Merseyside derby shows why the worst Premier League in years is also the best
The clash of Liverpool and Everton hinted at the levelling-out of quality
Liverpool’s Glen Johnson challenges Everton’s Ross Barkley during their English Premier League soccer match at Goodison Park. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters
Saturday’s Merseyside derby was the signature game of the Premier League season so far: a thrilling, completely random match that could have gone either way. It was a reminder that in sport, there is little relation between entertainment and quality.
Most of the weekend’s matches were decided by embarrassing errors. Liverpool’s Joe Allen set the tone at Goodison, prodding a shot wide from 10 yards with Luis Suarez unmarked in the centre. Southampton’s Artur Boruc produced an even bigger blunder, dribbling like a politician in a charity match to give Olivier Giroud the opportunity to open the scoring for Arsenal.
Hugo Lloris has been Tottenham’s best player this year but he succumbed to the general mood within 15 seconds of kick-off, shanking a clearance to let Manchester City in for the first of their six goals. Wayne Rooney rounded things off by botching an attempted pass when one-on-one with the goalkeeper in injury-time at Cardiff.
The cumulative result of all these mistakes is a table in which the top nine teams are separated by eight points and it remains difficult even to nominate a favourite for the title. It’s the worst Premier League in years, and possibly also the best.
The general trend towards a levelling-out of quality has been especially pronounced on Merseyside. Is it a coincidence that the best derby of the past couple of decades happened in a season when Liverpool and Everton look evenly matched?
The spectacle also owed something to Everton’s change in attitude under Roberto Martinez. Martinez is trying to emulate Arsene Wenger’s achievement in his early years at Arsenal by grafting an effective attacking unit on to the solid defence he inherited from his predecessor.
Everton don’t have Arsenal’s capacity to attract and retain top players – several of their key players are on loan from bigger clubs – but the evidence of Martinez’ work so far suggests the next couple of years could be good for them.
On Saturday they went behind twice but were ceaselessly driven forward by the likes of Gerard Deulofeu, Seamus Coleman, and Ross Barkley, whose power and skill reminds you of a young Steven Gerrard. He has some of the same flaws as the young Gerrard – most obviously a tendency to play too much with his heart and not enough with his head.
Gerrard was looking on as Barkley powered forward, perhaps with a nagging sense of envy. With the exception of that goal for England against Poland in October, we haven’t seen many typically Gerrard moments lately. He may well have been the decisive player in more Merseyside derbies than anyone else, but on Saturday he could only influence the game from dead-ball situations. His deliveries from free-kicks and corners created two of Liverpool’s three goals, but maybe they wouldn’t have needed to score three had Gerrard not been bypassed in so much of the general play.
Gerrard is now the same age as Roy Keane was during his last full season at Manchester United. We know now that by that time, Alex Ferguson had already decided that his captain was past his best. Ferguson’s rule was that he got rid of anybody who threatened to become bigger than the manager.
Brendan Rodgers showed with his “envelopes” stunt last year that he is a keen student of the Ferguson playbook. It’s awkward for Rodgers to implement Ferguson’s “bigger- than-me” rule, however, because Gerrard was already bigger than him when he arrived at the club.
‘Death by football’
The Northern Irishman came to Liverpool preaching “death by football” – a style of play that would pass, move and press opponents off the park. It wasn’t original but it was progressive – the school of Barcelona, Ballymena branch.
Eighteen months later, Rodgers has built a team that looks more like a Serie A side of the 1990s – an essentially defensive outfit whose attacking threat is based on the individual creativity of a pair of skilful strikers. It couldn’t be much further from the Barcelona blueprint that was originally envisaged.
This system has worked because it accommodates both Sturridge and Suarez without sacrificing numerical advantage in central midfield. It has also accommodated the individualistic skills of Gerrard, whose job is to hit the strikers with killer passes.
The dilemma for Liverpool is that a gameplan built around the peculiar skills of Suarez and Gerrard might not have much of a future. Everton, even though they don’t even own some of their key players, seem to have a sharper sense of their own identity on the field. At full-time on Saturday Rodgers looked the happier of the two managers, but Everton supporters are more likely to have gone home thinking their manager knows what kind of team he is trying to build.