With eight minutes to go in a petty and ill-tempered Merseyside derby, Michael Keane received a pass in his own penalty area. Normally Keane is a pretty decent ball-playing center-half, with the ability to advance out of defense and spring quick attacks. But then, very little about his afternoon had been normal.
Keane’s sole job here was to destroy: to clear crosses and then boot the ball as far away as possible. I completed three passes all afternoon. And so as Dele Alli rolled the ball casually towards him you could see a certain horror rising in him, the flustered panic of a man who had absolutely not prepared for this turn of events. With red shirts hunting him down, Keane simply fled towards the sanctuary of his own corner flag, gingerly carrying the ball with him as if it were a leaking bin bag.
Still, when you are in a relegation fight, sometimes the ends justify the means. Sometimes you just have to sit deep, make it ugly, and make sure you only lose 2-0 with 17% possession. And as Liverpool ploughed on in a Premier League title pursuit, it was hard not to feel a certain small pity for their opponents, who came up with a plan, executed it perfectly, and still ended up comfortably beaten. Everton tried everything to derail Liverpool here, except play football.
But then, when the other team is so lavishly and embarrassingly better than you, perhaps the only tactic left is to take the football out of the equation entirely. When you are leaking goals from all directions, perhaps there is little point in coming here and playing like Graham Potter’s Brighton. Everton essentially conceived this game in two dimensions: time and irritation, and for an hour at a restive and restless Anfield it looked tantalizingly as if they might get what they came for.
There was grappling and timewasting, bawling and brawling, diving and pratfalling. Richarlison seemed to spend most of the game lying on the ground like a cow preparing for a rainstorm. Jordan Pickford deliberated over his goal-kicks as if he was choosing a mortgage. There were chances too, particularly for the sprightly Anthony Gordon on the left wing, and with a little more luck and a more amenable referee they could quite conceivably have pulled off an almighty upset.
It was callous and cynical and – for all the grousing of the Anfield crowd – darkly brilliant in its own way. There was plenty of tactical intelligence on show too, from the way Abdoulaye Doucouré shackled Thiago Alcântara to the way Gordon and Vitalii Mykolenko double-teamed Mohamed Salah. As a fuming Liverpool worked the ball around in unsatisfying semicircles Everton were resolutely winning the numbers game. You can try decoy runners, you can try quick switches, you can feint and shimmy in an attempt to move defenders out of position. But none of it really works if they’re not actually going anywhere.
Fortunately, Jürgen Klopp had a contingency. In case of emergency: break glass for Divock Origi. With 30 minutes left the Belgian trotted on for his sixth Premier League appearance of the season and almost immediately his directness helped conjure the breakthrough for Andrew Robertson: holding off Allan and laying the ball off for Salah to cross.
And so, with their blueprint in tatters, Everton finally deployed Plan B. On came Alli and Salomón Rondón. Frank Lampard urged his defensive line higher up the pitch, a command which was heeded only gingerly. Mason Holgate, in particular, crossed the halfway line as if it were the 38th parallel into North Korea. But with five minutes remaining Origi claimed another goal against his favorite opponents, the latest milestone in a Liverpool career that essentially consists of a handful of unforgettable moments and a hell of a lot of post-match warm-downs.
Finally, the Kop felt secure enough to break out the “going down” chants that had not been heard since the first 20 minutes. And for all Everton’s sweat and sacrifice, no points and no goals, and the very real threat of a first relegation in 71 years. These things happen, of course, and need not be disastrous. Villarreal were relegated a decade ago and are now in a Champions League semi-final. Schalke and Werder Bremen are currently in the second tier of the Bundesliga and are poised to bounce straight back.
But given their size and means, the £ 561m spent on transfer fees since Farhad Moshiri’s takeover – more than Liverpool, both in total and net outlay – an Everton relegation would surely be one of the most spectacular fiascos in the modern history of football. And really, the scale of their plight was illustrated by the smallness of their gameplan, a full-on spoiling exercise that was still only good enough for an hour’s respite.
Right now this is where Everton are, and this is who they are. In a way, their approach here was a rejoinder to Liverpool’s growing indifference, a determination to meet apathy with antipathy. You will notice us again. You will hate us again. But when will they next meet again? The next four weeks will provide all the answers.