1) These are going to be the strangest games. They might also be some of the worst over the next six months, or however long it takes for the crowds to return. A derby is a derby and its implied importance will always make the football fractious and ugly, but now it’s without the atmosphere that often provides the comforting illusion of occasion.
If all else fails, if there’s no entertainment, a derby will always leave you with your ears ringing and that faint sense of nausea. Is that true now, though, or are these going to play out like a dress rehearsal for something which won’t happen for many, many months?
2) What jumped out from Carlo Ancelotti’s team-sheet wasn’t the inclusion of Anthony Gordon, but the two-man midfield. Andre Gomes and Tom Davies: that felt light. Perhaps it was even counter-intuitive, given that Liverpool’s last three defeats have been in games in which they dominated the ball (71% vs Watford, 59% vs Chelsea, 71% vs Atletico Madrid), but were ultimately frustrated by resilience.
There’s still no blueprint for beating this side, but overcoming them does seem to involve sitting deeper, clogging up the middle of the pitch and then not getting caught in transition. Gomes and Davies are each good enough technically to serve that third aim, but neither are known for their value to the other two. They’re not ball-winners and they’re not screeners. Given the numerical disadvantage Liverpool’s ‘three’ put them under, it was difficult to see them having anything other than the game that they had.
They restricted, they hassled, they also yapped at the ball, but they were also peripheral and less than the sum of their abilities.
3) To be fair to Ancelotti, he didn’t have much choice with the system. Fabian Delph was injured and Morgan Schneiderlin will soon be leaving the club and returning to France. With Jean-Philippe Gbamin also suffering another relapse – he’s expected to be unavailable for another six months – they’re critically short of options and Gomes and Davies was probably their only senior partnership.
Gbamin is such a big loss. Can Everton just wait for him to recover now? On the basis that he’s really their only midfielder who can contribute equally in both directions you’d probably say not. He was supposed to be the replacement for Idrissa Gueye and without him – without that broadly-talented type in the middle of the pitch – Ancelotti is left relying on artisans. They’ll win you some games, but also limit what you can achieve in many others.
Nobody still has any idea whether Gbamin will take to English football or how long he’ll need to recover his best form once he properly recovers. It could be a year before that happens and Everton just can’t go that long without a midfield heartbeat.
4) This was an important night for Takumi Minamino. This is a period during which he’ll prove whether he’s a credible understudy, and with this first Premier League start came some nice touches and some reassurance that, long-term, he can be an asset.
He’s a nice, compact player, isn’t he? Neat, aware, bold with the ball at his feet, and capable of releasing shots with that short, sharp back-lift. Coming out of RB Salzburg, it was difficult to know whether he’d just been dragged through the Champions League campaign by Erling Haaland’s ridiculous form, but – no – there were some subtlety to his game against Everton and just enough craft to look forward to seeing him again.
He’s not going to be a world-beater. That’s okay, though, because Liverpool didn’t pay that kind of fee. They just need him to be interesting and intriguing and to periodically provide the kind of freshness that top sides have to be able to draw from their squads.
5) For Everton, it’s funny how things change. There was a time when Dominic Calvert-Lewin didn’t seem like the right player to lead this attack. He was just there, it was assumed, until someone better could be found or a proper replacement for Romelu Lukaku was bought. Now, it’s the reverse: Calvert-Lewin looks like the permanent fixture, surrounded by dynamics and players who look decidedly temporary.
And that’s one of the reasons why he remains underrated and under-appreciated. In this type of game, when he’s so isolated from his midfielders, wingers and even from his strike partner, he’s noticed for his industry rather than ability, and for just being willing and energetic. It does him a disservice.
On Sunday that was inevitable, because Everton collapsed into a 4-4-1-1 without the ball, with Richarlison dropping back in front of the midfield, the wingers shielding the full-backs, and Calvert-Lewin remaining alone at the top of the pitch. It was easy to understand and perfectly rational from a tactical standpoint, but it still denied him the chance to properly influence the game.
It’s frustrating. He’s a potentially excellent player, so the hope is to see a fair representation of that ability in this kind of game.
6) As an aside, it’s probably quite difficult to motivate this Liverpool team. Not only are they having to cope with this airless, sterile environment like everyone else, but what they are actually playing for? The title’s won; Sky are already running the adverts. It stands to reason then, that driving them towards their target shouldn’t be quite so easy, especially given how energy-based a lot of their football is.
Liverpool are a performance. They’re a spectacle. And they’ve haven’t got an audience to play to. It showed on Sunday. Like everybody else, they’re just waiting for the inevitable to happen and to move into a new phase. Writing any analysis of how they make it over the line and what they don’t once their beyond it is, for now, completely beside the point.
7) Some terrible person is going to advocate for those drinks breaks becoming permanent. It’s either going to be a coach who fancies the theatre of a televised timeout, or some bright spark at Sky who’s noticed that the game now stops for just long enough to run another Bet365 advert.
Dread it, fear it, but know that that idea exists somewhere.
8) A question: why is there such a difference between the artificial noise used for the games on Sky and BT? They both use the same FIFA soundtrack, so does this come down to the individual abilities of the person tasked with pressing the right buttons at the right time?
One for the mailbox.
9) At half-time, Jordan Pickford (22) had had more touches of the ball than every Everton player other than his two full-backs and two centre-halves.
That statistic looked slightly healthier by full-time, but it still illustrated the issue with the midfield. Davies and Gomes actually played quite well, they did everything that could have been expected of them, but until the club addresses the profile of that department, equipping it with abilities it doesn’t have, then this team can never been a protagonist in this kind of game. That’s a bit of an Unai Emerism, but this needs addressing; Everton need a proper platform, they can’t just be reactive.
