21st January 2021
On Saturday 17th October, our city plays host yet again to English football’s oldest and arguably greatest ever rivalry. In recent times, the Merseyside Derby has been dominated by the Red men of Jurgen Klopp, with the Blues struggling to commit to a manager or first team squad. However, the start of the 2020/2021 Premier League season has been one like no other and has left fans and followers clueless as to how the campaign will pan out.
This time last year, at the start of October 2019, Marco Silva’s Everton team were sat in 15th position in the league table with seven points from seven games. Their Red rivals, fresh from being crowned European Champions, were five points clear and unbeaten at the top of the table. Fans of the Toffees understandably were losing their patience after optimism for breaking into the top six was yet again crumbling. On the contrary, the Liverpool supporters were in high spirits, with a large points difference between them and second-place Manchester City and a fairly straight-forward Champions League Group Stage approaching.
Bleak performance after bleak performance in the league in 2019 left the Blue half of Merseyside dejected and pessimistic for the upcoming derby against Liverpool at the start of December. Having spent £119.5 million in the Summer transfer window, the poor start to the season put emphasis on the need for yet another change in power for Everton. In fact, in the same transfer period that Everton spent £199.5 million, Liverpool spent just £4.4 million, adding insult to injury for the Toffees. However, one cannot ignore the Reds’ expenditure throughout the previous two seasons, which amounted to £316 million across the 2017/18 and 2018/19 campaigns. I think it is fair to say that both Merseyside clubs were splashing out the cash in their attempts to bolster their squads and reputation.
Nevertheless, Liverpool’s rise to greatness over recent years shows that how much you spend isn’t really the important factor, rather how you spend is what reaps the rewards. If you look at the players the Reds have brought in recently, with van Dijk, Salah, Robertson, Alisson, Keita and Fabinho all joining their squad since 2017. These are names which feature week-in-week-out in the league and Champions League, with the side rarely spending money on players that are unlikely to feature.
In contrast, their Blue neighbours bought in players such as Tosun, Walcott, Vlasic, Sandro, Klassen, Kean, Iwobi, Gbamin and Delph. These players cost Everton a large sum of money, and with their wages on top, questions had to be asked of the management and recruitment team. Most of these names rarely featured in the Everton first XI, and only three of them remain at the club today. It is important to note that the occasional signing for the Toffees has been inspirational, with Richarlison, Gomes and Digne standing out in the team, but generally the squad improvement scheme has been poor.
It is for this precise reason that come December 2019, with the Merseyside Derby just around the corner, Liverpool were soaring high whilst Everton were struggling in the bottom half. So it came as no real shock when the Anfield club conquered Marco Silva’s Everton emphatically with a 5-2 win. This left the Blues in the relegation zone and gave the Board no choice but to sack the Portuguese manager. With four wins from 15 games, compared to Liverpool’s 14 victories, something had to change for Everton and quick.
Following the dismissal of Marco Silva, it was agreed within the club that former striking legend and current coach, Duncan Ferguson, would take over as interim boss of Everton until a suitable replacement was found. Almost immediately, the Toffees found their mojo, despite having their toughest run of games in the league so far. Ferguson faced Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal in his very first and only league games. Under Marco Silva, Everton would have crumbled in these matches, but the Scot’s short tenure had brought passion and belief to players and fans, as he accumulated five points from these difficult fixtures.
The good news kept coming for the Blues. Reports were circulating that Owner Farhad Moshiri and Director of Football Marcel Brands were close to agreeing a deal with highly decorated and successful manager, Carlo Ancelotti. Since their FA Cup success in 1995, Everton have been waiting desperately for silverware and a winning mentality. So the news of Mr Ancelotti’s potential arrival got supporters dreaming again. This is a man who has won the Champions League several times, as well as having domestic success in Italy, England, France and Germany. This was what Everton had been holding out for all those years since David Moyes’ reign. A winner.
Indeed, on 21st December 2019, Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Everton’s fifth manager in six years. The Board were hoping this time however that it would be a long-lasting and successful tenure. Of course, with only half a season and a squad lacking creativity and belief, there wasn’t much of an immediate impact the Italian could have on the season, other than implementing a bit of determination and confidence in the team. Nevertheless, the efforts of Ferguson and Ancelotti saw Everton climb out of the relegation zone around Christmas. By the early months of 2020 they started putting pressure on the Top 8 clubs.
With the Coronavirus Pandemic causing the season to be halted in March, when it resumed Everton found themselves safe from relegation, but out of reach from European Football. They concluded the crazy run of fixtures in Summer by finishing in a disappointing 12th position in the league. But at least Ancelotti was able to see exactly where improvements were necessary in this squad.
Up until the Coronavirus Pandemic, Liverpool had had a near perfect season. They had only dropped five points and sat 25 points clear at the top when the campaign was abruptly suspended. There was no doubt at this stage that Liverpool were on course to win their first Premier League title, and their 19th First Division honour. On top of this, they had breezed through their Champions League group, losing only once to Napoli, with many pundits and critics predicting the Reds to retain their European title. However, they bowed out of the tournament to a plucky Atletico Madrid team in the round of 16, having dominated the Spanish side in both legs, only to concede two goals in extra time of the second. This unfortunate loss stands out for several reasons.
