The struggles of Liverpool and Everton: What ails the Merseyside clubs this season?

For Liverpool and Everton – the two Merseyside clubs in the Premier League, last season ended with a sense of accomplishment.  Liverpool, under the feisty manager Jurgen Klopp, finished fourth in the league and made their return to Champions League football. Everton, under the no-nonsense boss Ronald Koeman, impressed with a seventh-place finish after figuring in the bottom-half of the table in the previous two seasons.

In just two and half months since the start of the 2017-18 season, both Klopp's Liverpool and Koeman's Everton put on a series of performances that might fall into the genre of tragicomedy. Or to put it differently, the form 'comedy' can be attributed Liverpool and 'tragic' can be labelled to Everton.

Tragic for Everton because Koeman, the famed student from the Johan Cruyff school of football, got dumped. Everton sacked their manager after the club suffered a humiliating 2-5 drubbing against Arsenal on Sunday, which saw them drop into the relegation zone. This was their fifth defeat in nine league matches, and they'd tasted success in just two league matches this season.

After such a poor start, Koeman's axing was inevitable. In this day and age, where Crystal Palace's Frank de Boer was sacked after just five games and 77 days in charge, Koeman was walking on thin ice. But, will the change in management bring about the change the club seeks?

After such a poor start to the league, Koeman's axing was inevitable. AFP

After such a poor start to the league, Koeman's axing was inevitable. AFP

The most significant factor in Everton's struggle this season has been the absence of Romelu Lukaku, The striker, who spent four seasons at the club (the 2013-14 season was on loan from Chelsea), left a gaping hole when he made a move to Manchester United. Lukaku is the sort of forward who guarantees goals. He proved to be the difference between finishing seventh and not beyond 10th last season thanks to his 25 goals.

This season in the Premier League, Everton scored only seven goals in nine matches and those seven goals came from only two players — Wayne Rooney and Oumar Niasse.

It's difficult to find a like-for-like replacement for Lukaku, but Koeman and Everton management's failure lies in the manner they conducted their transfer business in the summer. Instead of going for a proper centre-forward (read Oliver Giroud), they went ahead and signed players who were fit for a No 10 role.

This year's new signings — Rooney, Sandro Ramirez, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen — are more likely to make an impact if they were individually deployed as attacking midfielders. Koeman's strategy to use all four in the front severely backfired. Not only there were no goals, but the team constantly failed to even create chances.

Another setback for Koeman came in the form of Gerard Deulofeu. Currently in Barcelona, the Spanish player could have been the player for Everton this season. The Toffees lack the necessary speed and threat from the wings and Deulofeu could've been very useful. But Barcelona activated the buy-back clause and the winger returned to the club where he started his footballing career.

Maybe the Everton management should've found ways to keep the winger, but his departure was understandable because he was going back to Barcelona and also the fact that he had fallen out favour with Koeman in the previous season.

Everton also spent a good amount (£25 million) on getting defender Michael Keane from Burnley. His partnership with Ashely Williams was supposed to be the core of the club's defence but both players have been quite erratic so far. Somebody like former club player Gareth Barry could've made thing easier for Williams and Keane in his defensive midfielder role.

Everton's next challenge is against Chelsea in the League Cup on Wednesday. Playing under new caretaker manager David Unsworth, Everton will look to shake off events of the past week and start afresh. A new manager might not give the club a new lease of life so quickly, but the change in the leadership might shake few things off.  The players might be eager to prove a thing or two and that might just be the impetus the club need right now.

Unlike the broad range of problems plaguing Everton, Liverpool's issues have been more concentrated on their defence. One does not need to study rocket science in order find deficiencies in Klopp's team. Their current situation was very much on the cards and it was predicted too. The fact that it has been made visible so early in the season is what makes it somewhat surprising.

Klopp, after his team suffered a 1-4 loss against Tottenham, couldn't keep it inside anymore, and uttered the words, "bad, bad, bad defending." This was Klopp blaming defender Dejan Lovren for his blunder. But in the larger scheme of things, who's the real culprit? Why didn't the boss fix Liverpool's defence when he still had the chance?

Joe Gomez is young and inexperienced. Lovren is error-prone. Joel Matip is inconsistent. Ragnar Klavan is... well, he's nothing. The fact of the matter is that all four defenders played in the last season and the club suffered defensively.

Unlike the broad range of problems plaguing Everton, Liverpool's issues have been more concentrated on their defence. AFP

Unlike the broad range of problems plaguing Everton, Liverpool's issues have been more concentrated on their defence. AFP

Liverpool tried tapping-up Southampton defender Virgil van Dijk and once that failed, there was no Plan B. Klopp had enough time identify a good solid defender for the club, much like how Tottenham did it with Ajax's Davison Sanchez. But the ease with which Klopp gave up on signing any defender once Van Djik's transfer failed is very perplexing.

This brings out an interesting observation. If Klopp's thinking is about outscoring their opponents, how is he different from his predecessor Brendan Rodgers. It was Rodgers who first implemented the plan during Liverpool's 2013-14 season where they almost finished with the league title. They scored heavily but they also conceded heavily. Klopp's full first season at the club also saw the club scoring heavily, but they too conceded way too many goals. Both managers played have a thing for playing a variety of football that is attractive.

The ultimate question is, did the club get anything tangible out of it? A trophy? Or is this all about playing visually-pleasing football? There are no doubts about Liverpool's aim. They play the game to win trophies, but did the club take a hit due to the managers' vanity?

Talking about Klopp's strategy for Liverpool, there's one player who is a flag-bearer to Klopp's vision: The Senegalese Sadio Mane. The 25-year-old player has been Liverpool's best player in the last two seasons. He creates chances, he scores, and he also does the very little defensive work expected out of him.

Last season in January, Mane had to play to the African Cup of Nations and missed Liverpool's crucial matches. They ended up winning just one out of seven fixtures. This time around, when, Mane went to play for Senegal, he sustained a hamstring injury. He missed the matches against Newcastle United and Manchester United where the club created plenty of chances but failed to make much of an impact in terms of finishing.

Mane's finishing qualities could've been the difference between drab draws and taking all three points.

Everton have sacked their manager because he did not get them the results. Klopp is in a relatively better position. The team is ninth in the table so he might not be axed. They'll eventually move up. But hey! Where's the ambition?


Updated Date: Oct 30, 2017 01:27 AM

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