Premier League 2020/21: Everton vs Liverpool – tactical analysis
On the fifth game week of the 2020-21 Premier League season, Everton hosted local rivals, Liverpool in a highly anticipated derby between the defending champions and the table-toppers at Goodison Park. The home side came into the match after a blistering start to the season that saw them win all of their previous 4 matches.
Liverpool, on the other hand, were looking to get back on winning ways after suffering a 7-2 humiliation at the hands of Aston Villa before the international break. We shall look into the tactics deployed by both the teams. Let’s get into the analysis.
Everton lined up in a 4-3-3 formation, deviating from their usual 4-2-3-1 system where Gomes was pushed to the central midfield from the CAM role. They made no changes to the team that won against Brighton in the previous game week.
Liverpool, on the other hand, lined up in their usual 4-3-3 formation and was boosted by the arrivals of Thiago and Sadio Mané from Covid, though they lost Naby Keita to the same. Joel Matip came into the team in place of Joe Gomez while Adrian retained his place as the team’s goalkeeper.
Everton without possession
While they lined up in a lopsided 4-3-3 on paper, Everton mostly shifted to a 4-4-2 when they had to press higher up the pitch. When Liverpool tried to play out from the back, they pushed James Rodríguez as one of the forwards along with Dominic Calvert-Lewin to press the Liverpool centre-backs as to stop them from the first phase of the build-up play.
The image above shows them pressing higher and we can see that they have covered all the passing options for Matip and forcing him to go longer. Here, Gomes pushed higher to mark Fabinho, while Richarlison had an eye on Andy Robertson, and Rodríguez was drifting centrally to press Van Dijk as well as Alexander-Arnold. When he goes to Van Dijk, Doucouré steps up and presses Alexander-Arnold. Liverpool pre-empting this move found a way to bypass the press, which we will talk about in the next section.
But in their own half, Everton shifted to a defensive variant of their on-paper formation of 4-3-3, i.e. a 4-5-1 formation. Both Richarlison and Rodríguez joined the midfield line with Calvert-Lewin as the sole striker here.
This was done in a compact way to ensure that the central passing lanes to the Liverpool forwards in the half-spaces were suppressed. Even if one of the forwards had to drop to involve himself in the play, the midfielder would follow him closely to ensure that he does not have enough time on the ball. So a mixture of the zonal and man-man system with flexibility was deployed by Ancelotti.
But Everton had some issues when without possession due to lack of defensive effort from James Rodríguez to provide some support to Seamus Coleman, especially in counters. Ancelotti dealt with that issue in the second half and brought in Alex Iwobi in place of Doucouré. This changed their formation to a 4-2-3-1 and James Rodríguez played in a CAM position with Iwobi occupying the right-wing. Now Iwobi’s defensive output ensured that Everton’s right-back wasn’t as exposed as before and they were able to nullify the threat in that side. In the image below, we can see him track back to provide support for Godfrey.
Liverpool in Possession
Liverpool’s go-to on the ball formation for past 2-3 seasons have been the famous 2-3-5 system with the wingers dropping in the half-spaces and drawing the defensive line narrow. This creates huge spaces out in the wings and generally their full-backs push up and create the 5 men forward line to spam crosses inside the box. But in this match, they made some adjustments that saw Alexander-Arnold, their right-back, dropping into the 3-man midfield and his position to occupy the wings were taken care of by Jordan Henderson.
This system of Liverpool was more or less a 4-2-4 when Salah drifted into the central positions and Henderson occupied the wings. When Roberston pushed up it turned into a usual 2-3-5, with just one change (Henderson and Arnold swapping their usual positions). The change was done to put the best use of Arnold’s passing range and vision, and play him in a similar fashion to Thiago and dictate terms at the centre. With Henderson’s flexibility in making overlapping runs as well as underlapping runs into the channels, he was able to do his job well. This pattern eventually led to their opening goal.
Henderson (the black circle in the above image) staying wide meant that he attracted 2 Everton players to him, especially Andre Gomes whose vacated area was taken by Salah (red circle). He then sprung a cross-field pass for Mané. Mane then deflected the ball onto Robertson who then played a cut-back to Mané himself from which he broke the deadlock.
But Salah wouldn’t always stay central as he would initially hug the touchline and in that case, Henderson would make a run into the channel between the centre-back and the full-back. An example of that is given in the image below.
This pattern of play is similar to what Manchester City do with their much more attack-minded midfielders like Phil Foden and Kevin de Bruyne. The image below shows Henderson making Liverpool’s system into a 4-2-4, with Thiago and Fabinho acting as a double number 8.
We mentioned as to how Liverpool were efficient to bypass the Everton high press. Salah staying wide was key to that setup as when their centre-backs were pressed with cover shadows blocking lanes to the midfield, they would directly go from the first phase of the buildup to the second phase using a long ball to Salah. His physicality against Lucas Digne meant that he would hold it well and would release it to runners like Henderson or Firmino closer to him. An example of that is given below. Since Lucas Digne is not great in 1 v 1 duels, Liverpool’s tactic helped them during their spells of possession.
