By Patrick Boyland at Prenton Park
It’s not just Everton’s first-team that seemingly have a complex when it comes to playing Liverpool. Judging by Saturday evening’s 4-0 mini derby defeat at Under-23 level, the weakness is something also shared by the Blues’ second string too.
Given that it was billed as first against second- and an early indication as to the possible destination of the Premier League 2 title this season- the gulf in class between the two city rivals was worryingly large. In honestly, it could- and perhaps should- have been an even heavier scoreline.
So what of the famed Everton youngsters? Regular observers of Under-23 football will know that there’s normally little to separate the two teams on paper. When the teamsheets were delivered, it seemed as though a close-fought encounter was in the offing. Not so, on this occasion.
In the absence of players currently out on loan, stand-in manager Francis Jeffers turned to the likes of Mo Besic, Nikola Vlasic and Beni Baningime to plug gaps. Liam Walsh, a key figure in the Premier League 2 title victory last season, also returned from a loan spell with Birmingham City- as did another player on the fringes of first-team selection in David Henen.
Rather than elevate the performance of the team, however, the glut of returnees had the opposite effect. It left Everton with arguably greater experience than in recent matches, but short, crucially, of the sort of cohesion that helped them to the title last time around.
Key players like Kieran Dowell and Joe Williams may be out on loan at present- with last season’s captain Jonjoe Kenny now in the first-team- but the biggest loss of all has undoubtedly been that of David Unsworth. A driving force at this level, the current first-team caretaker manager will have instead been on the way home from a 2-2 draw against Crystal Palace at senior level as his former charges slumped to defeat at Prenton Park.
Unsworth, of course, has been replaced by the inexperienced Jeffers until first-team matters are fully resolved, yet however talented the latter may be- that, in itself, is still up for debate- the fact remains that he has a huge job on his hands to even get close to emulating his predecessor.
With the pursuit of Watford’s Marco Silva still ongoing, it seems unlikely that Unsworth will be named permanent first-team manager. And so it is to be hoped that the Lancastrian wil be able to continue his formative role shaping Everton’s top young talent in the near future. On this evidence, the sooner that moment comes, the better.
For the first half an hour or so, Everton’s plan to contain their opponents, and then spring on the counter, appeared to be working. A conservative 4-3-3 setup featuring Besic and Baningime at the base of the midfield allowed league leaders Liverpool plenty of possession, but with the majority coming in the right sorts of areas. Save for one shot from Harry Wilson- a troublesome presence throughout- chances were at a premium.
Tellingly, however, when a goal did come- keeper Louis Gray punished for surrendering possession way too easily- another swiftly followed. Perhaps even more galling that the opener, Corey Whelan’s back-post header from a corner set the tone for a shoddy defensive performance that plummeted way below usual levels. Heads went down, players stopped making brave decisions on the ball, and body language painted a grim picture of a side that had quickly started to look rudderless. From that moment, the young Blues never looked like getting back into the game. If anything, the disparity in performance between the two sides became even more apparent after the break.
The feeling lingers that such a slump would have been arrested at half-time under Unsworth; that his ability to unite and inspire could have made a difference. But for now, first-team matters are a more pressing concern for the popular Lancastrian- and the Under-23s must plough on without their leader.
By the hour, Everton seemed totally spent, and Liverpool, driven on by the impressive Wilson, were well in the ascendancy. Besic, for whom this was a rare opportunity to stake his claim for the senior side, was sloppy and off the pace, while Vlasic’s smart footwork and strong running were all too fleeting. Instead, it was the junior figure of the trio, Beni Baningime, who both offered the main resistance.
A tireless presence in midfield, the Congolese-born midfielder showed good balance and decent touch during an opening period in which he was arguably the best on the pitch. Indeed, one pirouette to evade three Liverpool opponents was a particular highlight in a dominant first 45 minutes. He too, was eventually swamped in the second-half, as Everton failed to mount any tangible resistance, but by then the game was as good as gone and several teammates had clearly run their race.
Superb second-half goals- at least from an attacking point of view- from Under 17 World Cup winner Rhian Brewster and substitute Yan Dhanda added further deserved gloss to the scoreline. Holes on the counter exploited with ruthless efficiency.
In the end, the final whistle was welcome relief for all of a blue persuasion.
Attention for Jeffers and Co will now turn to quickly putting things right in the Premier League 2- but as those in attendance in Birkenhead will attest- it is without doubt the fate of Unsworth that should take up most consideration over the coming week. On this evidence, it may well be the case that his former team’s fate is very much tied to his own.