13 March 2012

Liverpool 3-0 Everton

Gerrard 34' 51' 90+3'

Happy 10th anniversary, David Moyes. Love, Steven Gerrard.

Another performance in a "big game" which, while utterly wonderful – especially because it's in the derby – also makes us rue what's come before. Three goals in a league game for only the fourth time this season, all three from a rampantly dynamic Gerrard. Suarez and Carroll linking brilliantly, with Carroll all over the pitch in a deeper role and Suarez setting up two of Gerrard's strikes. Henderson impressive on the right, aided by the superlative Martin Kelly. Carragher thriving in a perfectly Carragher game. No defensive mistakes, tactically versatile (using a healthy mix of long balls and pass-and-move football), and runners from midfield supporting the strikers. More than celebratory for its one-off excellence, it's a reminder of what could have been. And no, it's not all down to Charlie Adam's omission, wise guy.

Admittedly, with matching 4-4-2s from both sides, Liverpool were assuredly better without Adam. It's hard to take much precedent from these fixtures, but Liverpool's balance was far better without the controversial midfielder. In just the third match where Suarez, Gerrard, and Carroll have all started, Liverpool took the early initiative, denied an opener by two Howard saves – on Gerrard and Suarez – with Rodwell impressively blocking Henderson's rebound from Gerrard's effort.

Liverpool weathered Everton's fight-back after the first 15 minutes, but the away side couldn't convert increased possession into opportunities on goal, mostly thanks to Kelly and Henderson blunting Everton's best creator in Baines, especially as Pienaar frequently cut inside, picked up by Spearing. Meanwhile, Skrtel and Carragher stuck fast to Anichebe and Stracqualursi, surprisingly starting ahead of Jelavic and Cahill, ensuring neither had space to do damage in the box.

Everton's impotency in the final third would soon be severely punished. Fellaini, surging forward, chose the wrong option in trying to release Coleman. Enrique coolly intercepted and immediately turned defense into attack, straight down the field in a flowing move: Enrique to Suarez to Downing to Suarez to Henderson to Suarez to Kelly, sent free by a fortunate deflection off Gerrard's shin. Kelly's shot was saved by Howard, but Distin's weak clearance under pressure from Liverpool's right back fell straight to Gerrard, who immaculately curled a left-footed strike over the stranded Howard and defender on the line.

Kelly was unlucky not to tally minutes later, pushing a shot just past the far post on another hurricane run down the flank as Liverpool looked to ramp up the pressure. Those type of runs were crucial in pinning Baines back. But Everton remained combative and solid, although pushed deeper and deeper into their own half, relieving the already-limited pressure on Spearing and the back four.

Liverpool's killer second came seven minutes after the restart, with the side able to keep up the frenzied first half pace. Pressure from Henderson and Kelly when Everton attempted to start an attack led to Kelly easily dispossessing Pienaar then sending Henderson on his way. The midfielder released Suarez behind Everton's defense on the right, and a trademark byline run past the hesitant Distin and Jagielka allowed the Uruguayan to hand off to Gerrard charging forward from midfield, lashing a shot into the roof of the net from eight yards out.

It was a singular moment which demonstrated the importance of pressing in the opposition half, Henderson's intelligence on the break, Suarez's iridescence and, most importantly, the supreme value of midfield runners. Especially a midfield runner like Steven Gerrard. Liverpool should have added a third in the subsequent seconds, but Carroll shot just wide after set up by Suarez (from a long Reina goal kick), then a diving Kelly was unable to make contact with Downing's perfect cross following a short corner.

Everton nearly responded on the hour mark, one of few opportunities all game, after Baines finally got behind Kelly, released by Pienaar's throughball, but Rodwell tamely tried to pass into the net from the left back's cutback, and Enrique was able to clear the shot – which was going wide – from inside the six-yard box. Moyes then made a triple substitution, sending on Jelavic, Osman, and Drenthe (all three were surprise omissions), but the only other chance was an irrelevant one with Fellaini unnecessarily offside. And was spurned by Jelavic anyway.

