Despite Ronald Koeman’s post-match claims that he was proud of Everton’s effort in their 3-1 loss to Liverpool over the weekend, there was no escaping the fact that, in a tactical sense, he got it wrong. In a tough and occasionally even dirty Merseyside derby, the Dutchman asked his players to line up in a 3-4-1-2 formation, and it never really looked likely to work.
The thought process behind it, presumably, involved the front three. Ross Barkley played in the No. 10 slot, and ahead of him, Romelu Lukaku and Dominic Calvert-Lewin filled the striking positions. That’s a pretty dynamic and athletic unit, and through a combination of long balls from the back and quickfire counter-attacks, Everton tried to make use of them. They regularly launched the ball long in the direction of Lukaku, hoping the other two front men could feed off him. In addition to that, the trio tended to stay pretty high up in defensive sequences, which, at least in theory, should’ve allowed them to become dangerous outlets in transition. Only it didn’t always work out that way.
Admittedly, there were flashes. Barkley had an excellent chance to break around 39 minutes in, but he gave his opposition too much of a sniff with a heavy touch. Despite this initial effort leading to a turnover, he got the chance to redeem less than one minute later. Again, though, he lost control of possession with a bad bit of dribbling, and perhaps due to frustration, the youngster then lashed out at Dejan Lovren with a horrendous challenge, planting his foot on the Liverpool defender’s standing leg. Barkley should’ve been removed from the contest there and then, but referee Anthony Taylor, for whatever reason, only issued a caution.
Even accounting for these rare moments where Everton’s strategy looked like it might work in an offensive sense, it nonetheless left the Toffees far too exposed on the other side of the ball. When defending, Everton’s 3-4-1-2 morphed into something like a 5-2-1-2, with the wingbacks pushing back while the front three remained relatively advanced. This left the central midfield duo, which featured Idrissa Gueye and Tom Davies, with far too much space to cover on either side of them. Throw in the fact that Liverpool didn’t only have central midfielders Emre Can and Georginio Wijnaldum moving into those spaces but also wingers Sadio Mane and Philippe Coutinho, who floated infield from the flanks, and goals always seemed imminent.
Naturally, Liverpool’s first two goals involved the exploitation of the room in and around Davies and Gueye, with the second strike being a particularly good example of the troubles faced by the midfield pairing. It only took two straightforward sideways passes, from right to left, to get Countinho on the ball in a left-of-centre location. Not only that, but there was no coverage in midfield to the left of Coutinho, so all he had to do was worry about Gueye, who was now moving back over to the left after initially shuffling over to the right, such was the amount of space he had to cover.
The Brazilian threw in a neat little dummy to beat the Senegalese midfielder, skipping beyond his sliding challenge in the process, before finding himself up against inexperienced Everton centre-back Matthew Pennington. Coutinho then pulled out his signature move to breeze by him, cutting inside onto his preferred right boot to give himself the room to shoot. He followed up with a trademark curler into the far corner, and following that extremely simple route to goal, Liverpool were 2-1 up.
If you take a look at the replay from behind the goal, you’ll see Coutinho cruising into the final third while Lukaku, Calvert-Lewin and Barkley are so high up as to be irrelevant. Liverpool’s first goal wasn’t entirely different either, with the front three again far too high to make an impact as Mane and Roberto Firmino exchange a neat one-two. The Senegalese hitman then uses his individual ability up against the defence to score, and in the lead-up, it’s hard not to notice Everton’s midfield duo. Davies and Gueye look deeply untidy while sliding into unsuccessful tackles, and while the casual observer might argue that they go to ground too easily and therefore take themselves out of the equation, the trouble is they had so little support around them. They felt compelled to lunge into those tackles because of that lack of support, and given the ease with which Liverpool could make things happen both in between the lines and to either side of them, that came as no surprise.
Koeman eventually changed things up about 66 minutes in, following a double change to bring on both Gareth Barry and Enner Valencia, but by then his reversion to a back four seemed unlikely to alter the course of the encounter. Liverpool were already 3-1 up and coasting by then. Everton, in contrast, found themselves beaten.
Despite this, Koeman tried to be positive about the display in the post-match. “I’m really proud about the team in the way we played today,” the 54-year-old asserted. “Of course we lost the game, but I think the final result is not reflecting our performance.” This was pretty well in line with most of his thoughts on the Merseyside derby, at least once you put aside his rant about Jurgen Klopp’s antics on the touchline.
Koeman even went so far as to say “the game plan was okay,” but in truth, it wasn’t. It gave Liverpool’s midfield and attack far too much room to manoeuvre, especially when the Reds opted to move the ball quickly, and that was one of the key reasons for Everton’s 3-1 defeat.
In a lot of ways, Klopp summed up this dynamic with clarity. “After the first few minutes we controlled the game, we found the spaces between their lines, we brought Phil [Coutinho] into really good positions,” the German noted. “I said to the boys before the game that it needs to be a mixture of being really smart and emotional – not only emotional. I thought they did really well, controlled it and scored fantastic goals.”
That’s exactly how it turned out. Liverpool were tactically superior and, given some of the challenges put in by Everton, emotionally superior as well. That’s what enabled them to win the game, and on the other side of the coin, it’s what brought about Everton’s loss.