It feels like every time Liverpool plays Everton these days, the game is billed as ‘the most important derby’ for years. Ahead of Saturday’s Premier League encounter, both sides have more in common than usual; managers battling with early-season selection problems, defensive lapses, key players injured and unrealistic expectations after over-achievement last season.
The two coaches have even started to sound similar: Roberto Martinez, after Everton’s midweek 3-0 loss in the League Cup to Swansea, said, “I’m disappointed with the result but it’s not a disappointing night. The night was very positive for certain individuals.”
Such a comment might have Reds fans cringing, but in this case it was easy to see what Martinez was getting at. He had made eight changes for the game, starting with Tony Hibbert (first start since February), Bryan Oviedo (first since January), Antolin Alcaraz (May), Darron Gibson (September 2013) and full debuts for Luke Garbutt and Mohamed Besic. His squad is developing, and this was only the second time in his 51-game Everton career that he has lost back-to-back games.
Yet scratch away at the excuses and there are also worrying signs for Martinez. His defense, the third best in the Premier League last season, has conceded 17 goals in seven games, and 13 in five league games, already one-third of last season’s 39-goal total. Tim Howard is being asked to play like he did in the World Cup against Belgium every week; in Everton’s outstanding result of the campaign, the 4-1 Europa League win over Wolfsburg, he made 12 saves but against Crystal Palace and Swansea, conceded on the next five shots he faced.
Martinez has refused to worry about it, by saying at a press conference, “It’s in our DNA… we are a team that can defend and keep clean sheets”. That rings hollow: individual mistakes (only one was Howard’s) may be to blame; it is his job to eliminate them. Martinez believes in the role of partnerships in zones across the pitch; the goalkeeper with his center backs, and the full back with his midfielder ahead of him; so successful was the Leighton Baines/Steven Pienaar partnership last season that fans nicknamed the pair ‘Bainaar.’
Martinez is also keen on adapting different systems depending on the opposition and game state; he wants his team to dominate possession at home, and play counterattack (which could work against Liverpool) away. As he told France Football earlier this season: “It is essential to be flexible and to develop players who are ‘thinkers’ on the pitch, capable of adopting different systems. You need these ‘thinkers’ who are able to sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. I say that Gareth Barry and James McCarthy was the best midfield duo in the Premier League for 2013-14. They do not make headlines, but they were phenomenal. Steven Naismith is someone who can change his game to play in any position.”
Naismith has been one of the successes of Everton’s season so far, playing behind Romelu Lukaku but finding pockets of space like a Scottish Thomas Muller.
The outlook is similar for Rodgers, and just like Martinez, he also has problems with his defense, which has shown weakness at set pieces this season. Simon Mignolet is under pressure in goal and the center backs, whatever the pairing, have had too many flimsy moments.
Further forward, Rodgers is also looking for the right combinations with many new players whose natural early-season struggles he explained away with a bizarre comment after last week's loss to West Ham: “The weight of the jersey here is heavy for most players. Once you adapt to playing for Liverpool you become clearer in your thinking.”
For someone so into his holistic approach, and one who employs a club psychologist in Dr. Steve Peters, it sounded like a strange excuse. The truth is: captain Steven Gerrard might not yet be over the drama of last season and a highly stressful World Cup campaign as England captain; Daniel Sturridge’s injury has come at a bad time and Liverpool’s confidence at the back has not been helped by its habit of conceding needless late goals, as happened against Ludogorets (Champions League) and Middlesbrough (League Cup).
The likelihood is that Liverpool won’t emulate last season’s second place, nor will Everton its fifth place. The more realistic target for Liverpool is top four and reaching the Champions League knockout stage, while for Everton, it’s probably top six and a good run in the Europa League. Both would represent progress, even if it might not look that way.
That’s the thing about these two particular managers; bound together by the same city, a progressive mindset, and both surely destined for greater things. (And don't forget the picture taken in summer 2012, of Martinez and Liverpool owner John W Henry strolling down a Miami street together – it might easily have been Martinez in the Anfield dugout this weekend.) Whatever happens on Saturday, it will not define their season.
“I have learned not to be obsessed with the result, and to focus on the quality of performance,” Martinez added. “What I've learned in football over the years is that there is no truth.”
It’s just the kind of maxim that would make Rodgers proud.