Search icon


20th Dec 2016

Why Gary Neville hit the nail on the head with his assessment of Liverpool

Klopp, Klavan and broken Barkley – it's the Merseyside derby breakdown

Tony Barrett

Sometimes one goal is more than enough.

No one could claim that Liverpool were particularly impressive last night and certainly not by the standards they have set themselves at times this season but that is where the greatest significance of their latest victory over Everton is to be found. In the penultimate week of the calendar year, Liverpool had their first 1-0 win of 2016.

Pretty it wasn’t, effective it was and it bore all the hallmarks of a title challenging team, which Jurgen Klopp’s side unquestionably are. Most importantly of all for Liverpool is that this manner of victory is something that had proven beyond them before last night, something that led their critics to question whether they had the necessary grit to go with their obvious guile.

Afterwards, Gary Neville summed up the situation with a critique that even Klopp would be hard pressed to argue against.

“They have a chance, a chance to win the league,” the former Manchester United and England player said. “And if they are going to win the league there is going to have to be more of that where it’s not particularly pleasant, it’s not the greatest performance in the world, where they dig it out, battle, keep their composure and then take the chance late on and kill the opposition.”

There will be more games like this one between now and the end of the season when Liverpool are unable to play the free-flowing football that has become their motif under Klopp and it is how they cope with that problem, arguably more than anything else, which will dictate how strong their chances are of finishing above Chelsea, Manchester City and the other title contenders. Their record so far this season suggests that Liverpool are always likely to score at least once in most games but it is their ability to stop their opponents from doing likewise which is becoming increasingly important.

Hiccups against Bournemouth and West Ham United brought additional focus to Liverpool’s defence and goalkeeper and led to Loris Karius being replaced with Simon Mignolet but it has been somewhat overlooked that last night’s clean sheet was their fifth in seven matches. Tellingly, Joel Matip, Liverpool’s most outstanding defender, has appeared in only two of the five fixtures in which they have prevented the opposition from scoring. Klopp reserved the bulk of his praise for Daniel Sturridge last night after the forward helped turn the game Liverpool’s way after coming off the bench late on but he will have been equally pleased, if not more so, by the combative performances of Dejan Lovren and Ragnar Klavan.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Ragnar Klavan of Liverpool beats Romelu Lukaku of Everton to the ball during the Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park on December 19, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

Having initially been troubled by the speed, intensity and physicality of the Premier League, Klavan is now showing signs of being the kind of no-nonsense defender that Klopp believed he was signing when recruiting the Estonian from Augsburg last summer. Last week, Klavan made easy work of Alvaro Negredo in Liverpool’s 3-0 win over Middlesbrough and he was equally effective against Romelu Lukaku last night with his belligerence being underlined by a brilliant block on the forward when Everton were in the ascendancy in the first half.

There had been those who questioned why Klopp had not moved for Ashley Williams in the last transfer window given the centre back’s good showing at Euro 2016 and his experience in the Premier League but the Liverpool manager believed Klavan would prove a better fit and better value at half the price.

Increasingly, it appears that judgement is being vindicated as Williams shows inevitable signs of age at 32 while Klavan is emerging as a key component in a steadily improving Liverpool defence. Sterner tests than Everton and Middlesbrough are to come for Liverpool, though, and Klopp will know that his team’s recent spate of clean sheets will need to be added to if their title challenge is to go from strength to strength.

Liverpool’s hold on Everton is stronger than ever.

A rivalry in name only? That is how the one between Everton and Liverpool currently feels. A run of one win in the last 20 Merseyside derby matches reflects especially badly on Everton as, unlike a similar spell in the 1970s when Liverpool were one of the best teams in Europe, it comes during a period in which their local rivals have struggled to finish in the top six of the Premier League.

In the past seven years, Liverpool’s superiority has been, if not absolute, then certainly pronounced and to an extent that suggests their hold is more down to psychology than ability. At times, it has seemed that Everton have an inferiority complex that prevents them performing as they should against Liverpool. There have been occasions when that hasn’t been the case but even when they have competed and even when they have enjoyed advantages, Everton have failed to win.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 19: Jurgen Klopp manager of Liverpool (C) and the team bench celebrate as Sadio Mane of Liverpool scores their first goal during the Premier League match between Everton and Liverpool at Goodison Park on December 19, 2016 in Liverpool, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)

When David Moyes was in charge, the build up to derby games was often dominated by talk of the financial gulf that exists between the two clubs, an approach which might have allowed Everton to get their excuses in early but it also reinforced the idea that Liverpool are operating on a higher plane. Not surprisingly, results reflected that.