After that, they would immediately switch the ball, as they did for their first goal, to either Mané or Robertson. Again in this phase, Everton had issues when Liverpool switched the play. With James Rodríguez pushing higher to press and not tracking back when needed, this put Seamus Coleman in a 2 v 1 situation against Mané and Salah. We can see that in the image below as Rodríguez (black circle), not tracking back to provide defensive cover and Coleman, is now in a 2 v 1 situation.
This was one of the main issues for Everton having James Rodríguez play in central positions as the wings would be exposed for one reason, and then him failing to track back would lead to a difficult situation for his backline. After Coleman got injured, Ben Godfrey replaced him and his defensive awareness would somewhat reduce the threat of Robertson and Mané for the rest of the game.
Thiago would often drop into the defensive line as a third centre-back as his playmaking skills helped Liverpool to slowly improve their transition into the middle-third. For this, Mané would mostly drop into the half-space and Roberston would now push higher to have a man in each horizontal zone.
Unlike in their previous games and in the previous seasons, Liverpool’s forwards would stay wide at times and on the blindside of the Everton’s full-back. Salah and Mané were staying wide to stretch the defence and to open spaces centrally. They would then have patterns where Mané or Salah would either cut inside to allow Robertson or Henderson to overlap respectively. In another case, the latter two would underlap and make runs into the channels while the forwards stay wide. This created confusion to the Everton defenders and midfielders and caused them some problems.
In the above image, we can see Mané (red circle) staying wide and this drags Godfrey to him and opens a huge channel between him and Yerry Mina, with Fabinho (black circle) making a run into space. Also from a wide position, the forwards would be in very good 1 v 1 situations with the Everton full-backs and Liverpool wingers are very good in these situations.
Liverpool without possession
Liverpool have earned the reputation in the past 2-3 seasons as being one of the best teams in Europe when not having possession. Their high press with intensity and intelligence has caused a lot of problems for many teams in Europe. Everton faced the same issues in this match as Liverpool were good with their press and won the ball back numerous times. Their usual press would involve Mané and Salah pressing the centre-backs by cover-shadowing the full-backs. Usually, they would make a curved run, like in the image below, to block passing lanes to the full-back. Here, Salah presses Keane with a curved body run to block the passing lane to Digne.
Mané would do the same and Firmino would overshadow one of the opponents’ central midfielders. In the above image, Firmino covers Allan while Henderson steps forwards to press Andre Gomes. This efficient pressing gave Everton no chance but to go long as Liverpool forced turnovers earlier in the match. The advantage of this over man-man marking is that they won’t be drawn out of positions and also while covering the maximum amount of players with a minimum set. Their midfield and defensive lines formed a box-like structure to block central passing lanes and this limited the influence of James Rodríguez in the game as he had to drop into deeper midfield to have an impact.
Since the front three of Richarlison, Dominic Calvert Lewin, and James Rodríguez occupied the backline of Liverpool, the onus was on Henderson and Thiago to press the full-backs if it reached them.
They would move quickly to the wide region and press the full-back if a pressing trigger was initiated. Robertson and Arnold would also support them while the centre-backs would take care of the forwards. This coordinated system is what makes them one of the best pressing units in Europe. Van Dijk’s injury meant that they missed a huge figure in dealing with the threat of an in-form Everton forward line.
Everton with possession
Everton, knowing that they would be troubled by the Liverpool press, decided to play more direct football by launching long balls to Dominic Calvert-Lewin. So far this season, they relied on crosses from their full-backs or through balls from the likes of James Rodríguez to create chances. They followed the same strategy but with a little more directness in their play. Calvert-Lewin would generally position himself closer to the likes of Joe Gomez (after he replaced Van Dijk) and Robertson. This was done because both of them are comparatively shorter than Joel Matip and Alexander-Arnold, and winning the duels against them is easier.
In the image above, he wins a duel against Joe Gomez and it lands at the feet of James Rodríguez. This way, they were able to manipulate the Liverpool defence. Usually, Coleman or Doucouré would drop into the defence to help them build up. This would push Lucas Digne higher up the pitch as a wing-back and Rodríguez would do the same at the opposite side. When Rodríguez (blue circle) drifted centrally or dropped deeper to influence the game, Doucouré/Coleman (black circle) would then occupy the wings to maintain the structure of the team.
We mentioned earlier that Everton shifted to a 4-2-3-1. While one of the reasons was the failure of James’ tracking back, the other thing was to help him play in his natural position and he looked dangerous in the last 10 minutes.
Their directness was also key as they scored their first goal from a corner and their second goal also came from a header where Calvert Lewin won a duel against Andy Robertson after a cross from Lucas Digne.
Liverpool missed the presence of Van Dijk in these situations and Joe Gomez’s aerial liability proved to be costly for them at the end of the match.
Overall, it was a very good derby as the tactical analysis showed that it was one of the most closely contested Merseyside derbies in recent years. Liverpool almost got their 3 points sealed but Henderson’s goal was ruled out due to offside as Mané was in an offside position during the build-up. Despite going down 10 men, Everton saw out the game to grab a point and stay at the top of the table with 3 points ahead of their local rivals.