EPL

Liverpool v Everton: Midfield battle set to be crucial in Merseyside derby

By Sports Desk February 12, 2023

To say this season isn't going according to plan for either Liverpool or Everton would be an understatement.

Liverpool have taken seven points from their six matches back since the World Cup break; Everton are on four from the same number of games.

The Reds could be as low as 11th by the time Monday's meeting between the Merseyside rivals takes place at Anfield.

Jurgen Klopp's team have looked a shadow of their former selves. Even in their poor title defence in the 2020-21 campaign, which included a 2-0 home defeat to Everton, they never seemed so unlikely to compete not only for the top honour, but Champions League qualification.

This time last year, Liverpool were in contention for an unprecedented quadruple; they would go on to triumph in the EFL Cup and FA Cup, though fell just short in the Premier League and lost 1-0 to Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

After selling Sadio Mane to Bayern Munich but bringing in Darwin Nunez and tying Mohamed Salah down to a new contract, Liverpool seemed set for another title push after beating Manchester City in the Community Shield.

Yet it has all gone downhill from there. They are out of both domestic cups and have no chance in the league, with their tally of seven defeats in the top tier closing in on their worst tally in Klopp's full seasons in charge (nine – 2020-21).

 

Everton, on the other hand, are mired in another relegation battle, with yet another manager in place. Sean Dyche arrived last month, following Frank Lampard's dismissal after less than a year in charge.

Dyche started in style at Goodison Park, however, guiding Everton to their first win since October by beating league leaders Arsenal 1-0.

That victory has not lifted Everton outside of the relegation zone, though it injected some optimism into the team and fanbase ahead of the short trip across Stanley Park.

The cornerstone of Everton's win over Arsenal was Dyche's midfield trio, while that area of the pitch is a clear issue for Klopp. It might just be where this match is won or lost.

Liverpool found lacking

It was easy to be impressed when Liverpool announced they had struck a deal with PSV to sign Cody Gakpo, before the January transfer window had even started.

Gakpo had starred for the Netherlands at the World Cup and was taking the Eredivisie by storm, having scored 21 goals and set up a further 25 since the start of last season up until his switch to Anfield. But he has yet to score or assist in six matches, creating only two chances across 497 minutes of action.

While Liverpool will be confident Gakpo will come good, the sensibility of signing another forward for big money when their midfield needs are so glaring could be called into question.

The Reds are reportedly keen to sign Jude Bellingham at the end of the season, and the Borussia Dortmund sensation might well be transformative. However, Liverpool needed reinforcements now, not in six months' time.

 

Fabinho's form has been erratic, and it feels as though the 29-year-old might well have passed his peak. The Brazil international is recording his lowest per-90 totals for duels (8.5), duels won (4.2), duel success rate (48.9), forward passes (14.8), attempted passes (59.7) and tackle success percentage (52.1) since he joined in 2018. On the flip side, he is giving away 1.7 fouls per 90, his highest tally in a Liverpool shirt.

He was fortunate to escape a red card in the FA Cup defeat to Brighton and Hove Albion on January 28 and then missed last week's defeat to Wolves through illness.

Stefan Bajcetic started in Fabinho's place against Wolves and has looked bright when called on, though at 18 cannot be expected to perform consistently week in, week out.

Thiago Alcantara came to Liverpool as one of the world's best midfield maestros, but injuries have limited him to just 93 appearances and 71 starts.

Indeed, Thiago has not lived up to the form he showed at Bayern Munich, and while he creates a scoring chance every game on average, he has only directly contributed to nine goals.

To sum up his frustrations, Thiago is a doubt for Monday's match due to a hip issue.

Jordan Henderson works as hard as ever, but at the age of 32 cannot be relied on to play 90 minutes up to three times a week. Naby Keita, on the other hand, has never really lived up to his price tag.

Harvey Elliott has solidified himself as a regular, playing 1,131 top-flight minutes, and he leads the way for open-play shot-creating actions when it comes to Liverpool's midfielders (68).

Liverpool's midfield has been the bedrock of so much success, but it's in need of a revamp.

 

Building blocks for Dyche

Having utilised a 4-4-2 for much of his time at Burnley, Dyche sprung something of a surprise in his first match in charge of Everton by playing a three-man midfield.

Yet this was not the awkward, disorganised 4-3-3 that Lampard had attempted to force into place in his latter days as Everton boss, but rather a solid, robust 4-5-1 that, off the ball at least, morphed into the two, solid banks of four that Dyche is renowned for.

Abdoulaye Doucoure had fallen out of favour under Lampard but was back in against the Gunners for his first league start since August, and turned in one of his best Everton displays.

Only Gueye (10) won possession more times than Doucoure (nine) for Everton, while the former Watford midfielder's tally of 27 attempted passes ranked third for the Toffees. He also made two interceptions (a team high alongside James Tarkowski and Amadou Onana) and won his only attempted tackle.

No Everton outfielder created more final third entries (seven), while Doucoure also played a key role in limiting Oleksandr Zinchenko's impact. The Ukrainian had a game-leading 121 touches though created only one chance.

On the opposite side of Gueye, Onana delivered another display that hinted at his immense potential.

While Everton have floundered in recent months, Onana seems to have settled into English football. He led the team in touches (47), tackles (four) and tackles won (two), and only Dominic Calvert-Lewin (nine) won more duels for the Toffees than the Belgium international (eight).

 

Dyche handed Onana the responsibility to press, and he won possession twice in Arsenal's defensive third. His recoveries tally finished at eight, including a well-timed intervention that resulted in the 21-year-old teeing up a fantastic chance for Calvert-Lewin.

Everton's new manager noted in his post-game press conference that Onana still had plenty to learn, but the signs are promising.

Gueye, meanwhile, thrived in his best role in front of the defence. Too often under Lampard, the 33-year-old was losing the ball in dangerous areas, but against the Gunners he completed all 25 of his passes.

One swallow does not make a summer, of course, and Everton have a lot of work to do to drag themselves out of danger. 

Everton are likely to lack Calvert-Lewin due to injury, whereas Liverpool still have a star-studded forward line to choose from. If Klopp's men can get a foothold in the middle of the pitch, another derby win should be theirs.

Indeed, given Everton have only won one of their last 22 league visits to Anfield, Liverpool still have to be considered huge favourites.

However, if Dyche can get his midfield to perform as they did against Arsenal, then Everton might just fancy their chances of getting something.

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