On the most notable occasion that Everton diverted from that strategy, Everton spent the days leading up to the 2012 FA Cup semi-final telling the world that Liverpool were favourites to win the game. Given Brad Jones would be playing in goal for Liverpool, Kenny Dalglish saw the situation for what it was. “I suppose somebody has got to be favourite, haven’t they?” the then Liverpool manager said. “Moyesy doesn’t want to be favourites – that doesn’t make any difference to us. We’ll take it.”

After taking the lead at Wembley, Everton froze and Liverpool went on to win the game 2-1. Afterwards, Dalglish was conducting media duties in the bowels of Wembley stadium when he spotted the Everton official who he believed was behind the PR strategy that had backfired. “You were right,” he said. “We were favourites.” The idea that Everton were making it easy for Liverpool to put them in their place was becoming unshakable and it grew still further in two out of the three most recent Anfield fixtures with Liverpool winning both 4-0.

Ronald Koeman didn’t fall into the trap of discussing financial differentials or playing the favourites game prior to last night’s defeat and his approach was much less likely to backfire as a result. Still, though, the Everton manager betrayed an attitude which backs up the theory that his club continues to suffer from an inferiority complex. Asked what made him believe Everton could get one over on their local rivals, he pointed to what other clubs had achieved against Liverpool, not to the strengths of his own team.

“They lost to Bournemouth and they drew with West Ham,” Koeman said. History tells us that the tide will turn and the rivalry will either become more even or go tilt in Everton’s favour but until the response to that question becomes “We can beat them because we are Everton,” it is hard to see that happening any time soon.

Time is running out for Barkley.

While his reckless challenge on Jordan Henderson was out of character, Ross Barkley’s overall performance was not. Fitful and on the periphery for long spells, this was the latest in a lengthening line of displays in which the gap between the idea of how good Barkley could be and the reality of how good he actually is seemed especially large. Few will dispute that he should not have been sent off for his lunge on the Liverpool captain but there is an argument that he perhaps should have been withdrawn before then such was his limited impact on a fixture that many believe should be made for him but which continues to highlight his limitations.

Barkley recently turned 23 so this is no longer about potential.

“Ross has been in the team for two or three years and it’s getting to that stage where he’s not a kid anymore,” Jamie Carragher said recently. “You have to be judged like a proper Premier League player, not a kid coming through.”

In that respect, Barkley continues to fall short despite the attempts of Koeman and his predecessor, Roberto Martinez, to find ways of getting the best out of him. Whereas Martinez opted for the carrot, regularly telling the world that his protege had the ability to become one of the best ever English footballers and comparing him favourably with global superstars, Koeman has preferred to use the stick, regularly making it clear to Barkley that he now has to deliver. Neither approach has had the desired effect.

Neither have the duo’s attempts to come up with a tactical framework that would allow Barkley to express himself. In the past three seasons, the England international has been deployed as a number ten, a number eight and a number six and has rarely convinced in any of those roles.

As an attacking player with a responsibility for making a difference in the final third he continues to fall short, scoring only four league goals in the last 12 months, two of which came in the same game against a Newcastle United team in freefall. During the same period, his partnership with Romelu Lukaku which once carried such promise has looked increasingly unworkable with neither bringing the best out of the other.

Against Liverpool, Everton failed to create a single clear chance from open play and had only one shot on target, statistics which reflect particularly badly on Barkley given the role he had in the team. If a pass completion rate of 57% highlighted his struggle to retain possession, the attempted cross that he shanked into the Gwladys Street shortly before Liverpool took the lead reflected the technical problems and confidence issues that continue to undermine him.

Not for the first time, Koeman looked less than impressed by his efforts. Not for the first time, the possibility was raised that this might just be the player that Ross Barkley is and that the hype that accompanied his emergence might not be justified. As things stand, he is a fully fledged Premier League player who is yet to convince in any of the positions he has been played in and who remains trapped in a potential that is still some way from being fulfilled.