10) The key to Naby Keita’s Liverpool career will be fitness. He hasn’t suffered any serious injuries since arriving, but he has been blighted by the kind of niggly muscle tweaks which prevent players from enjoying any sort of continuity. He’s been unavailable for 27 Premier League games since September 2018 and while that’s not the only reason for his lack of adaption, it’s the main obstruction to what should eventually be an excellent Liverpool career.
He does so many things well. He carries possession so smoothly, almost with Iniesta-like intricacy at times, and he’s the kind of midfielder a team needs if they’re to cut through a densely packed opponent. Perhaps Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can fulfil a similar role for Liverpool, but Keita is his superior and he’d be a fascinating tool for Klopp if only he could be integrated properly.
There were some signs here. His game ended in substitution and without any tangible reward, but a few clever one-twos and a couple of driving runs were not only suggestive of how he can displace a defence, but also how he could be used to change the pitch of this midfield and drive its evolution.
He’s different. His close control is better than that of any other player Liverpool have in that position and the way he brings the ball towards the defensive line poses contrasting questions to those asked by Klopp’s other midfielders. Keep him fit, then, and he should be a catalyst for something new.
11) If ever a game made the case for how important full-backs are then it was this one. In his commentary, Martin Tyler remarked upon Andy Robertson’s absence and how detrimental it was to Liverpool. He was right, but it wasn’t just Robertson’s individual abilities that were missing, rather it was that tandem between him and Trent Alexander-Arnold and all the variety it contains.
When that’s in place, Liverpool just have a greater range and their ability to probe weaknesses feels much more extensive. Nobody in the Premier League switches the play and changes the point of attack as well as they do and having that Alexander-Arnold/Robertson axis is the key to that, making the team much more unpredictable and – ultimately – far more dangerous.
How many times in previous games has an opposing defence failed to slide across the pitch in time to cut off a crossing angle or prevent an overlap? How often does it just seem like Liverpool had an extra man on the pitch?
And how infrequently did that happen on Sunday night? It wasn’t just Robertson that was missing, but one of Liverpool’s main weapons.
12) It took until the 80th minute for Calvert-Lewin to get a proper chance, and when it arrived it wasn’t even a decent opportunity. He made it one, though, with that clever little backheel which forced a save from Alisson. A few minutes later, he was a threat again, very nearly connecting at the back post with a diving header.
Two small examples, but still evidence of the contrasts in his game and the things he does well. He’s more powerful than assumed and he’s also more subtle than he looks. On Sunday, Liverpool’s reputation probably demanded some tactical respect from Ancelotti, but this was still a reminder that Calvert-Lewin can be a problem with even minimal service and that – in the future – that’s a variety that they should be looking to building around.
13) This was a good evening for Jordan Pickford. Not because he played particularly well or even had that much to do, but he needed to get through one of these games without becoming a headline.
It’s alarming how quickly England goalkeepers become punchlines and Pickford was right on the edge of that territory before the lockdown. He probably would have kept his place had there been a Euro2020, but the contest with Dean Henderson and Nick Pope is much closer than it probably should be and his selection would likely have been based on international experience alone.
So, this was welcome: a couple of good punches, a few clean catches, and no real errors to speak of. Pickford has to get the world to stop talking about his short arms and his soft wrists and the way to do that isn’t with spectacular saves, but just with quiet competence over a long period of time. This was a step along that road and hopefully towards some good form.
14) And it is ‘form’. Let’s infringe on Winners & Losers’ territory with this, because it’s a common theme. Jordan Pickford is a suffering goalkeeper, not a bad one. Like David De Gea, like Ederson Moraes and, until very recently, like Hugo Lloris.
We’re very hasty to announce a goalkeeper’s terminal decline. He has a bad six months, maybe even a year, and everything prior to that point is deemed either irrelevant, outdated, or reflective of a past which is long gone and irretrievable.
Most famously, it happened with Petr Cech. There was a period in around 2008/2009 – post-Stephen Hunt – when it was just decided that he was finished and that he needed to be sent the way of Jerzy Dudek, Paul Robinson and Pepe Reina.
Four years later he won the European Cup.
Form for goalkeepers is just different. Nobody has ever properly explained how or why, but it evidently is and Pickford is just the latest example of how complicated this process can be and how long it can last for.
15) The defence in front of him really did play well, though, and not just because they didn’t make any mistakes. Michael Keane hasn’t had a particularly good two years and Mason Holgate probably isn’t quite as good a player as he should be by now, but this partnership worked.
Seamus Coleman was arguably Everton’s best player – that was a captain’s performance with an urgency befitting the fixture – but Keane and Holgate operated harmoniously. This wasn’t a fully-oiled Liverpool, but those centre-backs dealt nicely with the way Klopp’s forward line pivots around Roberto Firmino, reacting to the combinations and to all the tricks and flicks that the German’s attack tends to hinge around.
If Ancelotti wants to move to three centre-backs to deal with a specific threat, Yerry Mina can always be dropped between Holgate and Keane to provide more aerial security. This is his ‘two’, though – the collective mobility is right, so is the balance with the full-backs.
16) Less a conclusion to finish, more a dawning realisation: imagine what these games are going to be like when teams have nothing to play for. They’re okay now, because it’s novel and new and everyone’s missed football over these past few months, but when the European places are decided and the relegation pictures becomes more clear, this is going to be one hell of a slog.
When the Bundesliga restarted, the quality of the football was a pleasant surprise. With the Premier League, it’s been the opposite. It seems that way, at least. Maybe the longer hiatus has been problematic? Perhaps it’s something to do with inferior conditions and a more rushed preparation? Whatever the case, the only real commodity at the moment is the knowledge that there’s something at stake.
When that goes, we’ve got issues.