Tim Howard this week claimed that the greater experience of Merseyside derbies possessed by his Everton teammates could help give David Moyes’ side the upper hand when they host Liverpool this weekend. What could be even more important, however, is using that experience to retain a cool head once the game is underway.
Far from the friendly rivalry that it is often portrayed as by a Press with no experience of the fixture as it is today, the Merseyside derby always produces a venomous atmosphere, with insults – and more often than not, objects – flying from all sides. That often translates to the pitch – 19 red cards in 38 Premier League meetings makes this derby the most ill-disciplined fixture in the division’s history. The presence of Martin Atkinson, who has sent off more players since the start of last season than any of his colleagues, as referee, adds to the likelihood of one or both teams ending the game with fewer players than they started it.
If it is Everton who are reduced in numbers, then so too will their chances of three points reduce as well. Meetings with Liverpool are troublesome enough when the sides are even. Giving Liverpool, a side whose main strength lies in midfield, the man advantage would be tantamount to giving away the first goal, playing purely into the hands of Kenny Dalglish.
Liverpool will go to Goodison Park intending to dominate possession and turn the raucous home crowd’s vitriol away from the strangers in red and onto the more familiar figures in blue. It is a strategy employed by many teams when they travel away from home, to subdue and frustrate the crowd, which then transmits its nervousness to the home players. When the derby factor is included the frustration becomes overwhelming, and a rash challenge, usually followed by a booking or a red card, is rarely far away.
Transgressions may not always be punished with a sending off, but when the tackles start to fly and the game becomes more a fight than a football match, discipline is quickly lost and with it, any semblance of a game plan. Everton cannot afford a second defeat in a row – their next few fixtures are equally as difficult, as a trip to Chelsea awaits following the international break – but if the Toffees throw their tactics out the window and resort to simply sniping at their opponents, it is hard to see how three points will be the reward.
There is a balance between the aggression needed to overcome Liverpool and standing off the Reds midfield and allowing them time and space to play. Upsetting Liverpool’s rhythm is a reasonable, understandable and possibly beneficial approach – doing so with such force that it is Everton who suffer is not. With a strict referee and a poisonous atmosphere the game is sure to see a flurry of yellow cards at least, but avoiding the red ones could be the difference between victory and defeat.
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