Ten days ago, starting nearly the exactly same team he selected today, Brendan Rodgers saw his Liverpool side held to a draw by Aston Villa, whose exploitation of a Steven Gerrard-Jordan Henderson midfield helped them build a two-goal lead after 36 minutes. That’s why, as Rodgers spoke before today’s Merseyside Derby about wanting to control the ball and dictate play, Liverpool looked in terrible shape. When NBC’s pregame show flashed the Reds’ lineup, the team looked set to play the same two-man midfield that would leave Gerrard exposed.
Surely Rodgers was too smart for this? Particularly against Everton. We all saw what happened against a less-talented Villa side. Against an Toffees team that can thrive in possession, surely Rodgers wasn’t going to match Gerrard and Henderson against Ross Barkley, Gareth Barry, and James McCarthy? The team’s dealing with a slew of injuries, but this was too basic a mistake for somebody of his caliber, particularly in light of what happened two Saturdays ago.
Come kickoff, however, it was clear Rodgers had learned from his mistakes. Gerrard was still in a deep-lying role, but both Jordan Henderson and Philippe Coutinho were playing in front of him. With Raheem Sterling playing deep on the right, Liverpool remained in a kind of 4-4-2, albeit one entirely different then the one that struggled against Villa. Instead of relying on his two-man middle to hold their ground, Rodgers was helping them out. Coutinho was in from the left to make it a three, Sterling was playing deeper to provide support, and Daniel Sturridge was often coming back to provide an extra man in the middle. This was nothing like the team that was fortunate to salvage a point against Villa.
From WhoScored.com, here are average positions of Liverpool’s players on Tuesday (left) compared to Jan. 18 against Villa (right):
Clearly, this was Rodgers’ plan all along, but consider his posture before the match. He selected the same team, implied they’d be played the same way, and even told cameras he wanted to control the game. It was Rodgers’ typical fair, but on the heels of the Aston Villa performance and given how Everton like to play, it looked stubborn.
But Rodgers proved anything but. That pre-match bravado was just an act. Whereas Liverpool had held 56 percent of the ball against Villa, they ceded Everton 61 percent possession on Tuesday. Willing to play on the counter and rely on more direct play to Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez, Liverpool proved adaptable. They also proved potent.
Given the positions of Everton’s players (right, all but two’s average place in the attacking half), the change may have caught the Toffees off-guard. Perhaps expecting Rodgers’ stick to his dogma, Everton were caught out, their central defense beaten badly on the game’s last three goals.
Ultimately, Rodgers was right. Liverpool did dominate the game, albeit without the ball. The game played out as he planned, with quick action taking advantage of an isolated Phil Jagielka and Antolin Alcaraz, leading to the Reds’ most decisive derby win in 32 years.
Given what we saw against Villa, much of the credit has to go to the coach. He saw the problems, he recognized the opposition, and he adjusted. With 10 of the same players, Rodgers was able to affect a complete turnaround. As a result, Liverpool’s now got a four-point edge on their crosstown and Champions League rivals.