Liverpool welcome Everton to Anfield this Sunday for the opening Merseyside Derby of the season. Traditionally, the match is a fiercely contested one with plenty of scoring chances; indeed, in their last ten meetings, the two teams have together produced a grand total of 27 goals.
The latest instalment of the derby will have more storylines than it has done for quite some time, however. Everton have a new management team in place, with Sam Allardyce in charge and supported by former Red Sammy Lee. Liverpool, meanwhile, enter the game on the back of a 7-0 thrashing of Spartak Moscow in Champions League action and are, outside of Manchester City, the form side in the Premier League.
As well as the aforementioned history and talking points, the two teams’ managers have contrasting tactical ideals. While Allardyce has traditionally been seen as favouring direct play and deep defending, his opposite man – Jürgen Klopp – is associated with incessant pressing and intense defensive transitions.
Both sides have reason to be confident going into the match. Everton’s depressing slump appears to be over, with two wins and two clean sheets from their last two league games, while Liverpool have been irresistible going forward of late, winning five of their last six and scoring 19 times in the process.
Can Allardyce’s tactics trouble a flawed Liverpool defence? Can Klopp’s counter-pressing and high-tempo attacking game overwhelm Everton? Here we at Football Whispers analyse the upcoming derby.
BACK TO BASICS WITH BIG SAM
While he is often seen as a throwback, Allardyce is one of the most innovative British managers around today. Some of the ideas he implemented during his Bolton Wanderers days – namely his use of data and emphasis on wages over transfer fees – were visionary at the time. And, while this detailed approach to tactics and transfers is commonplace today, he remains an effective Premier League boss.
He has earned a reputation for keeping teams up. Indeed, both Crystal Palace and Sunderland can thank him for this specialism. However, as many other managers have proven, the style of play he imbues his teams with can work higher up the table too.
Everton were a confused team under Ronald Koeman and, temporarily, David Unsworth. They shifted shape from game to game, constantly altering to counter the opposition and failing to establish any consistency. But, on the basis of his first game in charge, Allardyce is taking them back to basics.
He lined his team up in a 4-5-1 shape against Huddersfield Town. Up front, on his own, was Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who has won more aerial duels than any other Premier League striker this season. There was a clear focus on deep defence and a flexible man-marking scheme that occasionally saw the system take on a Pulisian 6-3-1 look. Defenders cleared there lines, avoiding uncertainty at all costs, while ingenuity was generally restricted to the final third.
In possession, Everton tended to go long. Already one of the highest-ranked Premier League teams for long balls with a 70 per game average, the one per game they had averaged before.
There was little by way of nuance, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Allardyce’s side looked organised, the players knew their defensive roles and they didn’t give possession away cheaply in their own third. This is what ‘Big Sam’ has always done. He strips away the complexities and makes things simple for his players; he is then repaid in solid, if unspectacular, team performances.
Against Huddersfield, another of his tactical preferences – the POMO (Position of Maximum Opportunity) seemed to emerge. Most of Everton’s set pieces – free kicks and corners – were out-swingers, away from the opposition goalkeeper, aimed centrally to the edge of the opposition six-yard box.
Allardyce’s direct tactics could cause some issues for Liverpool, who have been particularly vulnerable to balls over the top and in dead-ball situations this term. This is a view reinforced by Football Whispers’ own Liverpool expert Sam McGuire, who says that: “Issues from set pieces still exist. If there’s a way to rattle Liverpool it’s by bombarding them aerially.”
For those looking for some form of numerical proof of this notion, only three Premier League teams have won a smaller proportion of their aerial duels than the Reds’ 47 per cent.
LIVERPOOL INCREASINGLY VERSATILE
Everton could well find the net on Sunday, but that may not be enough to overcome a Liverpool side who have looked virtually unstoppable going forward in recent weeks. With all of their top attacking talent, including Philippe Coutinho, Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mané and Roberto Firmino, finally all fully fit and firing, few other Premier League teams can match Klopp’s men for the sheer quantity of dangerous offensive outlets.
What is perhaps even more worrying for the Toffees is that Liverpool are also an increasingly versatile outfit able to operate effectively in multiple different ways. Previously wedded to a basic 4-2-3-1, their recent upturn has coincided with experimentation.
McGuire highlighted some of these changes. “Since the loss to Tottenham Hotspur Liverpool have started using a different shape. It's a variation of a 4-4-2,” he says. “On paper it seems more attacking than a 4-3-3 but it's helped us defensively.”
“They have more pressing lines (because they set up like a 4-2-2-2) and the two central midfielders cover for the full-backs when they push on. The old system used to rely on one sitting midfielder to cover a lot of space.”
There have also been some important positional tweaks for certain individuals, as McGuire divulges: “Salah plays centrally alongside Firmino and both look to press the opposition. They also start (Joe) Gomez at right-back but in possession he moves to right centre-back so it's like they're playing with a back three. [This provides] extra security in open play.”
Another intriguing recent tactical development came away to Brighton and Hove Albion. There, Liverpool not only played with a back three, but did so with a defensive line that included natural midfielders Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum. They won 5-1, becoming the first side to put more than two goals past Chris Hughton’s side this season; both Manchester giants and Arsenal had tried and failed previously in this pursuit.
Klopp’s pressing and counter-pressing preference has come under scrutiny at times this term – many feel that, while it may not yet have disappeared altogether, it has become a decreasingly influential. There is undoubtedly some truth to this, but there have also been plentiful new ideas to ensure his side remain extremely effective.
Two weeks ago, there was only one winner in this Merseyside derby. But, thanks to Allardyce’s arrival, Everton better prepared than before to put forth a strong argument and ensure a typically engaging contest. However, Liverpool’s attacking potency should prove too much for them.