28 January 2014

Liverpool 4-0 Everton

Gerrard 21'
Sturridge 33' 35'
Suarez 50'

That was a textbook counter-attacking performance. If it's not actually in coaching textbooks, it should be.

And that's the difference a disciplined, intelligent midfield can make, especially when aligned with fast, pressing attackers. It was almost the exact same personnel as against Bournemouth – except Sterling for Moses, with Sturridge ostensibly switching to the left, but still often switching with Suarez – but a completely difference performance.

That difference begins and ends with Gerrard and Coutinho. The former held his position in front of the back four brilliantly, rarely caught out by Barkley, Pienaar, McCarthy, or Barry. The latter tracked back better than in any other match since he signed for Liverpool; it was arguably his most impressive performance for the club, except possibly the 6-0 thrashing of hapless Newcastle at the end of last season. No freelancing, as against Villa or Bournemouth. No gaping holes left when bombing forward aimlessly. Credit where due: maybe Gerrard can play in this role, as long as he has the support, and maybe Rodgers does know what he's doing. A functioning midfield truly does make all the difference.

That's not to take away from the potency of Liverpool's strike force. But that's something we've reveled in all season long. Gerrard opened the scoring, hammering in Suarez's corner for his first goal that wasn't a penalty or free kick in nearly a year, but the other three goals were Liverpool's strikers at their apex. Liverpool had been on top for the first 20 minutes, testing Howard with five shots on target, but as soon as they got the opening goal, Liverpool reverted to the defensive shell counter-attack which led to the three successive 1-0 wins to start the season.

Unlike in those three 1-0 wins, Liverpool had both Sturridge and Suarez at the peak of their powers. Everton had a couple a chances, requiring an excellent save from Mignolet and Mirallas' shot whistling wide, but Sturridge quickly added a second and third against the run of play: the first thanks to Coutinho's wonderful throughball and fullback John Stones caught upfield, the second from Toure's hoof forward, Sturridge timing his run perfectly to break the high offside line – did Everton learn nothing from Liverpool thrashing Tottenham? – and sumptuously chipping the on-rushing Howard. I'd have been even more impressed with the quality of the finish if it wasn't the third time he's done that this season. He, like Suarez, can make the magical look routine.

In Everton's defense, losing Lukaku on the set play that Gerrard scored from completely annihilated their attacking game plan, especially with on-loan Lacina Traore not ready to make his debut, requiring Naismith – a completely different type of player – to come on. Lukaku had been the bane of Liverpool's existence in his last three matches against the Reds, scoring four goals. And Everton's back four was as makeshift as Liverpool's, with both Distin and Coleman out injured. But Liverpool coped with their key players absent. Everton didn't, Everton couldn't.

Martinez looked to steady his ship during the interval, with Osman – on as a substitute for the already-booked, bound-to-be-sent-off Pienaar – blasting a curler which Mignolet excellently parried, Everton's first decent chance since Liverpool's second. But Liverpool soon added a fourth to remove any and all doubt. Suarez was the alpha and omega, his pressing winning possession in the center circle, then out-pacing Jagielka and Alcaraz the length of Everton's half before bamboozling Howard with a left-footed finish.

Three minutes later, Liverpool could and should have had five when Sterling beat the offside trap again to win a penalty, but Sturridge – desperate for his hat-trick – skied the spot kick. From there, cruise control, punctuated only by another break where Sturridge was again selfish and overelaborate in trying to force his third goal, and it was little surprise to see Rodgers haul him off seconds later. Moses replaced Sturridge, Kelly replaced Flanagan, and Luis Alberto replaced Coutinho as Liverpool cantered home. The only chance in the final 20 minutes for either side was Moses shooting into the side netting from the same position where he scored against Bournemouth.

For all Everton's possession – 60.6% to Liverpool's 39.4% – Liverpool never allowed the away side any comfort, anything easy. Not when up by one, three, or four. Not in the 25th minute, not in the 90th. Gerrard, Henderson, and Coutinho couldn't have been more in sync, Suarez and Sturridge were almost as ruthless as possible (*rues missed penalty despite the 4-0 mauling*), Skrtel and Toure won everything in the air – again, aided by Lukaku's departure – Mignolet made three excellent saves, and Flanagan's return massively improved Liverpool's defense. It wasn't coincidence that the frustrated Pienaar, matched up against Liverpool's right back, needed to be taken off at halftime.

That was even more satisfying that 5-0 at Tottenham, even without a fifth, without a Flanagan goal, despite being at Anfield. Because it came against that lot. It was nearly the biggest derby win in my lifetime; I was four months old when Rush scored four and Liverpool scored five at Goodison in 1982. Like against Tottenham, Liverpool provided the perfect riposte when we'd spent days dreading the outcome.

It's funny to look back on Rodgers' "death by football" proclamations from 18 months ago. I remember Liverpool winning the possession battle but losing or drawing a fair few matches early last season. Now, pragmatism: happily conceding possession to open up space for Suarez and Sturridge to slit necks. If Liverpool's midfield can defend and link play this well going forward, if Liverpool's defense can plug holes as effectively as they did today, and if those crucial absentees finally find fitness, the sky's the limit. Or, at least, Liverpool will achieve the fourth place dream.

Today was certainly a concrete step toward doing so.

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