Liverpool recovered from a poor start to snatch a late derby win at Goodison Park. A horror challenge from Ross Barkley looked set to be the main talking point until Sadio Mane pounced, beating the defenders to the rebound after substitute Daniel Sturridge’s shot came back off the post. On balance Liverpool probably deserved the win after a strong second half showing – there could be no better Christmas present than a late victory over Everton.
There were very worrying signs in the first thirty minutes. Everton seemed eager to press, and Liverpool were regularly forced into playing long, hopeful balls just to escape the pressure. Romelu Lukaku looked dangerous, and it was only some stellar defending from stand-in centre-back Ragnar Klavan that prevented him from firing the home side in front. Lukaku’s compatriot counterpart, Divock Origi, struggled to get involved; the ball rarely found him, and when it did he struggled to do anything telling with it. Firmino was even more ineffectual in the opening minutes – playing out on the left he looked completely off the pace, and was only really noticeable by his poor touches and misplaced passes. However, Klopp reacted to this – the last third of the opening forty-five minutes saw Firmino move central with Origi out wide, and Liverpool looked much better for the change. They slowly started to take control of the match, and by the end of the half Everton had just begun to be forced on to the back foot.
This dynamic continued into the second period. Perhaps Everton’s high-intensity start had taken too much out of them, or perhaps Liverpool had simply woken up a bit; either way, the home side struggled to get close to the performance levels that they started the match with. Neither team threatened hugely, but when there was a threat it came from Liverpool: Firmino in particular had chances. He had a one-on-one saved by Stekelenburg, and then an inventive volley was kept out very well by substitute keeper Robles. In addition to these chances, the second half brought more of a derby feel – a couple of nasty challenges flew in, none worse than that of Ross Barkley on Jordan Henderson. The playmaker came in on Henderson’s ankle, with his studs showing: had the referee properly seen the incident it would surely have been a red card. In the long run, however, the awful challenge actually worked in Liverpool’s favour – Henderson was ultimately fine to carry on, and the time which it took for him to receive treatment was part of what allowed the away side a lot of added time to snatch their late winner. This they did: Sadio Mane, who in truth had failed to have a huge influence for most of the game, was quickest to react after Daniel Sturridge struck the post in the 94th minute. It is a testament to his pace and reactions that he was able to beat two defenders to the ball, despite starting significantly behind them. Sturridge, too, deserves praise; his tenacity and willingness to shoot led directly to the goal, and he is sure to have been pleased with his impact off the bench following a recent injury layoff.
That Sturridge played such a big part shows the importance of options. Origi is a very good player, and prior to the derby had five goals in his last five appearances, but sometimes games simply need a change in personnel up front in order to make something happen. It is no coincidence that the loss of two strong attacking options in Sturridge and Coutinho has led to a dip in results: whilst those who have filled in are extremely talented in their own right, it is hard to consistently pick up results when there are no experienced alternatives to call upon from the bench. It should be said that Klopp used substitutes sparingly even when he had a full squad available to him, but the Everton game highlighted that he is not averse to making changes when he feels they would be beneficial. Sadly, one attacking option will be lost in early January – Sadio Mane is heading off to the African Cup of Nations. At least Sturridge has returned; his impact in the derby has given some hope that Liverpool will get by in the absence of the Senegal international, but the directness and pace of the winger will undoubtedly be missed.
In the meantime, Liverpool fans can carry into Christmas that glowing feeling that only a derby win can bring. Festive cheer will also be derived from the fact that Klopp’s men sit second in the league – a top four finish looks very much on the cards, and a six point gap to Chelsea is hardly unassailable. Hopefully the reds can show some resolution in the new year and mount a serious title challenge.