BETWEEN gleeful renditions of ‘going down’ directed at their Evertonian city brethren, the Liverpool faithful chanted the relieved chorus of, ‘can we play you every week?’
Despite Liverpool’s form being so poor of late, that many red Merseysiders went into Monday night’s derby full of dread about losing to an Everton side third from bottom, their blue-clad neighbours were in fact the perfect team for Liverpool to face at this time.
Facing a side with a new manager always offers the threat of a new boss bounce in results for a struggling side. Luckily for Liverpool it appears the bounce for Everton, after their appointment of Sean Dyche, was rather short-lived. Constituting mainly of the boss’s first match in charge in the unexpected 1-0 win against Premier League table-toppers, Arsenal. That win, it seems, was enough to give Everton just enough confidence to come to Anfield with an expectation that they had turned a corner, enough to compete with the side from across Stanley Park.
The win over Arsenal gave them the conviction to push forward in their own attacking third, forgetting at this crucial time, that Liverpool, despite their woes this season, are still one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league and maybe in Europe.
It was telling that Liverpool took the lead on 36 minutes from a devastating sweeping counter-attack that saw Mo Salah poke the ball past a hopelessly out of place Jordan Pickford, just seconds after a James Tarkowski header had come off the Liverpool upright from a well-executed Everton set-piece.
Such was the Toffee’s commitment to their set-piece, that they forgot to shut the backdoor when they lost possession and were immediately punished.
Everton’s dismal night was completed early in the second half when a sweeping Liverpool move, saw Trent Alexander Arnold's exquisite through-pass set up new boy Cody Gakpo for his first goal for the club.
It was a beautiful example of a team goal that reminded us that much of what made Liverpool such an exciting and pleasing on the eye side to watch, was still there at the club but has somehow been absent on too many occasions this season.
So is that it? Are Liverpool back? Sadly for Liverpool fans, not by a long shot. This win can only be read in the context of a good derby performance against an old foe. But not much more than that.
Liverpool, on their day, can still beat anyone. Sometimes to a humiliating extent, such as their 1-0 win over Man City or their 9-0 trouncing of Bournemouth or even the 7-1 humiliation of Rangers in the Champions League. But their consistency is gone. A side that went the guts of two years without defeat now struggles to string two winning games together.
The immediate cause of this is injury and tiredness. Last season. Liverpool played every game and every minute a side in Europe could possibly play in domestic, European, league and cup action. And played it at a breathless pace unrivalled in the game anywhere. But it came at a cost of injuries and miles in the legs that are starting to mount after eight years of Jurgen Klopp management at Anfield.
The excuses for this season’s poor form are many. The obvious ones are the tiredness of a long season, followed by a too short break, followed by the insanity of a mid-season World Cup.
The long-term injuries to seven key players across the season has not helped along with the more than expected adverse effect of losing one of your key goal-getters with the sale of Sadio Mané, while his replacement Luis Diaz has sat out most of the season on the injury table.
But the real drawback for Liverpool has been the clear demise of its midfield generals. Jordan Henderson and James Milner, while still great servants, are on the wrong side of the hill for Klopp’s exhausting pressing style.
Thiago Alcantara is still a sublime passer of the ball but he needs tireless runners on either side of him which is no longer obvious in Henderson (who in fairness, showed a glimpse of his old quality against Everton) and Milner. Then in the defensive midfield side of it, we have the enigma that is Fabinho, who looks a shadow of his magnificent best of previous seasons. In his situation, it looks like a case of it not being the age of the car but the miles on the clock. He is still only 29 years of age but has played more minutes of football than the average 35-year-old. And, once again at the incessant pace Klopp demands.
Naby Keita and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have struggled with injury and are both soon out of contract. While young players Curtis Jones has not bedded in with the first team as expected, while a lot is being expected of 19-year-old Harvey Elliot, who while being very eager, lacks experience and nous.
Liverpool never replaced the dynamism of Gini Wijnaldum and the aggregate effects of age and wear followed by lack of investment has seen its midfield fail to be replenish itself. Then, when injuries to Virgil van Dijk in defence and Diaz and Diogo Jota in attack came along, the deficits in midfield became all the more evident.
For this, Klopp and the club owners have to take responsibility. Whether it is down to waiting to find the perfect fit for the midfield role, or the fact that all the candidates for the positions, such as Jude Bellingham, are €100m each, the club has hesitated to act in filling the growing and gaping hole in midfield. Opponents have spotted this fragility and have exploited it, except for Everton maybe.
Liverpool face a Newcastle side this evening who have struggled of late themselves, after a great initial start to the season. We will see if Liverpool’s win can give them the resolve to push on against the Toon. But one suspects that one good win, in the heightened environment of a derby, does not make a season good again. And one suspects that the elephant-size hole in the room that is the Liverpool midfield will continue to plague the Reds until it gets addressed.