Firstly, Liverpool had been incredible all season and barely broken into a sweat to beat the majority of their competitors. So this defeat, albeit at the hands of a fantastic squad, was relatively shocking to the football world. Secondly, it sparked controversy over whether the second leg should have been played without fans. At the time, whilst here in the UK we were weary of the Coronavirus, we weren’t yet in emergency mode, as they were in Spain and other European countries. So the fact a flurry of Atletico Madrid fans were allowed to come into the country, let alone a packed-out Anfield, caused debate across the nation. Finally, this was their last game before the football season was halted for three months, which was a fairly sour note to end on.
When football returned in June, Liverpool were not firing on all cylinders as they had done for the vast majority of the campaign so far. In fact, in their nine post-lockdown games, Liverpool dropped 10 points, which is more than they dropped throughout the entire pre-pandemic part to the season. Of course there are plenty of reasons for this. One of which is simply they were so far ahead of Manchester City that being caught was near impossible. Another reason is the players had just come back from three months without football, so rustiness was bound to play a part. On top of this, it was agreed that fans could no longer attend matches. Playing in an empty Anfield stadium, normally so electric and booming, certainly would have been a shock to the system.
Despite going on to win the league comfortably, many pinned the game against Atletico as a turning point in Liverpool’s perfect season. Mistakes crept in from players that for the last two years had hardly put a foot wrong, and other teams were finding it increasingly easier to score against them. That being said, the Reds still managed to win five of their nine games, and ultimately finished 18 points clear of second place. Nobody can knock their season, and although Klopp would have probably loved to fight for the double, winning the Champions League in 2019 and then winning the Premier League in 2020 would have suited him perfectly.
With the break between last season and the current campaign being so short, both Everton and Liverpool had a minimal amount of time to make the necessary changes to their squads before football got back underway again. Yet, the two Merseyside clubs were in very different positions as to what they required. For the Reds, it was clear one or two names was all that was needed to bolster the squad depth and add a bit flare that was lacking at the end of the previous season. With several talented youngsters coming through, there were also a few players seen as surplus to requirements who needed to be moved on.
For Everton, however, it was a different story all together. Carlo Ancelotti knew exactly what the Blues needed, having sat through game after game watching a lacklustre midfield create little and leak easily. This, alongside defensive reinforcement, would hopefully leave Everton in good stead. The more difficult task that the Italian had to deal with was the size of his squad and the amount of players who simply weren’t good enough to play under him. Both Ancelotti and Klopp had a very successful transfer window, with both managers bringing in big names with big reputations, as well as thinning out the excess.
The additions of Thiago and Diogo Jota for the Reds undoubtedly improved Klopp’s team, as it brought a balance of youth and experience. Of course it was expected that a club of Liverpool’s size and current reputation would bring in world class names, and that they did.
However, it was their Blue neighbours that stole the transfer window headlines, with the arrival world renowned creative playmaker James Rodriguez from Real Madrid. James, alongside the signings of Napoli’s terrier Allan, Watford’s standout player Abdoulaye Doucoure and Norwich’s starlet Ben Godfrey, added a dimension to Everton’s team that had never really been seen before. They had big names in their squad. Names that had been linked to a number of Europe’s top clubs. But Ancelotti was stamping his authority, and showing just how respected he is as a manager. Questions were asked, as they always are, about whether these new arrivals would cope with the intensity and physicality of the Premier League. But four games into the 2020/2021 campaign, and its fair to say these questions have been answered.
With the new recruits, Everton look like a completely different team. James is linking well with his attacking partners Richarlison and Dominic Calvert-Lewin, with the latter topping the scoring charts already. These three players have much more freedom to attack due to the incredible work done by the other two new men, Allan and Doucoure, in midfield. Solid at the back, bar a couple of goalkeeping errors, and smashing in the goals, Everton’s fresh approach has seen them unbeaten in all competitions, top of the league, and with player and manager of month awards under their belt.
However, it is important that the Blues don’t get ahead of themselves. Having generally played mid-table teams, apart from a ropey looking Spurs, the real test will come when they start playing the top six clubs later in the season. But there are a multitude of reasons for excitement, especially with a lot of the other top teams looking so inconsistent and beatable early on.
Liverpool matched Everton in the opening three games, winning all of them against much harder opposition. But similarly to the end of last season, each match now seems a lot more of a struggle for Liverpool than it has done in the two previous years. They battled Leeds to the final whistle in their opening victory, and recently got played off the park by Aston Villa in a remarkable game that saw the Champions lose 7-2. It is the defensive inconsistency in Liverpool’s team at the moment that leaves them so vulnerable, but sets up the Merseyside Derby for what could be the closest contested match between the two neighbours in recent years.
Both teams look clinical, yet both have their goalkeeping troubles or defensive frailties meaning we should be in store for a showdown with plenty of action and goals. Everton will be wanting to continue their perfect start to the season, whilst Liverpool will be aiming to prove critics wrong after their poor display last time out.
The games kicks at 12:30pm on Saturday 17th October, and will be shown live on BT Sport.
Feature Image Credit: Iain Watts