DrErbies, if the received wisdom is to be believed, can be very helpful in stopping stagnation. They can shake players out of the rut, or heightened emotions can bridge differences in class. Not at Goodison on Wednesday night, though: Not only did the book form pop out the window and not only firmly stayed in the room, he made himself an advantage, and across its pages in huge letters the simple message was written: Everton in trouble.
Perhaps that is unfair to Liverpool. They tore up the faltering opponents from abroad. They have achieved more xG in the first 10 minutes than Everton have achieved in four of their matches this season. They played with great enthusiasm and energy and all four goals were the result of excellent finishing touches. They have ruthlessly taken advantage of Everton’s flaws. But still, it was worth it that there are a lot of flaws and they are very deep.
Perhaps what was most painful for Everton was that, save for a few minutes after Demarie Gray’s single-man draw, there was almost no stage where it felt like a contest. It’s thanks to the fact that they simply didn’t give up, that they put in a battle to put at least a little pressure on, but why did they only start playing when they were already 2-0 down and Liverpool might have lost? Bay row in those first minutes threatened to become embarrassed.
And so the night ended in boos and frustration, as swaths of blue benches revealed how many fans had given up early, and five points short of Everton’s relegation zone. It may seem silly to talk about Rafa Benitez under pressure but Everton have taken one point from their past seven league games. With Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Leicester, they could easily be in the relegation zone by Christmas.
Nevertheless, Everton started the season well: 14 points represented their highest total after seven games since 2004-05. Injuries clearly played their part. Although Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s absence made most of the headlines, the contraction coincided with the loss of Yerry Mina to a hamstring injury. With the Colombian, Everton have conceded 1.14 goals per game this season. Without it 2.28.28.
Abdoulaye Doukuri’s return is supposed to help, but the duo Michael Caine and Ben Godfrey have rarely convinced. Alan was easily converted by Diogo Jota for fourth. The recession was more than just the number of people. There was a breakdown in structure and morale. It doesn’t matter who plays in central defense if the ball is wasted as much as it was in that opening quarter (albeit in the face of heavy pressure), or if Gray and Seamus Coleman will conspire to give Mohamed Salah a clear run on goal.
This does not mean that Calvert-Lewin’s absence was not felt by anyone. He scored in the first three games of the season before a thigh injury, and his direct substitute, Salomon Rondon, has not escaped the club’s mark in seven games. The Venezuelan is clearly someone in which Benitez, who has managed at three clubs, has great faith, but the days when he was arguably the best single sprinter in the world felt long ago. For someone who has based his career on being a willing stalker for lost causes, there has been grief in his slowdown this season. Perhaps after two years away from the Premier League, it simply takes a long time to adjust to the pace of the league; The fear is that at the age of 32, he no longer has the enthusiasm that once characterized him. This is a great frame for continuing down the blind alleys.
Much more than Sunday’s game at Brentford, when Everton’s second-half possession-control seemed to reduce his effectiveness, forcing him to play in tight spaces, this was a match that suited Rondon, and without the strength he had. Newcastle’s best player, he carried the ball well before succumbing to what looked like a hamstring injury an hour ago. It was his run that knocked Joel Matip off his position in favor of Gray’s goal. Richarlison’s comeback from suspension helped in that regard, but while his spread up front two meant someone was going to pick up Rondon’s haircuts, it also meant that the Everton midfield was often overcrowded.
Given how bad he could have looked when entering the second goal, given that allowance should be good for how good Liverpool were in those opening 20 minutes, the temptation is to wonder if there is something to build upon. But step back and the picture is much darker than that. It was Liverpool’s biggest league derby win at Goodison for 39 years.
Change the manager? It’s the familiar solution, but Benitez is already the sixth Everton manager in Farhad Moshiri’s six years as owner. Maybe he’s the right man, maybe he’s not, maybe the ex-Liverpool manager shouldn’t take over at Everton, but at some point something more fundamental has to be accepted that has gone wrong, which is that for all the money Moshiri has spent. It is a club that is still confined to the middle level.