Liverpool have not faced a side with as little attacking ambition as Everton showed up with at Anfield today for a long, long time. They are unlikely to face another team quite as toothless again all season- and yet Liverpool once again managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of victory despite their vast superiority and sheer dominance throughout the 90 minutes.
This was an Everton side who’s game plan appeared to be putting ten men behind the ball and whenever they had possession, hoofing it as far forward in to touch as possible. They had absolutely no interest in trying to construct any kind of attacking move.
It’s a game defined by two key moments, both of which fall in Everton’s favour. Sadio Mané decides to shoot, dragging his shot horribly wide, rather than passing to any one of three teammates with an open goal. It would’ve have been 2-0 and game over before half-time, a wasted opportunity which ultimately proved hugely costly.
The penalty which gifts Everton the equaliser is virtually their only chance of the entire game, having hardly touched the ball inside Liverpool’s penalty area at all. It came not from a sustained period of pressure or intricate build-up play, but a simple lump forward. Much has been said about the referee’s decision, but the replays show quite clearly how Dominic Calvert-Lewin threw his body into Dejan Lovren before going to ground.
Of course, one might argue that Lovren shouldn’t even be giving the referee a decision to make, as Calvert-Lewin is going away from goal and poses no threat whatsoever, but the Croatian does not initiate the contact and is very unfortunate to be penalised for the kind of challenge which happens multiple times every game and goes unpunished (the exact same thing happened for Man City against Man United but they weren’t awarded a penalty).
Such is the Croatian’s reputation that he is an easy target for blame, but this was the second incredibly soft penalty awarded against Liverpool in consecutive league games. Other than that, Everton offered absolutely nothing and Liverpool were entirely in control of the game, defending very competently when they needed to (which wasn’t much, in truth).
Nonetheless, it was the fifth time this season where Liverpool have drawn after having been winning in the 70th minute, while they have not scored a winning goal in the final 20 minutes of any game- a worrying habit. Dropping points to a side with three shots on goal and 21% possession is a bitter pill to swallow, especially given the opportunity to kill the game in the first-half.
Much of the talk has focused on Jürgen Klopp’s decision to rotate heavily once again, leaving the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum all on the bench. While there is certainly a case to argue that Liverpool’s strongest XI might have obliterated this Everton side, the manager clearly felt he put out a side capable of getting three points and in truth, he was very nearly vindicated. Had he started Firmino and Coutinho, who both played in mid-week (while the latter hasn’t trained since) and either one picked up a knock, it’s easy to imagine what the reaction might have been.
His rotation policy is with the bigger picture in mind, to keep legs fresh and avoid burnout during the January-February period which saw Liverpool run out of steam last season. Had Mané done the right thing- or the referee made the correct decision for the penalty incident- the team selection would have been justified, yet neither of those game-deciding instances were down to the manager.
This was far from a vintage performance, but one where Liverpool did more than enough to get the three points and despite the enormous frustration about the final result, Liverpool have still gained points on both Man United and Chelsea this weekend- even if they weren’t able to fully capitalise.
Mo Salah’s opener was a moment of sheer individual brilliance more than worthy of winning any match, taking him to 19 goals for the season and thus matching his tally from the whole of last season at Roma already. Bustling past two opponents before curling a delicious strike into the top corner, it was the kind of goal Fernando Torres and Luis Suarez would have been proud of. His star continues to rise.
Elsewhere, Joe Gomez was imperious both in defence and in possession of the ball, playing like a Derby veteran- despite it only being his first appearance in the fixture. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain delivered a promising performance in midfield, bringing drive and aggression in central areas while also displaying an impressive range of passing.
Klopp’s decision to substitute Salah mid-way through the second-half was a strange one, as Dominic Solanke would have seemed the obvious choice to switch for Firmino or Coutinho, while one of Can or Wijnaldum would have made sense to bring more guile and impetus in midfield, as the workman-like James Milner-Jordan Henderson partnership lacks balance and variety. For all Klopp’s many strengths, his subs are still perhaps his biggest Achilles heel.
Nonetheless, an infuriating result still maintains Liverpool’s current unbeaten streak and leaves them just five points off second place, and still clear of both Arsenal and Spurs in fourth. It could and should have been more, but the manner in which Liverpool respond to this minor setback is now what matters most- which means beating West Brom in midweek.
Liverpool are still in excellent form and were ultimately punished by a dodgy refereeing decision (and perhaps a lack of nous on Lovren’s part, although he was unlucky) and one moment of bad decision-making in the first-half by Mané. It’s very easy to blame the manager in hindsight, but there was not a whole lot wrong with the overall performance. Draws don’t come more “smash and grab” than this by the visitors. This time, the fine margins fell their way.