You could see by the smile spreading across Frank Lampard’s face that the Everton manager had gone to his happy place.
Geoff Shreeves had just asked Lampard whether Everton's approach at Anfield on Sunday had been inspired by Chelsea's back in 2014, when he had been part of the ultradefensive Jose Mourinho team that frustrated Liverpool with spoiling tactics and won 2-0 on the day that will always be remembered for The Slip.
“I remember it, I was number 10, 35 years of age, I sort of did a really solid job, which we did on the day, and we obviously got a famous result, which had a big effect on stuff . . . ” Lampard reminisced, and for five seconds he looked almost euphoric.
But then the glow faded, as he remembered he was no longer a 35-year-old football hero without a serious care in the world, but a 43-year-old manager who might be about to write himself into history as the man who led Everton to their first relegation in 71 years.
Composing himself, Lampard insisted that Chelsea 2014 had not provided the blueprint for Everton 2022. "It was more in the moment, and now, in this group of players," he said. "We asked the players to be disciplined. As I say, if you watch [Liverpool] lately, what this team are doing to teams, if you try and come out and go toe to toe with them, we're not in a position to do that. We're in a position to be smart. And we were smart, for 60 minutes. And then, unfortunately, the goal goes in. And it becomes very difficult after that."
You didn’t have to be listening very carefully to spot the contradiction. Even as Lampard denied that he had consciously copied the gameplan of 2014, he was revealing the extent to which occasions like that have conditioned his entire way of thinking about the game.
The smart teams of today don't play ultradefensive against superior opposition, as they often did in the years when Jose Mourinho and Frank Lampard were European football's leading power couple
Lampard is the third-youngest manager in the Premier League, but he understands football like a much older man. He sees the game in ways that made sense when he learned them decades ago, but which are now outdated at the top level.
Listen to what his words reveal about his thinking. “And then, unfortunately, the goal goes in . . . ” Unfortunately? A more accurate word would be “predictably”. What else can you possibly expect is going to happen, if you let Liverpool play at you for 90 minutes?
Everton, Lampard claimed, were not in a position to go “toe to toe”, instead they had to be “smart”. But sitting back and trying to defend your own box for 90 minutes against Liverpool at Anfield is not “smart”. It’s dumb. Everton finished with 17 per cent of possession – the second-lowest figure since Premier League records began. There are many words you could use to describe the plan that produced this outcome but “smart” is not one of them.
The smart teams of today don't play ultradefensive against superior opposition, as they often did in the years when Jose Mourinho and Frank Lampard were European football's leading power couple. The smart teams now go after the opposition. The smart teams chase the opposition. They express their humility by working harder than the opposition, by running more, by using all their energy to force the game in directions the opposition do not want.
Everton did not do any of this. Everton sat back and let Liverpool have the ball and tried to waste time and frustrate and every so often send Anthony Gordon haring after a long pass like a Scouse Caniggia. This might have worked against Brendan Rodgers' Liverpool, who were a collection of gifted individuals, making it up as they went along. Against Klopp's Liverpool – the modern superteam, fitter, stronger, more talented, more experienced, better organised, and better led than any Liverpool side of the past – it's like playing a game of Russian roulette where you are the only player.
The good coaches understand how old-school ultradefensive tactics have become self-defeating against today's top sides. After Ireland drew 2-2 with Belgium, Stephen Kenny explained that, as he saw it, a team like Ireland had no alternative but to press high and try to force Belgium into mistakes, even if that meant leaving space behind their own defence. "You could try to play medium-block against them and end up in a low-block, they're that good. It's a slow death. We don't want that. We're not having that."
Everton went with tactics so conservative that their central midfielder Allan completed just two passes in 73 minutes
Lampard, bearing the indelible imprint of all his success in an earlier age, seems not to have adapted to this new reality. He still believes in the old-fashioned smash-and-grab, even though Liverpool’s record this season suggests they are now virtually impervious to this type of defeat. They have kept 28 clean sheets this season and won 26 of those matches (the two scoreless draws were both EFL Cup games, where Liverpool’s eventual victory was only deferred, not denied). They have conceded one goal in 13 matches, and have nevertheless won 10 of those. So if you want to avoid defeat against Liverpool, you’ll probably have to score at least twice. This is difficult, but not unheard of: it’s happened 12 times this season, and only three times did the team that achieved it go on to lose.
Instead of doing something that might have given them a chance, Everton went with tactics so conservative that their central midfielder Allan completed just two passes in 73 minutes, both from kick-offs. The winger Demarai Gray also completed two passes, the central defender Mason Holgate four, the captain Seamus Coleman six. The entire Everton team including the three substitutes completed 93 passes; Thiago alone completed 120. Thiago's good, but seldom can the opponents have helped him look this good.
There is an argument, of course, that the referee Stuart Attwell changed the course of the match by not giving Everton a penalty, when Joel Matip pushed Gordon in the back at 0-0. The game was so one-sided that it's hard to imagine a penalty would have saved Everton, but it might have given them a sporting chance. "You don't get them here" said Lampard, with characteristic old-timer fatalism. If he knew his Everton history, he would remember that they got a debatable penalty at Anfield when winning 2-0 there last February, and another in 2017 when drawing 1-1.
They say the unfair decisions eventually even themselves out, though it will not feel like it when Everton have already been victims of the weirdest refereeing decision of the season, when Rodri’s blatant handball at Goodison did not result in a penalty. Still, if Everton had been awarded that Rodri penalty, and had scored to draw the game, Liverpool would now be top of the league. You take the little consolations where you can.