Liverpool's lone substitution came when Kuyt replaced Henderson in the 72nd, using the Dutchman's work rate when defending deeper with quick strikes on the counter. Which worked to perfection as Liverpool easily soaked up pressure, frustrating an increasingly-jaded opponent, before Gerrard got his hat-trick – the first in a derby since Ian Rush scored four 30 years ago. Gerrard burst forward after Drenthe slipped, charging into a two-on-two with Suarez and playing the Uruguayan in at just the right moment. But instead of shooting, Suarez smartly and unselfishly checked onto his right foot, taking Distin out, and centered for his wide-open captain. Suarez creates chances, lots of them, if he's got someone who can finish them off.

Despite (or because of) Liverpool's excellence, both individual players and as a team, focus will probably fall on one who didn't feature. It's harsh, but somewhat deserved after Liverpool were comprehensively excellent. Playing Everton made it "easier" – both sides ran and ran and hoofed and ran, as they always do in the fixture, and Everton consistently deploy a 4-4-2. But Spearing had his best game since Lucas' injury, clearly more comfortable with this midfield partner, and Gerrard supported the attack brilliantly. I'll probably continue to be an Adam apologist, but at the very least, this is further proof that he's not suited to a 4-4-2 formation. But Liverpool may well be. That's what we need to find out over the next 10 matches.

Everton are now just the second side Liverpool's done the double over this season, joining hapless Wolves. I'd love to proclaim this a turning point, but at this point of the season, there's little left to turn. Of course, Liverpool need to take advantage of this confidence boost and learn the tactical lessons on offer. Henderson can play on the flank, he and Downing can excel in a 4-4-2. Suarez and Carroll can play together, and Carroll isn't a wholly immobile lug.

Just as necessary as any lessons learned or confidence gained will be showing this ambition in the future, "up for it" against the likes of Sunderland or Stoke instead of just the Evertons, Uniteds, or Chelseas. There is a real team here, both in progress and in actuality, but we need to see it far more often.


Peter Elwood said...

While Carroll hasn't brought many goals, and Suarez has become the nation-wide villain in England (and also hasn't brought many goals), games like these display such chemistry and raise questions about whether or not to sell them, and whether or not to buy another striker. What are your thoughts for the summer transfer season?
As long as Stevie is never injured ever again and never retires it looks like our goal scoring woes are solved.

Calico Jack said...

I would love to see Carroll, Suarez, and Gerrard get as many games together for the rest of the season.

The sad reality is that the 3 have only played a few games together due to injuries/suspension.

Anonymous said...

Everyone has been focusing on strikers and midfielders, but I couldn't help but think that one of the biggest decisions we need to make is at right back. Is Martin Kelly better than Johnson? Whenever Kelly plays he gets at least a shot in on goal. He has missed a couple sitters recently, which a player more comfortable on the pitch probably would have buried. All this in spite of the fact that Johnson is considered the better offensive player.

Question: Would selling Johnson give us further funds to solidify more problem areas? Would we be comfortable with a Kelly/Flannigan right back?

nate said...

Is Martin Kelly better than Johnson?

No, but he has the potential to be.

Question: Would selling Johnson give us further funds to solidify more problem areas? Would we be comfortable with a Kelly/Flanagan right back?

Absolutely not. Johnson is still one of the top right backs in the league. Kelly was an absolute beast last night, probably the best I've seen him play for the club, but Johnson's more experienced and does it on a most consistent basis.

Liverpool don't have endless funds, but they also don't have to sell to buy anymore. Enjoy having the deepest right-back situation of any club in the league. Enjoy having a top quality full back in his prime who can play on either the right or left and enjoy having England's most promising full-back (Kyle Walker is no Martin Kelly), one who might well be a better center-back in the future. It is a very nice problem to have.