The first edition of the Mersey Derby in this year’s Premier League campaign saw two teams dealing with different problems. Liverpool, the match’s hosts, is trying to figure out how to move without the transcendent talent of Luis Suarez. Meanwhile, Everton is dealing with the same problem they face every year: How does a midlevel team with limited resources compete with the larger teams, especially their in-town rival?
It was the Toffees who seemed to have a better solution to their problem, as Roberto Martinez drew up a stellar game plan and managed to keep Everton in the match through its entirety with the payoff being, of course, Phil Jagielka’s lovely stoppage time goal. Martinez used a simple strategy: Force Liverpool, a team struggling to establish its attacking identity, to attack. It was a deft move that did not result in the prettiest game, but in its ugliness at times played into Everton’s hands.
While Everton has struggled defensively this year, they are still the same side, more or less, that looked so great defensively last year. Three of Martinez’s back four (Jagielka, Tony Hibbert and Leighton Baines) are holdovers from last year’s side as is keeper Tim Howard, and Martinez must be banking on the beginning of this season being somewhat of an aberration. Given this, rather than trying to assault Liverpool’s defense and create opportunities, the Toffees held back and let the opportunities come to them. By sitting back, which did lead to some apparent missed opportunities, they smartly forced a Liverpool team unable to fill the Suarez-sized hole in their front line to attempt to do so on the fly. That is a big reason we saw Mario Balotelli take ten shots – without a single one finding the back of the net.
Their strategy of sitting back not only helped them stop Liverpool, it allowed them to free up their best offensive threat, Romelu Lukaku, to do what he does best and wreak havoc on opposing defenders on the wing. Liverpool made a fairly glaring personnel decision in putting the diminutive Alberto Moreno in the back, and he could simply not compete with the physically dominant Lukaku. The plays developed behind Lukaku, he simply had to wait on the wings, where he spent most of his time Saturday, and let his midfielders get him the ball. Unfortunately, hampered by their limited resources, this plan did not always work, but when it did it allowed him to take his three shots on goal and create an opportunity as well. While Lukuaku was unable to break through for Everton, his ability to punish Liverpool’s back line was enabled by the Toffee’s defense, and it was a vital to them staying competitive with, quite simply, a more talented Liverpool side.