Adam Dow and Mark Houston just happen to be Everton and Liverpool supporters, so they’ve taken their editor’s hats off and put their blue and red hats on to mull over the upcoming Merseyside derby at Anfield. Here’s how the conversation went.
You can listen to the full conversation below or read the (somewhat cut down) transcript.
Mark Houston: You guys are making the trip across Stanley Park so we’ll start with you. What kind of state are Everton in heading into the derby?
Adam Dow: Well, we’re not in good form, that’s for sure. We’ve just come off a 3-0 demolition at the hands of Swansea, and we got done by Crystal Palace at the weekend. We’ve copped so many goals in the last few games; we copped three against Swansea, three against Palace and obviously the six against Chelsea; which I think gives us the worst defence in the league so that has to be arrested.
MH: And of course at Anfield last season you copped a few as well.
AD: Yeah we did cop four that day – but we were always going to. You scored three against us at Goodison as well, so yeah, Everton’s defence at the moment is not looking good.
MH: Why is that though? What’s wrong? Because last season you were pretty tight for the most part…
AD: Yeah we were, we conceded 39 goals in 38 games last year which was the third or fourth best in the league. But this season we’ve already conceded 13 goals in six games. Coleman’s injury hasn’t helped either because Jagielka and Distin just aren’t working in the middle there; they’ve been looking really pedestrian, and if you look at any of our matches this season the goals we’ve conceded… There seems to be a lack of communication and really average stuff from two of the guys who were the cornerstone of our defence last year.
MH: You’ve got John Stones – though he isn’t really one who is going to bring stability or leadership or experience.
AD: Yeah I think going forward it’s going to be Jagielka and Stones when you look at Distin’s age now – I think he’s 36 now?
AD: 136, yeah sorry mate. But if you look at Stones he’s going to be the one playing next to Jagielka, but that requires the return of Coleman and I don’t know if he’s going to be fit. He was great against Wolfsburg but he received a head injury so he missed the Palace match, missed the Cup match [against Swansea] so we don’t know if he’s going to be back. Stones will play at right-back then, but that’s not his natural position and he doesn’t really offer enough in the attacking prowess that Coleman does so we’ve got problems there. If he returns, I guess Distin drops back to the bench.
MH: That’s the thing with Martinez’s system though, at right-back he plays more of a quasi-winger and you have Barry dropping back in to make a back three. So with Stones playing at right-back, do you think the system may change; or the style rather than the system; especially going away to Anfield, or do you think because it’s a derby he’ll want to be on the front foot?
AD: I think it will a little bit, but if Barry and McCarthy sit deeper and deeper and we don’t get as far forward we’ll just invite pressure on from Liverpool. Mind you, Aston Villa had some success against Liverpool by sitting deep and not giving any space between the lines. Even against Palace though, every time they went down our end it looked like they were going to score, and that’s what Martinez said after the Chelsea game. It was spooky almost, every time they went near our box it felt like they were going to score a goal, and that’s just generally how it feels at the moment.
MH: So the defence is shaky, what about at the other end of the pitch? Lukaku’s scored a few – even though he looked like he regretted scoring against West Brom where he spent one whole season, and then chose to not go back to them again the following year…
AD: Yeah that must’ve been really emotional for him. I think our goals tend to create themselves. Naismith’s been on fire, as you know. I suspect it will be Naismith in behind Lukaku with Osman on the left. Pienaar’s still not right so he might be on the bench, and then either McGeady or Mirallas on the right. If Stones is starting on the right, maybe Mirallas will sit wider rather than tuck in and Stones won’t have to get as far forward.
MH: McGeady’s an interesting one. He has those magical touches in him, but he seems like the player who does something amazing and then you don’t see him again for about three or four weeks.
AD: He’s got a bit of “luxury player” about him but he can do the McGeady spin, so let’s not forget about that.
MH: Which apparently he can’t perform on FIFA…
AD: No his skill level isn’t high enough to do his own signature trick. But that’s FIFA for you… Everton are always going to score goals though. Lukaku basically went missing against Palace but he had one chance and he put it away and he never looked like missing either. More of our concerns are at the other end of the pitch, going forward we’re fine, but Tim Howard is another one and he’s having an absolute shocker at the moment.
