Everton 2-2 Liverpool: surprising levels of pressing, while Rodgers switches to a back three
A frantic first half, followed by a more subdued second half.
David Moyes was without Steven Pienaar so used Kevin Mirallas on the left, where he was the first half’s brightest player. Steven Naismith started on the right, while Marouane Fellaini returned behind the main striker.
If looking for betting tips click here. In the absence of Glen Johnson, Brendan Rodgers fielded Andre Wisdom at right-back and Jose Enrique at left-back. Brad Jones was in for Pepe Reina.
Liverpool stormed into a 2-0 lead, before Everton pulled it back to 2-2 shortly before half-time.
Formations and overall pattern
In terms of the basics, this was a simple battle. Everton were 4-2-3-1, Liverpool were 4-3-3, so both had a spare men at the back, it was 3 v 3 in midfield – the usual thing. Fellaini’s positioning sometimes turned Everton into more of a 4-4-2, but he was generally in combat with Joe Allen – although the Belgian didn’t look fully fit, and he wasn’t a huge presence upon the game.
This wasn’t the usual blood and thunder Merseyside derby – bookings were for niggly tackles rather than strong challenges, and there was a surprising amount of space in midfield.
The first half wasn’t about formations and individual positioning, but instead about the level of pressing, and the contest was something of a role reversal. Rodgers demanded intense pressing at Swansea and has brought a similar style of football to Liverpool, while Moyes is a flexible manager but often instructs his players to stand off and stay deep in two banks of four, particularly against good technical sides.
Therefore, it was a surprise to see the approaches of the two sides. Everton moved high up the pitch and pressured the Liverpool defenders, often 4 v 4, in the first half. When Brad Jones had the ball, Everton prevented him from distributing it short to the centre-backs, meaning Liverpool couldn’t get into a good passing rhythm (see below for how his kicks were more frequently long compared to last weekend against Reading). Jones had to hit long balls towards Liverpool’s short front three – almost all his passes were towards the halfway line, and they were frequently unsuccessful. When Fellaini was in the midfield zone rather than high up pressing a centre-back, Nikica Jelavic tended to occupy Daniel Agger rather than Martin Skrtel – Agger’s the better passer, so preventing the ball being played into the Dane was a wise move.
Not only did the pressing harm Liverpool’s passing, it helped Everton win the ball high up the pitch. One particularly obvious example saw Wisdom caught in possession within his own half – this led to a half-chance for Fellaini.
Liverpool sit back
Liverpool, however, were sitting back. Rather than 4-3-3, they frequently looked 4-1-4-1 without the ball – which is entirely natural for defensive-minded 4-3-3s, but Rodgers usually wants the wide players to stay higher. Part of the reason for this, perhaps, was that Rodgers wanted to protect his full-backs against a side that plays primarily down the flanks. Wisdom is a talented player, but is young and inexperienced, while Jose Enrique has endured a difficult 2012 after a positive start to his Liverpool career. They both needed support from ahead.
On the other hand, maybe it was a strategy based around how Liverpool wanted to attack attack. In everything they did, Liverpool appeared direct, getting the ball forward quickly rather keeping it neat and ensuring dominance of possession. This could be attributed to the fact it was a Merseyside derby – or because Everton were pressing them – but it seemed Rodgers wanted Liverpool to attack the Everton defence quickly.
Liverpool clearly had the advantage in terms of pace against the Everton centre-backs, and this was where Moyes’ pressing strategy encountered problems – if you press high up the pitch, you must either play a high defensive line or you leave space in the midfield. Everton did a little of both in the first half, and with the back four so unaccustomed to the lack of protection from ahead, they were exposed quickly. Liverpool didn’t attack particularly frequently, but when they did, they looked dangerous – with Luis Suarez involved in almost everything.
However, the key battle was predictably happening on Everton’s left – the home side have played 46% of passes down that flank in 2012/13, a higher proportion than any other side – see their final third entries below. While they were weakened by the lack of the reliable Leighton Baines – Steven Pienaar connection, Mirallas came into the side and performed excellently. Both he and Naismith played narrower than you might expect, encouraging the full-backs forward.
Mirallas ran directly with the ball past Wisdom, who needed a more experienced player ahead of him. Raheem Sterling had a difficult defensive task against Baines, especially after he collected a yellow card.
Rodgers was so concerned about his side’s problems at the back that he decided to change formation completely at the break, opting for a system that was roughly 3-5-2. Suso and Nuri Sahin were removed, with Jonjo Shelvey and Sebastian Coates coming on. Shelvey and Steven Gerrard took it in turns to get forward, and Coates was the free man between Liverpool’s centre-backs.
However, an equally crucial change came from Everton: Mirallas had to depart, with Magaye Gueye replacing him. With that switch occurring at the same time as Rodgers’ formation change, it’s difficult to assess how successful it was, as Everton’s key man had been taken out of the game. Nevertheless, Liverpool looked less nervous at the back, and the full-backs (now wing-backs) sometimes had cover behind them when Skrtel or Agger came across.
New formation battle
The game was now completely different. Liverpool were 3 v 2 at the back, with Allen more content to leave Fellaini to the centre-backs. It was 3 v 3 in the centre, but really the midfield battle was of little consequence, because both sides were trying to move the ball out of that zone quickly.
Everton now had a numerical advantage on both flanks. With the Liverpool wing-backs picking up the Everton wide midfielders, Baines and Seamus Coleman had freedom to get forward, stretch the play and provide crosses. It was a risky move to leave these players free, especially as Everton’s front two are so powerful in the air, and there were a couple of sequences play where both provided crosses from other side within the same move. With those two players unoccupied, Everton had an easy out-ball and dominated possession in the second half, 56%.
However, with Everton pushing both full-backs high up the pitch, Liverpool had the possibility to break two-versus-two against two centre-backs. With Suarez and Sterling both highly mobile and adept at exploiting space in the channels, this was reminiscent of Udinese’s counter-attacks at their peak – Suarez moving on the outside of the centre-backs in the manner of Antonio Di Natale, Sterling playing the role Alexis Sanchez once filled, picking up the ball in deep positions and running with pace. Sterling wasted a fine one-on-one chance, while Suarez caused Sylvain Distin all kinds of difficulties for the second Merseyside derby running.
The second half was much quieter than the first, yet was more interesting tactically – both sides had areas of strength, and both looked to that zone quickly.
Both managers” unusual pressing strategies made sense – Everton disrupted Liverpool’s passing rhythm with their energetic approach, while Liverpool sitting back meant they could break with pace against an Everton backline lacking protection from ahead.
Rodgers’ formation change was the major talking point in a tactical sense – it’s still quite rare to see a three-man defence in the Premier League – but it was a shame Mirallas had to depart, as it’s difficult to tell which change had a bigger impact upon the shape of the game.