VAR Again Decisive and Influential as Liverpool Draws Everton, Loses Van Dijk

A disputed offside call kept Liverpool from claiming all three points against a side proving that it's a valid challenger, while the Reds are left sweating over Virgil van Dijk's injury.
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Everton’s 10-year wait for a derby victory goes on, but so, too, does its unbeaten start to the season. A 2-2 draw against Liverpool that was dramatic with periods of farce, brilliance and violence means it leads the champion by three points and, in reflection, it will probably be happier with the performance and outcome. 

Individual excellence bailed out an increasingly ragged Liverpool, whose defending was again called into question. The most significant incident on Saturday, perhaps, was the challenge after seven minutes by Jordan Pickford on Virgil van Dijk. The Everton goalkeeper’s skittishness has been an increasing problem for 18 months or so. A mysterious charge to the edge of his box was largely responsible for England conceding a penalty in the defeat to Denmark on Wednesday, and his judgment was questionable again as he lunged at Van Dijk as the ball was played in from the left. 

It was a dreadful challenge that would have brought a penalty and quite possibly a red card had the Liverpool defender not been offside–and Pickford could have been sent off for serious foul play anyway. Mystifyingly, the VAR didn’t check the foul, only the offside (and Van Dijk was offside only because of the new guideline this season that measures from the T-shirt line rather than the armpit). A still image showed Van Dijk’s leg bent horribly back as Pickford scissor-tackled him, and he was forced off with a knee injury. Given how vital the Dutchman is to Liverpool’s defensive structure, if his absence is a long one, the impact on the champion’s hopes of retaining its crown could be profound. 

Virgil van Dijk is hurt in Liverpool's draw vs. Everton

Liverpool has now dropped five points in five games; it dropped only 15 in all of last season. Van Dijk’s departure changed the course of the game, naturally. Without him, Liverpool looked vulnerable from corners and, sure enough, 19 minutes in, Michael Keane powered James Rodriguez’s right-wing corner past second-choice goalkeeper Adrian to equalize. 

It’s too simplistic to say that with him on the pitch the goal wouldn’t have been scored, particularly given he tends to defend the back of the box, but his absence emphasized Liverpool’s susceptibility. Liverpool had initially looked like the much better side. What is important, Alex Ferguson always said, is not the setback but the response to the setback. Having lost 7-2 to Aston Villa in its last league game, Liverpool seemed to have responded in the perfect way, taking a third-minute lead with a goal that, while brilliant in its development, also owed a lot to a slightly tentative challenge by Seamus Coleman on Andy Robertson. 

The left back crossed from the left, and Sadio Mane, who had missed the game at Villa Park, swept the ball home. After Van Dijk had gone, though, Liverpool seemed slowly to unravel. Jurgen Klopp became increasingly animated on the touchline–particularly, it seemed, with Adrian and his distribution. Richarlison headed a James cross against the post and James then drew a sprawling low save from Adrian with a clever low curler. But just as Everton seemed in control, a moment of brilliance from Mohamed Salah turned the game. 

Yerry Mina made a hash of clearing a Henderson cross, but there was still a lot to do as the ball fell to the Egyptian 15 yards out. His first time shot, though, was unerring, just inside Pickford’s far post, and from nowhere Liverpool had the lead. 

But not, as it turned out, the win. Previous incarnations of Everton may have crumbled, but not this one. James released Lucas Digne down the left, and his cross was converted by Dominic Calvert-Lewin with a towering leap at the back post. He became the first Everton player to score in five successive league games since Tommy Lawton in 1938, and this was a Lawton-style header. 

Still, though, there was a twist. Richarlison was sent off for a dreadful lunge on Thiago Alcantara with two minutes remaining, a moment of recklessness that means he will miss Everton’s next three games. It also handed the initiative back to Liverpool and it seemed, two minutes into injury time, that it had a winner. Thiago’s no-look through ball released Mane. His cross was met by Henderson and the ball looped around and in off Pickford’s arm–only for VAR to show the tightest of offsides on Mane.

Everton prevailed and so did its lead at the top of the table–yet VAR and its implementation of the rules remain the lingering elements from a Merseyside derby draw that could have far-reaching implications.