‘School of Science? Give me a break,” Roy Evans once complained after a particularly attritional Merseyside derby in Everton’s Dogs of War period under Joe Royle. Evertonians may soon be looking back at that era quite fondly, since the early indications are that Sam Allardyce’s tactics are going to make Royle’s battleplans look sophisticated.
The former England manager pulled no punches here. He sent out his team with a horrible emphasis on long balls, in a disciplined defensive formation that allowed no room for individual flair or attacking invention, and even had them wasting time at free-kicks and throw-ins during the first half. It was as if Allardyce was trying to outface his many detractors by laying all his cards honestly on the table, yet from Everton’s point of view it worked.
Liverpool will look back on this game as a match they should have won and in all probability thought they had done at the point when they needlessly brought off Mohamed Salah early. Everton were posing no problems going forward and could easily have been two or three goals behind at the time, but as Allardyce knows very well, a one-goal lead can disappear in an instant. Everton hardly deserved a draw here, they rode their luck right up to the stage when Dejan Lovren gormlessly pushed Dominic Calvert-Lewin in the box right under the referee’s nose, but as Wayne Rooney crashed home the penalty before wildly celebrating his first derby goal with the Everton fans in the Anfield Road end, there was absolutely no doubt which side was happier with the result. Everton, one imagines, will not play like this all the time. Allardyce is too smart for that. In the end, though, he set up for a result and got one. Everton remain unbeaten since his arrival, the Liverpool goal train was stopped in its tracks, and a draw that felt like a morale-boosting victory was a lot more than many supporters in blue had dared to expect.
The challenge of trying to stifle a team that scored seven goals in their last Champions League outing was clearly one that appealed to Everton’s new manager, and Allardyce set about in the style he has made his own. The visitors reverted to a 4-4-2 formation, though in reality it was more like 8-0-2. The playmaking talents of Rooney and Gylfi Sigurdsson were ill-served by both having to notionally operate on the flanks, though in reality they spent the first half as supplementary full-backs.
Right from the kick-off Everton began to hoist long balls in the general direction of Oumar Niasse and Calvert-Lewin. In fact, Jordan Pickford overhit a few to such an extent that they travelled the whole length of the pitch and ran dead, causing no little amusement to the Liverpool supporters.
Everton did not seem to mind; they had come with a plan and were determined to stick to it, however ugly. As half-time approached, they were possibly even beginning to congratulate themselves on its success. Liverpool were being repulsed fairly comfortably, perhaps not helped by Jürgen Klopp’s odd decision to leave Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino on the bench, and though Everton were posing no danger whatsoever to Simon Mignolet’s goal the Anfield crowd was just beginning to transmit the early signs of frustration as each successive attacking effort was crowded out on the edge of the area.
Allardyce would have been happy at the interval, confident his team could do the same for another 45 minutes, had it not been for Salah’s intervention three minutes before the break. Even with only two of the fab four on the pitch Everton were treading a thin line after half an hour, with Sigurdsson going into the book for a foul on Jordan Henderson and Idrissa Gueye joining him shortly afterwards for going through the back of Sadio Mané. Everton were still reorganising themselves after the latter incident when a quickly taken free-kick led to Salah picking up the ball on the right, and though his curled shot into Pickford’s top corner was impeccable, it was the ease with which he beat Cuco Martina and Gueye to make space that will have most worried Everton.
Obviously the visitors’ most basic of gameplans now had to change, and Rooney was pushed up into attack in place of the ineffective Niasse for the second half, though Everton were quite fortunate still to be in touch by then. They would have turned round two goals down had Mané looked to his right to find a queue of unmarked team-mates up in support after carving a path through the Everton defence in first-half stoppage time, but possibly emboldened by leaving Ashley Williams on his backside the Liverpool forward went it alone and managed to miss the target. Salah also missed a good chance at the start of the second half, reaching James Milner’s cross on the six-yard line but heading the wrong side of Pickford’s left-hand upright. It felt like more goals would come eventually, though they never did. Maybe Klopp would pick his team differently next time, maybe with hindsight he should have left Salah on for longer, but after Crystal Palace last season he ought to know by now that Big Sam is the master of small percentages and it is dangerous to take anything for granted.