be fully fit. The Reds still have threats, but they’re vulnerable here.
Everton team to beat Liverpool…
Given this piece was finished before Koeman’s press conference on Friday, I’m going to make a big, massive, positive assumption that Schneiderlin will feature in the game—why else would the club put that clip out of him boxing? Teases.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin may have netted against Hull City, but Mirallas, who missed the game due to his wife giving birth, was performing well prior to that match and netted for Belgium during the international break too. He’s been decent in derbies in the past too.
Injuries to Coleman and Mori mean the defensive personnel and structure basically picks itself at this point. No more knocks in that area please!