Liverpool's Draw vs. Everton Puts Early-Season Dominance in Perspective

Liverpool's pool performance in Sunday's goalless draw against Everton is a useful reminder that what it did in the early part of the season is extremely difficult to sustain.
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If this had been anything like a normal season, this would probably have been seen as another step toward the league title. Sunday's 0-0 draw between Liverpool and Everton means seven of the last eight derbies at Goodison now have ended in draws; in that sense a goalless one was an entirely predictable result. Even before the shutdown, though, this was not a normal season. Liverpool had won 27 of its first 29 games. Combine that and the three-and-a-half month wait for football and that perhaps created artificial expectations.

Liverpool had the better of possession and territory, but it was Everton that had the better of what chances there were, Tom Davies striking the post with 11 minutes remaining after Alisson had saved a Dominic Calvert-Lewin flick. As it is, though, Liverpool’s unbeaten run against Everton stretches to 22 games over 10 years, and it could still wrap up the title within the week—as early as Wednesday if Manchester City fails to beat Burnley on Monday.

But this was not a good performance. Particularly after Naby Keita went off, Liverpool seemed shapeless and a little weary. It huffed and puffed unimaginatively for 75 minutes or so, and then became ragged. Strange as this final quarter of the season is for everybody else, it’s particularly odd for Liverpool, the most soulless victory march imaginable. Assuming the title is wrapped up in the next week or two, Liverpool, out of both the FA Cup and the Champions League, finds itself in the curious position of having nothing left to play for but records. It might have been difficult to maintain enthusiasm for that even in front of packed stadiums celebrating an end to 30 years without a title; in empty grounds, the sense of anti-climax will be unmistakable.

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - JUNE 21: Tom Davies of Everton hits the post during the Premier League match between Everton FC and Liverpool FC at Goodison Park on June 21, 2020 in Liverpool, England.

It would be easy then, if Liverpool’s form does falter, to blame the break. And that would, of course, be to an extent justifiable. But it’s also worth remembering that Liverpool had lost four of six games before the shutdown. Perhaps that was freakish, perhaps that was a sign of fatigue, or perhaps it was because Liverpool had struggled to regain its rhythm after Jurgen Klopp gave his players a two-week break, using the youth team in the FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury.

Even before that wobble in February, Liverpool’s level had dropped slightly. These matters are relative, but Klopp’s side has not been at its most fluent since the 4-0 win at Leicester on Boxing Day, a performance that deserves to be listed alongside the 5-0 win over Nottingham Forest in 1988 or the 7-0 victory over Tottenham in 1978 in the catalogue of dominant Liverpool displays. It still won eight in a row in the league before defeat at Watford, but it was November and December that represented the real golden spell.

All of that is natural. The form of even the best sides ebbs and flows. Even the very best sides tend to produce no more than four or five defining performances over the course of the season, and there’s something vaguely ridiculous about even beginning to trace variations on form for a side that had won 27 of 29 games this season. Whatever happens now, even to get in the position where so many records remain possible at this stage means this has been a remarkable season.

But this was not Liverpool at anything like its best. With Mohamed Salah restricted to the bench by injury and Andy Robertson absent, perhaps it would have struggled for fluency anyway. Carlo Ancelotti, as he had promised he would, started with a 4-4-2 with Richarlison and Calvert-Lewin paired again in attack, but his midfield sat very deep and narrow and Liverpool was restricted. As Liverpool wilted later on, Everton began to threaten.

For Takumi Minamino, the 25-year-old Japanese attacker who joined from Salzburg in January, it was a familiar story of not quite making an impression. He was removed for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at halftime. His task is an unenviable one: it will take games for him to settle in to the Liverpool front three, but that front three is so brilliant that Klopp is understandably reluctant to tweak it if he doesn't have to.

It’s one game, and in the oddest of circumstances, but this was perhaps a useful reminder that what Liverpool did in the early part of the season is extremely difficult to sustain. The title will come, but already the maximum possible points Liverpool can accrue is 107. That’s still seven more than the record, but slowly this side is being dragged back to normality.