When Tim Duncan was a senior at Wake Forest University, his teammates often utilized a very basic strategy: 1.) get the ball to Duncan, and 2.) watch him play. A 7-footer can only do so much on a basketball court, however, and the lack of real help from Duncan’s teammates allowed opponents to double- and triple-team Duncan, decreasing his effectiveness. This kept Wake Forest from ever making the Final Four with the best player in that school’s history.
The moment Mikel Arteta stepped onto the Anfield pitch today, the exact same fate befell Everton.
In the 41st minute, Arteta replaced an injured Marouane Fellaini, who had to leave the match after a two-footed challenge from Liverpool defender Sotirios Kyrgiakos, who was sent off. Every time Arteta got the ball in midfield, however, the Toffees seemed content to sit back and watch him to try and create something. That creativity, even more so in football than in basketball, requires more than one player. Arteta’s play became severely limited by the lack movement from his teammates. As a result, Everton showed shockingly little scoring threat, despite having a man advantage for more than a half.
Of course, that’s only part of the reason that Liverpool secured a crucial 1-0 victory in this Merseyside Derby.
The Reds’ physical play set the tone for the first half, and Everton’s equally physical response seemed to take them out of their usual game. Steven Pienaar’s yellow card in the 30th minute took the spark out of his game and made him a non-factor.
Defensively, 10-man Liverpool did well to limit Everton’s movement as much as than Everton themselves did. For example, the Reds showed a great deal of respect for Landon Donovan’s pace. Every time the American got the ball on the wing, two defenders stepped up to meet him, leaving him with no option but to kick the ball back to Phil Neville. Donovan looked better against Liverpool today than he did in a Bayer Leverkusen jersey five years ago, but Liverpool’s defense did very well to limit his play.
In addition, the Reds knew going into the 2nd half that their best chance for scoring would be from set plays, and they did well to win them. Sure enough, an inswinging corner kick from Steven Gerrard found Dirk Kuyt, who held Tim Howard off well and headed it in for the game’s only goal. Howard should have done better on that play.
That was true for everyone in blue today, though. Everton played as if they didn’t even realize they had a man advantage, and with so little movement and creativity, they squandered a golden opportunity to win their first game in Anfield in the 21st century. Liverpool, meanwhile, moved back into 4th place for the moment, and once again, we’re left to wonder if this is the game that will inspire Liverpool to separate itself from the pack and reclaim its Champions League status.