Merseyside Derby showed why it’s the top six, not the top seven

Everton fans take the stereotype of Scousers being obsessed with the past to a whole new level.

Lost in the romance of their three-year dominance in the 1980s, Toffees fans forever have a chip on their collective shoulder, bemoaning their slots in Match of the Day scheduling, criticising anyone who doesn’t view them as a ‘big club’ and constantly querying why they aren’t treated with the same grandeur as the Premier League’s top six. They are, after all, just one point behind sixth-placed Arsenal in the Premier League table and they have, it has to be said, been in the top flight for all but four seasons of their long history.

Depending on what perspective you take on the old idiom, that chip has been either excessively deeper or excessively tastier in recent weeks, in the build-up to the Merseyside Derby. Everton fans and pundits alike declared a win would signal a shift in the balance of power on Merseyside following Farhad Moshiri’s investment last summer and last week’s agreement to build a new stadium on Bramley Moore Dock. Painted as the most significant Liverpool-Everton skirmish for years, if not generations, it would be wrong to now downplay its importance, simply because it didn’t provide the result Toffees supporters hoped.

And whilst it may not have taught us anything we didn’t know about the Liverpool-Everton rivalry, especially at Anfield where the visitors haven’t won since 1999, it did tell us a lot about the Premier League this season, about where Everton are at right now and about why it’s the top six, not the top seven.

This was unquestionably the Goodison outfit’s biggest fixture of the season thus far, one talkSPORT’s Adrian Durham claimed would have an instrumental impact on Ronald Koeman’s freedom to change the squad during the summer transfer window and one that was meant to instigate Liverpool’s apparent decline, but Everton simply didn’t turn up as the Reds coasted through a relatively routine 90 minutes to win 3-1.

Of course, factors were not in Everton’s favour and the fear of playing at Anfield quickly re-emerged as Sadio Mane netted an early opener. Morgan Schneiderlin and Seamus Coleman were both absent, weakening the engine room and minimising Everton’s attacking threat out wide, which obliged Koeman to place his faith in unproven youngsters. Matthew Pennington had a particularly tough afternoon at centre-back, turned inside out for both of Liverpool’s first two goals.

But rather than focusing on what inevitably went wrong at Anfield, Toffees fans should be more concerned with what should have gone right. Everton fans spent the week prior to Saturday’s clash talking themselves blue in the face about Gareth Southgate inexplicably leaving Ross Barkley on the bench for clashes with Germany and Lithuania – all the more insultingly over two attacking midfielders, Dele Alli and Adam Lallana, who have been in better form than him for longer periods this season – yet the frustrated England man’s only contribution in the first half was a series of fouls that deserved red cards, whilst he produced just one shot on target and one created chance in the second.

It was a similar story with Romelu Lukaku. He struggled to get into the game against an underwhelming Liverpool centre-back pairing and cut an increasingly infuriated figure throughout. It’s certainly true that Lukaku didn’t get much service, but the best strikers in the business produce something magical from what little they receive. Lukaku had the second-fewest touches of the ball of any Everton player to start the match and didn’t provide a single effort at goal. Harrowing for a world-class centre-forward in waiting, or so we’re told.

But the biggest culprit of the afternoon was unquestionably Koeman himself. Just hours after describing himself as a ‘master tactician’ on Twitter, his big switch to a 3-4-3 system to accommodate for injuries spectacularly backfired. It’s the exact system the best side in the Premier League this season, Chelsea, used at Anfield in January to suffer just their third non-win since it was introduced in September, but the Dutchman somehow thought he could triumph where Antonio Conte and the champions in waiting had failed.

The most worrying aspect was the lack of logic, as much as the poor execution. Liverpool’s narrow midfield and attack left Everton’s two-man engine room trying to cut out the passing lines of six players, whilst the Reds’ forward line matched up with the three-man defence and the Toffees’ three-pronged attack was outnumbered by the opposing back four.

In a nutshell, the only Everton players not matched or outnumbered were the wing-backs, who unsurprisingly ranked first and third for touches of the ball. They may have gotten plenty of it, but there wasn’t enough support for Mason Holgate and Leighton Baines to have a real impact from out wide.

But the overriding theme of the 3-1 affair at Anfield was Everton failing to turn up in a game that could have moved them to fourth place, which is exactly why they’re viewed as the best of the rest in the Premier League and not a bona fide member of it’s elite in the same way as Saturday’s victors. They can beat the division’s rank and file all day, they can even claim a result against those above them in the table – beating Manchester City twice this season – but faced with a season-defining game, they inevitably came up short. Liverpool were a different class, and they weren’t even close to hitting top gear.

The cold hard, fact of the matter is that Everton have qualified for the Champions League just once in 24 years, have finished in the top six just twice in seven years, have two key players who aren’t consistent enough against quality opposition, have a manager who got crucial decisions wrong in the most important game of his first season, and have youngsters who may show promise but unquestionably sank when the ultimate test came.

In a nutshell, Everton at this moment in time just aren’t that good. That’s why they lost the Merseyside Derby, and that’s why it’s the top six – not the top seven.