Everton and Liverpool roll into this season’s first Merseyside derby on Saturday, and both managers are preparing for the match with brows furrowed, casting perturbed looks at each of their respective defences. Both Liverpudlian clubs have opened their Premier League campaigns in very lukewarm fashion, largely because of the alarmingly sieve-like efforts coming from the back. For Liverpool, it’s more of the same; indecision and confusion are their defensive bywords, despite considerable reinforcement in that area during the transfer period. For Everton, the decline of Phil Jagielka, and to a similar extent, Sylvain Distin, has been creeping up on the Toffees for some time, all while the club has been under the duvet, fingers in ears, muttering “I can’t hear you, I can’t hear you”. Distin has been an evergreen stalwart, and Jagielka was an England regular not long ago, but it looks as though their time might be coming to an end.
At both clubs, the full backs have been vibrant, energetic attacking assets, but because of this, sometimes the defensive side of their roles is given less preference than it should be. Coleman and Baines are incredibly fruitful offensive players, scoring 6 and 5 goals respectively, and creating, again respectively, 45 and 48 chances last season for Everton. But the propensity to bomb forward can leave their centre backs exposed and already this season, Distin and Jagielka have committed 4 defensive errors between them, two of which led directly to goals. Of the teams that finished in the top 5 places last season, Everton have the worst goal difference so far this season, with -2. Liverpool are right behind them with -1. Liverpool bought two full backs themselves this summer, Moreno and Manquillo, and again, both are stupendous going forward (see Moreno’s goal against Tottenham as evidence) but leave their centre backs exposed when doing so. And Liverpool’s problems at centre back don’t need further exacerbation as it is.
For the Reds, despite the summer acquisition of Dejan Lovren, the defence hasn’t improved since last season, when it was very damaging for Brendan Rogers’ side. Basically costing them the title, the poor play of Skrtl, Toure and Sakho has continued and it seems to have infected Lovren, who looks nothing like the assured and intelligent defender that he was with Saints last season. Organisationally, the group look hapless; to take a moment from Liverpool’s loss to West Ham as an example, Mamadou Sakho clattered his defensive partner, Lovren, nearly unconscious when they both contested a header. There was no West Ham player also contesting the high ball, it was simply an absence of communication that left Lovren dazed, wrapped in bandages, and even less steady than he had been before. Skrtl has long been a player upon whom you can, and then suddenly can’t, rely, consistent only in being inconsistent. He can look imperious in one run of games, then suddenly degenerate into a liability. The suspicion is that all these defenders would be well served lining up with an authoritative defensive marshal, and how Rogers must wish that Jamie Carragher was still playing, and was a few years younger.
Liverpool also have been suffering badly with Steven Gerrard shielding such a uncertain back line. I wrote earlier in the season about how the Liverpool skipper is becoming more and more of a defensive liability in his deep lying role, finding it very hard to stay with the kinds of quicksilver playmakers that are ubiquitous in the Premier League. You don’t even need to be David Silva or Eden Hazard either, Gabby Agbonlahor found life very easy when Villa won at Anfield, and Stewart Downing was untroubled by Gerrard in West Ham’s win last week. Everton, on the other hand, possess two fine defensively-minded midfielders, Gareth Barry and James McCarthy, which makes their recent shipping of goals even more perplexing. Incredibly, Barry made 0 defensive errors last season, something no other defensive midfielder managed. McCarthy only made 2 last season, fewer than Jedinak, Noble, Gerrard, Arteta, Flamini, Wanyama or Tiote. Evidently, the strain that the decline of Distin and Jagielka has put on the team has been too much for the Barry and McCarthy to counteract on their own.
But overall, it’s Liverpool that should be more worried, because, while Everton have been shipping goals as badly as they have, the Toffees have also been scoring freely as well. Their losses in the league this season have been the 6-3 bonanza against Chelsea, and the 3-2 thriller against Crystal Palace. Normally, scoring 2 or 3 goals in a match should be enough to win it. Their 4-1 drubbing of Wolfsburg in the Europa League was a master-class in the art of ruthless, opportunistic finishing, and their other league results have been a 2-0 win and two 2-2 draws. At Goodison, the goals are being exchanged with more ebullience than invisible morsels at a Neverland foodfight. Romelu Lukaku seems to be heating up, and has scored two very tidy goals so far in the league, and Steven Naismith is in startlingly good form, with 3 goals in 5 appearances so far.
Liverpool, contrastingly, have found life without Luis Suarez and, as of recently, Daniel Sturridge, very difficult indeed. So much responsibility is being placed on the tiny shoulders of Raheem Sterling, and it is only he providing movement up front, the sort of swirling, dizzy interchanges that made their attack so effective last season. Mario Balotelli is a striker of immense talent and skill, but he is nowhere near the sort of Duracel Bunny that Sturridge is, or Suarez was for Liverpool. The Italian is a lethal finisher, and has the strength, bodily awareness and collection of flicks needed to be a target man. He can also dynamically create space for a shot when fed the ball in position, but he is a penalty-box lurker, a focal point player, not a streaking, diagonal route-runner. Henderson, Coutinho, Sterling and Gerrard have yet to adjust to this lack of dynamism in front of them, and the Liverpool attack has become stodgy and frustrated as a result. Except for the anomalous 3-0 drubbing of Tottenham, Liverpool have found it difficult to score, unless Sterling produces a moment of individual brilliance. Their form in Europe and the cups has been no different, only beating Ludogrets thanks to a last minute penalty, and narrowly getting past Middlesbrough in the League Cup in that epic penalty shootout. Sturridge is apparently set for return this weekend, and Liverpool will be hoping he can jump right back into his best form immediately for them. Such a quick return to form after injury seems unlikely.
If I were Brendan Rogers, I’d be worried about the prospect of a player of Lukaku’s rare pace and power lining up against Skrtl, Sakho and Lovren. I’d be equally concerned about the idea of Steven Gerrard going toe-to-toe with a player as hard working and mobile as Steven Naismith. Then, if I were Roberto Martinez, I’d be praying Raheem Sterling is suddenly struck down by a crippling case of gingivitis, or some other disease young people get, rather than see him bamboozle the comparatively cumbersome Jagielka. The derby tomorrow is a perilous one for the teams concerned, and their fans, but for the neutrals, a festival of goals awaits. Game on.