Experiencing the Merseyside Derby In Person at Anfield: The Heart Of English Football
Right, just to forewarn you all, if you’re upbeat after making it through to Wednesday and feeling pretty decent as a whole, this write-up might be best avoided; I don’t want to drag you down. We’ve got loads of brilliant stuff to peruse here at World Soccer Talk; the podcast is great, and there are some excellent pieces ahead of tonight’s games that will keep your good mood well intact.
But if you’re a bit of a doom-monger, fancy indulging in a bit of schadenfreude, or a Liverpool supporter, you might as well carry on. But don’t say I didn’t warn you…
As an Evertonian, you get used to walking out of Anfield downtrodden, “You’ll Never Walk Alone” ringing in your ears on the back of an abject performance from the Toffees. But last night provided an even stronger dose of the annual dejection.
In a category that has no shortage of stellar nominations, Everton served up one of their most abject, naive and downright embarrassing performances at Anfield in the last 15 years. Probably the worst of the lot. So congratulations, lads.
In truth, the whole day didn’t really feel like your classic “derby day”. It’s hard to get excited about the game when you’re sat in work until 5pm and have to rush straight to the ground when you clock out. It’s only when you’re on the way to the pub the nerves start to emerge and you can get fully geared up for the match. Compare that to the previous game, which was at a weekend, the whole week is a hyperbole of derby chatter.
For the Anfield derby, our routine is very much the same as any typical game at Goodison. Last night we were in the pub and I’ll admit, when the teams were announced we were delighted with the line-up. Ross Barkley, Phil Jagielka and Steven Pienaar had all made it despite fitness concerns. All-in-all the XI resembled something comparable to a full-strength outfit despite the injuries that have crippled the rest of the squad.
Naturally, as the booze flowed we talked up our chances and were in pretty buoyant mood on the way up to Anfield. After all, we’d already won at Old Trafford under Roberto Martinez, why couldn’t the Blues repeat the feat at Anfield? Perhaps this is going to the year after 15 years of make-shift non-performances? We’re certainly due one.
The BT Sport panel set-up in an elevated studio around the back of the ground near the away end; maybe not the best idea, as Steve McManaman and David Ginola were on the end of a fair bit of heckling. As we walked into the ground, the Evertonians sounded in pretty fine fettle. We got a drink, sung through the back catalogue of songs and the atmosphere transcended into the stands as we walked up to take our seat.
In terms of my seat, it was probably the best I’ve ever had at Anfield, as you can see below. But we were just metres from the Liverpool supporters, a lot whom were wearing those half-and-half “friendship” scarves (seriously, who would buy one of them?). As the game went on, as you’d expect, we copped a fair bit of stick.
Martinez is an inimitably positive man by nature, and it’s no surprise he took a major gamble with his team selection. During his maiden campaign, these brash decisions have worked in earnest.
But during the opening exchanges of the game, it was obvious that this one wasn’t going to pay off. Pienaar’s touch was heavy. Barkley wasn’t his usual self. Jagielka was uncharacteristically ponderous, and Alcaraz was flat-footed. They were half-fit players clearly unable to grasp the high-tempo and high-pressure that comes with the Merseyside derby.
When Steven Gerrard — who always, always raises his game against Everton — headed in a Luis Suarez corner early on and Romelu Lukaku was carried off injured, you sensed what was coming.
In short, the wheels came off. Big time. Philippe Coutinho played Daniel Sturridge into the space in which Everton’s defense presumably should have occupied and he made it 2-0.
A couple of minutes later, a hopeful punt forward was picked up by Sturridge and with Tim Howard sprinting out of his goal presumably screaming “Danny! Danny! Just loft it over me!”, the England forward duly made it 3-0 and half-time couldn’t come quick enough.
For the first time in my life, I genuinely considered leaving early at the break. I feel a bit dirty for saying so, but it was that bad and after spending £50 on a ticket and £30 on food and drink, I was totally fed up. It was essentially as if I’d been mugged, but thankfully it was Everton taking a monumental kicking instead of me.
In the end though, I decided to stick it out. But it soon got worse, as Jagielka passed straight to Suarez, clearly intent on outdoing his mate Sylvain Distin in the “pass-backs straight to Suarez” stakes. As if the Uruguayan needed any kind of help anyway especially with the score already at 3-0 in the derby. In the bloody derby.
Obviously at this juncture, the Reds were four up but it could have been many, many more. Sturridge missed the chance for a hat trick, blasting a penalty over the bar, before having a major strop when he was subsequently substituted. After he was withdrawn, the match petered out and Everton were spared further embarrassment as Liverpool shut the game down.
Credit of course must go to the home team. Rodgers got his tactics spot-on. Liverpool surrendered possession, nicked the ball back and sprung from deep, exposing Everton’s sluggish defenders on the break time and time again. Despite struggling for the past few weeks, Gerrard played like a man possessed, whilst Sturridge was typically decisive in front of goal. Suarez didn’t really get out of first gear.
But from an Everton perspective, the team contributed massively to their own downfall. It was a major opportunity to cement themselves as top-four candidates and they blew it once again. I’m starting to wonder if I’ll ever see an Everton team put in a performance and win at Anfield. Defensively it was as bad as you’ll ever see and it will take a lot to lift the team ahead of this weekend’s game.
The only real positive was the performance of Kevin Mirallas, who didn’t deserve to be on the losing side. At full-time, he displayed his support to Bryan Oviedo after the Costa Rican suffered a terrible injury last weekend:
— Everton Pictures (@evertonfcpics) January 29, 2014
Now comes the big test for Martinez. This has been his first major set-back as boss and now we need to see an Everton team respond to this adversity and re-establish the vibrancy and swagger that have been so prevalent so far this season. They’ve responded to derby defeats well in years gone by, and they must do so again if they are to cling onto any hopes of a top-four finish. But this was a firm reminder that it’s clear Everton are going in the right direction under the Spaniard, they remain very much a work in progress.
Next up it’s Aston Villa, who will no doubt look to play on the break in a manner akin to Liverpool, such is their counter-attacking prowess. They have a great record at Goodison Park too. Hopefully the Toffees can put at least one hoodoo to bed this week.
In other news, before the game Gerrard donated £96,000 to the Hillsborough Family Support Group. An excellent gesture and as the skipper himself put it “when there is a tragedy in this city, you do get touching moments. It does unite and it does make you feel like you are part of such a special city”.
What’s your view? Leave a message in the comments section or follow me on Twitter @MattJFootball