Since the red side of Merseyside is traditionally considered superior due to Liverpool’s resounding European and domestic success during the 70s and 80s, alongside repeatedly higher Premier League finishes than their blue counterparts in more recent times, is it fair to say that this season has suggested a potential shift in the colour considered the dominant force in England’s North West coast?
Well perhaps not yet. But what is clear is the ground Everton have made up into terms of not only league position but matching Liverpool’s squad on paper and ensuring the contest between the two is drawing ever more competitive. They are also both vying for a Champions League position, which Liverpool currently occupy, which highlights that both teams are improving because their results have been significantly more impressive than last seasons with Liverpool finishing 8th and Everton 11th on 60 points and 47 points respectively.
This season, Liverpool are 4th and Everton 7th on 56 points and 5o points indicating their obvious improvements but what has this come down to, considering their limited spending power in comparison with the big guns in the Premier League?
The most obvious driving force is their managers, Jurgen Klopp has been given his first full season in charge which gave him the chance to properly instill his philosophy of ‘gegenpressing’ and his attacking brand of football which was so evident in the first half of the season, where Liverpool were blitzing teams with their quick passing and pressing such as their 4-3 win over Arsenal and 6-1 victory over Watford. Their form may have had a blip come mid-season but their stat of 5 wins and 5 draws against the so called ‘Big 5’ shows they are a team that can perform on the big occasion.
Everton have brought in Ronald Koeman whose team could not be much more of a contrast to Martinez’s if it tried, where Martinez’s Everton were a team who played ‘pretty’ football, they lacked the necessary grit and steel at the back to have any sort of success in the Premier League. Koeman has come in and transformed this team from a side who crumbled at the first sign of pressure to a well-marshalled machine that have the joint second best defence in the Premier League.
Alongside the managers, each club has brought in reinforcements that have had a real positive impact on the team and they have overseen massive improvements in some of their players already on their rosters from previous seasons. Liverpool have signed Sadio Mane, who alongside Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Phillipe Coutinho have caught the imagination this season with vibrant, attacking flair and great inter-linking play which has led to some devastating effects, they currently sit top scorers in the Premier League on 61. Mane has brought some much needed pace and width down the right hand side accompanied with the sort of finishing you might expect from a proven Premier League striker and his level of play at times seems to have everyone forgetting how young he is. At 24, the best has yet to come. Lallana has been another revelation for Liverpool this season, earning a seemingly permanent place in the England team and has been praised for his exceptional work rate, ball retention and link-up play, once considered on the peripheries, Klopp has transformed Lallana into one of the best attacking midfielders in the league.
Everton’s port of call last summer was to improve a leaky defense, and they did so with the sale of promising but mistake-prone centre-back John Stones and signing one of the most reliable and fearless defenders in the Premier League in the shape of Ashley Williams. Williams has fitted alongside Funes-Mori with aplomb and bought a level of leadership to the Everton back-line not seen since Sylvain Distin left in 2015. He and Koeman have brought discipline and reliability, a combination which has equated to one of the most formidable defenses in the Premier League, conceding just 30 goals. Their strong defence has been complimented by a steely midfield, with Idressa Gueye registering more tackles and interceptions than highly praised Chelsea central midfielder N’golo Kante but they aren’t a team who can only keep the ball out; Romelu Lukaku is firmly on the correct path to confirming himself as a world-class talent, at just 23 years old he is the Premier League’s top scorer on 19 and with 141 career goals ‘Rom’ has the potential to be one of the league’s highest ever scorers.
The Merseyside teams may have started to close the gap between them and the ‘elite’ Premier League teams this season, but it cannot be discounted that problems still remain and that this year can be categorized under ‘transition’. Liverpool seem unable to shake off the issue of playing poorly against lower teams, losses to Burnley, Bournemouth, Swansea and Hull alongside draws against the likes of Sunderland and West Ham have dented their title hopes and left them 13 points adrift of Chelsea. A 2-1 triumph over Burnley in the reverse fixture was praised by Klopp and their ability to ‘win ugly’, however, Liverpool scored from their only shots on target and this did little but paper over the cracks; if they are to improve next season, then their ability to grind out results and break down the deepest lying of defences need to be addressed.
The Toffees issues are at the opposite end of the spectrum, claiming just 9 points from 8 games against the top 6, they seem to wilt against the strongest teams, although signs of promise have aroused from the 4-0 win over Manchester City and 2-1 victory over Arsenal, this points to a slight lack of quality to compete with some of Europe’s finest players and they will look to strengthen this summer, knowing they have the backing of their Chinese investors. With strengthening of each squad in the imminent transfer window and the retention of the managers and key players, Liverpool and Everton could provide even fiercer competition to the Premier League title race in the coming seasons and the gulf that has been recently associated between them and the ‘Top 4’ is becoming less and less distinguishable.