MH: Yes, Tim Howard. I was going to bring him up. Superstar at the World Cup, although he made a lot of saves, they’re saves that you’d expect a top-tier ‘keeper to make.
AD: Yeah, a lot of them were straight at him.
MH: So what’s going on there, he gave away a penalty last week…
AD: That was very clumsy. That was kind of a miscommunication with Stones at right-back – he’s still making those mistakes, but he’s 19, 20 so he’s always going to. I still don’t think Howard’s going to get dropped as he’s got plenty of experience. But these sorts of clangers I don’t think we’ve seen from Howard since he was at Manchester United.
MH: Lest we forget.
AD: Absolutely. It’s worrying of course, but the four guys in front of him are probably struggling more than he is this season. And overall, we’re really not going into the game in great form. In fact, I can’t remember a derby where both sides have been heading into it in such poor form. You guys aren’t doing too well yourselves?
MH: No, not well at all. In the league we’ve lost three of five, and probably played only three good halves of football in those five matches. The first half against City we were quite good if not spectacular and obviously the game against Tottenham, which was where a lot of people thought “hey, we’re back. This is us from last season” because the Southampton game was very underwhelming, but we just haven’t kicked on. Losing Sturridge [to injury] is a big blow and the run of fixtures isn’t something this squad is used to. But yeah, a slow start to the season and it hasn’t looked pretty.
AD: What did you make of the mid-week cup tie with the penalty bonanza?
MH: 30 penalties in a shootout, you don’t see that very often. It wasn’t our worst performance of the season, but that is admittedly against a Championship side, albeit a Championship side that is doing quite well under Karanka the former Chelsea backroom member. Overall the performance wasn’t too disappointing. Lallana looked alright, and he’s still coming back from injury, and Lucas Leiva had a very good game by his recent standards. As much as it hurts to say, the absence of Gerrard probably benefitted him because he gets to play in his preferred position anchoring the midfield rather than trying to be a shuttler running around in front of Gerrard. He’s not the quickest player, but he does read the game very quickly when he’s in that role, and I think that’s the only place where we can get a first-team-level performance out of him.
The central midfield thing is an issue though, because I think he and Gerrard will both have to start on the weekend as we’ve got Coutinho in doubt, Henderson picked up a knock, and Joe Allen hasn’t featured since he played on an artificial pitch for Wales while Emre Can is out for another five or six weeks I believe.
AD: Steven Gerrard’s form has been questioned by a lot of people, except Brendan Rodgers of course. What do you make of his form? Though he does always seem to lift against Everton…
MH: Yeah he does. He enjoys playing against Everton and as he says, it’s the first game he looks for in the fixtures list because there’s nothing better than getting one over the neighbours.
AD: Which you tend to make a habit of doing.
MH: Yeah it’s been a good few years recently. Last time we lost was under Hodgson I believe.
AD: Of course it was.
MH: That’s a no brainer really. But yeah, Gerrard, he’s started slowly but he started slowly last season as well and it wasn’t until we tweaked the shape to have him playing as a one with two ahead of him that he really came into his own. But his legs really look heavy – more than they did last season – and at the World Cup he was pretty average; we can partly put that down to Hodgson though I think. Everything about his game though [seems off]. Last season we scored the most goals from set pieces in the division and this year we hardly look like challenging. Lovren scored a header in pre-season against Dortmund, but I think that’s the only goal we’ve scored from a set-piece aside from penalties.
AD: Not enough penalties, maybe that blurred his form last year. How much do you think you guys are missing Suarez?
MH: No comment (laughs).
AD: Do you think that’s a factor in Gerrard’s decline? Because last year Gerrard was able to sit deeper and do what he wanted at the base of midfield last year because [opposition] midfielders and defenders were so worried about Suarez so they just sat off him.
MH: Obviously missing Suarez takes a lot away from your attack, because he’s a player who strikes fear into opposition defences and the good thing about the Suarez-Sturridge partnership was that Sturridge stretched the play and then Suarez is so good when gets a little bit of space – and that probably helped Gerrard because they’d then drop midfielders back there.
