By Matt Jones
Remember when there were large portions of the Everton fanbase that were worried Ronald Koeman wasn’t Everton enough?
During that one-in-ten run of form earlier in the campaign, it was a genuine critique. “This fella says things like ‘the club’ and ‘Everton’ instead of ‘we’!” You all remember.
As the Blues have got their act together, those criticisms have inevitably dwindled. But on the cusp of another jaunt across the park with the aim of ending an 18-year winless run at Anfield, it’s a point worth readdressing.
Maybe Koeman’s detachment can be a catalyst in the Toffees’ wrestling back control in this local dynamic?
Because if you let your mind wander back down the litany of derby failures suffered by those in blue down the years—sorry for triggering that—plenty can be attributed to Liverpool’s stiffer mental strength.
Everton, by contrast, have got their approach wrong frequently. Thinking of the most recent derby—again, sorry—the Toffees were manic in their approach. The early stages were chaotic and against the league’s fittest, in-form side at the time, it was no surprise to see a drop-off in the latter stages and a late Liverpool winner.
A familiar tale.
That blueprint can cultivate recklessness too. The kind that bristled in Ross Barkley when he flew into Jordan Henderson in December, in Ramiro Funes Mori when he took aim at Divock Origi’s ankle last April and countless other examples of when red mist has engulfed those in blue against Liverpool
Everton have assumed that role—the determined and physical scrappers—too frequently in these games. They’re the side that’ll come out fighting, seeking to rough the Reds up. It’s as though that method has paved a way to victory in the past frequently for the Toffees.
But with no derby triumph in seven years and no win at Anfield this millennium, it’s a box Everton need to burst out of. They’ve been too emotionally invested. Too belligerent. Too quick to adhere to their stereotype.
And that’s where a figure like Koeman can make his mark.
For a man that’s won the European Cup with Barcelona, the European Championship with the Netherlands and a plethora of honours already as a manager, this fixture is just another game in a way it never was for David Moyes and Roberto Martinez.
And while it’d be wrong to suggest focus and determination to win would be less for Koeman as a result of his accomplishments, putting this fixture into a grander perspective can help Everton.
After years of forensic examination from supporters, journalists and analysts as to why Everton players recoil at the sight of opponents in all-red, maybe these footballers just need someone to say with conviction “lads, it’s just a Merseyside derby”? To relieve them of some of the pressure that’s been building for so many years.
There’ll be tribal discussions in the days leading up to this fixture about a need to match Liverpool on Saturday. To be fierce, to press every ball and play for the shirt—insert you own derby cliche here.
But Everton need to be the savvier side. When the opportunity comes, they need to sap sting out of the game. They need be forceful, but at the right times. They need to try and manipulate the match official. And if you’re going to leave one on a lad in red, don’t do it in plain sight.
Obviously, they need to actually play well too and there’s no doubt this version of Koeman’s Everton is superior to the one that took to the field at Goodison Park the last time these two rivals met. They’re fitter, more adaptable and more potent in front of goal.
Koeman has been key to those progressions. On home soil, in particular, an identity has emerged, with the Toffees looking more and more like the front-foot, high-intensity team the Dutchman put together at Southampton.
The next step is finding a winning plan away from home, especially against those sides occupying the top six places. As of yet, that’s been tough for Koeman; a 1-1 draw at Manchester City could have easily been a heavy defeat, while the scoreline in 3-2 and 5-0 losses at Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea, respectively, flattered the Blues.
But a man of his esteem will be learning. About his players, about their mentalities and about the football club as a whole. He’ll have soaked up plenty from his first Merseyside derby too. He won’t want to endure that type of feeling again.
Subsequently, Koeman won’t allow his players to be in a position where punch themselves out again. The Dutchman will demand discipline, in terms of tactical organisation and individual conduct. He won’t want to see his team red in the face in the dressing room a la Gary Wackett, itching to clatter into a tackle in the first minute just because.
Those in blue need to stride into this one with assurance, with their eyes open, hyper-aware. Not with their chin on their chest, swinging blindly, hoping a haymaker finally lands.
“But OK, lads. It’s only a Merseyside derby.”