Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp had made a rod for his own back before a ball had even been kicked at Anfield.
Having watched the ‘Fab Four’ of Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, Philippe Coutinho and Roberto Firmino tear Spartak Moscow to pieces in the Champions League in midweek, it seemed as though they were primed to take full advantage as Sam Allardyce settled into his new role as Everton manager.
Imagine the gasps of surprise, then, at 1.30 on Sunday afternoon when Liverpool’s teamsheet for the Merseyside derby was released. No Coutinho. No Firmino. 20-year-old Dominic Solanke making just his second-ever Premier League start. It was a gamble, and one that Klopp absolutely didn’t need to make.
Liverpool went on to largely dominate proceedings, as Everton attempted to close ranks to protect a defence shorn of the experience of Seamus Coleman and Leighton Baines and with only the inexperienced Jonjoe Kenny and Mason Holgate to replace them. The team that started the match, as it turned out, should have been good enough to win the match (and would have were it not for a moment of clumsiness from Dejan Lovren).
And yet for the notion that this somehow justifies Klopp’s selection, it doesn’t. If anything, it puts it in a far worse light. Everton were clearly there for the taking, so given the magnitude of the game in terms of local bragging rights – not to mention the chance to leapfrog Chelsea into third place – why not put out the strongest possible team to take care of business?
With the greatest of respect to Everton’s defence, based on their performance at Anfield, they would have succumbed to the pressure from Liverpool’s strongest attack.
There’s a certain arrogance and carelessness about that team selection, and it played right into Sam Allardyce’s hands. Big Sam has built a career out showing up the foreign ‘tactical geniuses’ of this world. He’s regularly on the front line bemoaning the supposed influx of managers from outside British shores, taking jobs from home-grown coaches that would be just as good if only they were given a chance.
He would have seen Klopp leaving his two best players and picking a relatively untried youngster in attack as a personal insult, and a perception that this team would be more than good enough to get the job done in what is one of the most fiery matches in English football. Any fear that he would have had for the encounter almost certainly evaporated in that instant, replaced by a burning desire to get one over on a manager that had been too cocky for his own good.
What transpired, of course, is that neither manager’s tactic went to plan, not really. Everton, for all of their efforts to contain Liverpool, would have lost the match had Lovren not gifted them a way back in. They were already 1-0 down and having their limitations exposed, it was hard to find a way back for them at that moment.
Liverpool, meanwhile, were badly missing Coutinho and Firmino. That front four are not particularly interchangeable – there’s a system in play when the quartet operate, each has his own particular role. To just remove two parts of that, replacing one with a raw striker who plays in a completely different style, causes widespread disruption in the whole team.
Klopp can point at the penalty decision as the moment that cost his side two points – and to a degree it did, but not for the reason he wants to believe – but his team should never have been in a position to allow Everton the chance to gain a foothold in any way, shape or form. This match should have been over by then, but for a baffling starting lineup selection that lifted Everton’s spirits when Liverpool should have been doing everything possible to dampen them.
The fine lines, of course, are such that had Liverpool won that match then nobody would be talking about this, as was the case when Salah was left out of the starting lineup in the recent 3-0 win at Stoke (a game in which he sprung from the bench to score twice). But this should have been a priority fixture for Klopp, not treated like a League Cup tie on a Wednesday in October.
Klopp, like all managers, will live and die by his decisions. This was an error of judgement, and one that went some way to costing his side a victory in a major match. All eyes will now be on his lineup for the clash against West Brom on Wednesday; he can ill-afford to get it wrong again.
In this week’s episode of the Mixer Irish Football Podcast, We chat to former Limerick and Cork City striker John O’Flynn about his search for a new club, we discuss Robbie Brady’s injury and recap the latest LOI transfer news.