What we’ve found in the last couple of games – particularly with Balotelli playing up front who doesn’t have the greatest work rate – we’ve found that a lot of teams have been putting a player to man-mark Gerrard and it’s really taken him out of the game. Against West Ham it was Stewart Downing of all people.
The thing with Gerrard there is he’s our creator from the centre of the park, if you take him out of the equation like West Ham managed to – and with no Coutinho playing – we don’t really have another creative player in the centre of the park. Sterling is our best player, even at right wing-back he’s our best player, and he scored a nice goal so it’s good to see his form hasn’t dropped off with the rest of the team. But without Coutinho there isn’t another creator, I mean Henderson is a great player…
AD: According to Liverpool fans…
MH: But he isn’t a creator, he’s a box-to-box style of player. He’s got a lot of energy and he presses, he hassles, he wins the ball. We’ve scored countless goals from Henderson pressing and winning the ball and then releasing it quickly – the goal by Sterling on the opening day [against Southampton] was a perfect example of that. He can play a killer pass like that, but he isn’t someone who can unpick a defence. So I think we may struggle if Coutinho isn’t available and I wouldn’t be surprised if Martinez has caught on and ends up putting someone like Mirallas or Naismith hovering around occupying that space that Gerrard plays in.
AD: Do you expect Sturridge to be fit?
MH: No I don’t think he’s… they said he may be fit but I’m expecting at most an appearance off the bench. I think it’ll be Balotelli up front – I’m not sure if we’ll go back to the diamond I think we may play more of a 4-3-3.
AD: It’ll be an interesting match, especially with how far guys like Baines like to get forward, if Everton get the ball forward on that left-hand side and lose it in advanced positions you can see Sterling capitalising on that.
MH: Definitely, playing Sterling on the right could see him exploit that there, but I think we’ll be playing a very fluid and flexible formation up front. You could even see Sterling and Lallana both going over to the one side and doubling up there, particularly on Everton’s right if John Stones is playing at right-back.
AD: Looking forward, do you see Sturridge and Balotelli being able to play together in that fluid 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1?
MH: Yeah, or I wouldn’t even be surprised if they were in the diamond, because that seems to be Rodgers’ preferred formation when everyone is fit and you see how an extra body up front really does wonders for both Balotelli and Sturridge. They’re both great players and have very different characteristics, and I think Balotelli will end up being more of a provider than a goalscorer. You might have seen in the West Ham game his touch to bring the ball down. He should attract a lot of defenders, holding them off, and hopefully create space for Sturridge and Sterling.
AD: I look at Balotelli and I think “gee, his attitude and his work rate have really improved” since we last saw him in the Premier League with City, and he certainly is working harder for Liverpool, but I think a big thing in Liverpool’s run to 2nd last season was their pressing up top. You had that Suarez, Sturridge, Sterling really pressing high up the pitch and it was a nightmare for defenders to play out basically. Do you think Balotelli is going to fit into the pressing high up the pitch? Suarez’s work rate was unbelievable.
MH: Yeah that’s the thing with Suarez, he’s not just goals and assists and backheels…
MH: Bites… He had a tremendous work rate and I can’t remember who it was against – it was either early on last season or late in the season before – but I think we were winning 3-0 and he’s fallen over and then tried to tackle a bloke with his head. I think that just sums up the player… And that’s a great thing but obviously he’s gone.
Early signs are he’s willing to put in a shift and work for the team but Rodgers may say “hey, we’d rather you expend what energy you are going to use in a match in attack”, so he may get a bit more of a free role in defence. I think the main issue is if you asked five Liverpool fans what our best XI is, you’d probably get five different teams, which is a good thing and a bad thing.
AD: More of your concern has to be at the back of the pitch, aside from Mignolet’s form, if you look at the match against West Ham – okay you conceded the third goal on the counter as you’re pushing forward – but if you look at the first goal it’s a ball into the box and Winston Reid gets on the end of it. Then the second goal is Sakho’s alleged chip into the far corner but as you said there was a player there ready to nod it in anyway.
MH: Yeah he was unmarked at the far post so regardless of whether he meant it they were going to score, and it highlights the frailties at the back. That one came from us turning the ball over in midfield – we actually had numbers back as well but we were too slow to challenge. The ‘keeper doesn’t inspire confidence either and he’s been positionally suspect at times.
AD: Well you look at Aguero’s goal….
MH: Yeah exactly, Aguero’s goal against City that’s the perfect example. There was another goal where Mignolet, against Ludogorets, he got caught in no-man’s land and came rushing out but ended up about two or three metres away from the ball as the attacker took a touch and he just took it past him and fired home into an empty net there. But there are bigger issues: Gerrard’s form hasn’t been great, and we’ve improved the personnel but we’re still conceding lots of goals, particularly from set-pieces. So I think the problem may lie somewhere else – either a lack of defensive coaching or organisation, or it could be a result of the midfield in front getting caught out of position or pushing too many forward.
AD: What starting XI are you expecting?
MH: Well obviously Mignolet in goal. I think it’ll be Manquillo and Moreno as the full-backs – I don’t think it’ll be a three at the back again – with Skrtel and Lovren. Rodgers doesn’t seem to rate Sakho which I find quite surprising as he was one of the best centre-backs at the World Cup. Gerrard in midfield with Lucas and Henderson ahead of him. And then the front three of Lallana and Sterling behind Balotelli.
Whether that’s enough to hold out Everton I’m not really sure – Lukaku has a habit of scoring against us for both Everton and West Brom – but it’s a derby and we are normally up for them.
AD: Yeah absolutely. I think Everton’s side, if everyone’s fit, picks itself. It’ll be Howard in goals, Baines on the left and Jagielka and Stones in the middle provided Coleman is fit. Gaz Baz in the middle with McCarthy. Naismith probably at the point with Osman on the left and Mirallas or McGeady on the right and then Lukaku up top. Then you’ve got Eto’o to come off the bench – maybe he could start but I think Naismith has done so well this season that he’ll probably start.
MH: Yeah I’m worried about Naismith – he’s like a Dirk Kuyt. He’s not pretty, but he has a knack for popping up in the right space and he does the job. And with the amount of space we leave between midfield and defence I think he could be a danger man, and he has previous for scoring in big games: he got the winner against Chelsea at Goodison last season…
AD: Scored the opener against Arsenal in the 3-0 win last year as well.
MH: He seems to be one Martinez really rates as well so he’s probably quite switched on tactically and can do what the manager asks. In terms of our bench I’m not really sure what we’ll be going with on the bench. Coutinho could make it, but we’re not sure how bad his groin strain is, but I’d like to see Suso make the bench.
AD: Encouraging performance against Middlesbrough?
MH: Yeah, scored a hat-trick though two of them were in the shootout. He’s impressed every opportunity he’s been given, he scored what should’ve been the winner [against Boro] and in pre-season he scored a couple of nice goals over in America. He had a decent season with Almeria in La Liga and I think he’s one that can add a bit of creativity and a nice shot to the team, as well as a decent shot from long range. Considering the injuries Jordan Rossiter might make the bench was well.
AD: Both teams are lacking confidence, how do you see it panning out?
MH: Goals. Hopefully some red cards. Both teams have been entertaining this season at both ends of the pitch.
AD: We’ve got two of the more progressive managers in the league, along with Pochettino, so I can’t see either side sitting back… So it’ll be a nice advert for the Premier League I’m sure.
MH: I think we’ll have enough in attack but not in defence. I think it could be another 3-3. We need a win but I’m just not confident enough in our defence and Everton are a good side and I can see us having a lead and throwing it away or having to claw something back because Everton will definitely score.
How do you see this one panning out? Ever the optimist?
AD: I think I have to be optimistic considering how Liverpool’s form is but Everton had a great 2-0 win at West Brom and then the 4-1 against Wolfsburg where they only copped a goal from a last minute free-kick but it’s kind of gone downhill in those last couple of games there. It’s really hard to pick a side for this one so obviously I’ve got to go with Everton. 2-1.