A rivalry is only really a rivalry if both protagonists want the same thing. They don’t have to be evenly matched, but they do need to share a target. Think Richard III and Henry VII. Ali and Foreman. Girls Aloud and One True Voice. Alas, it’s been a while since this was the case on Merseyside. Liverpool v Everton may be a treasured heritage fixture. But as these 90 skittish, uneven minutes demonstrated, it’s no longer much more than that.
The game ended with Liverpool eight points clear at the top, 11 points clear of Manchester City. With Everton in the bottom three, still two decades without a win here. But you didn’t need to know any of that to grasp the divergence in priorities. It was in the tone and feel of the game, the suck and blow of the Anfield atmosphere, who wanted the ball and who didn’t. Liverpool wanted to win. Everton just wanted to compete.
Derbies are supposed to challenge the cold mathematics of the league table. To upend orthodoxies. And indeed there were fleeting moments here when Everton threatened to drag this game into strange and unconventional places. Their response to going 2-0 down within 17 minutes was impressively defiant. For all the heat on Marco Silva, who may yet be out of a job by the time you read this, there was no sense of implosion, of tools being downed. Curiously, Everton look more like a flawed team trying to rebuild under a new manager than a doomed team trying to shake off an old one.
Indeed there was one side here who desperately wanted it more. Unusually, it was the team who ended up losing 5-2. This wasn’t a conventional walloping, in that Liverpool really weren’t very good: four first-team players left on the bench, some uncharacteristic daydreaming in defence and a strange translucence to them for large periods. Jürgen Klopp looked on the verge of boredom as he spoke afterwards about “respecting the opposition” as if he had just dispatched a plucky lower-league team in the third round of the Carabao Cup. In demeanour and in deed Liverpool’s ennui spoke volumes. Everton wanted to turn the city blue. Liverpool just wanted to pick up the three points and turn their attentions to Bournemouth on Saturday.
And so a pattern was set early on. Almost immediately from kick-off Liverpool launched the first of many dangerous incursions. Everton’s back five and midfield three squeezed themselves tight as if huddling around a campfire. Up front on his own, Dominic Calvert-Lewin steeled himself for a long and lonesome night. Liverpool wanted to lay waste. Everton just wanted to contain. On seven minutes Sadio Mané slipped a dangerous ball in behind the defence. Michael Keane wanted Jordan Pickford to claim it. Pickford wanted Keane to clear it. Divock Origi wanted the ball, and in the split-second of Everton indecision he was rounding the keeper and putting Liverpool ahead.
Yet somewhere in amongst the flurry of first-half goals a real contest briefly and thrillingly tried to break out. Emboldened by Liverpool’s imprecision Everton continued to chip away. Adam Lallana tried about four heel turns in a row and ended up losing the ball in his own half. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who for all his angelic comportment possesses an occasional and delightful snide streak, was lucky to escape with yellow for stepping on Lucas Digne. All over the pitch second balls were being forsaken, passes trickling straight out of play. “Fucking WAKE UP!‚“ an exasperated Liverpool fan in the Main Stand bellowed as the home side struggled to clear their lines.
But for the most part Liverpool were content to drift serenely back to port. Mané, otherwise pin-sharp, missed two stone-cold chances to make the game safe long before Gini Wijnaldum’s 90th-minute clincher. Xherdan Shaqiri pulled off a couple of louche stepovers. As Everton ran out of puff, Liverpool cruised to victory without ever remotely threatening to raise their level.
This, perhaps, was the most telling indictment of where Everton stand in the order of things. Against their fiercest rivals they played with spirit and focus and a solid strategy, and created plenty of chances. Liverpool, for their part, rested their key players, underperformed all over the pitch and treated the game like little more than a perfunctory training session. And still won 5-2. At full-time Klopp took to the pitch to join his players in saluting all four corners of the ground, milking the applause. They wanted to soak up every moment. Everton just wanted to get out of there.
Liverpool want to win the Premier League. Everton just want to survive. We can pick apart the coups and blunders that have brought these two clubs to these two points, but in the measured applause of the Anfield crowd lay perhaps the gravest insult. For all the sporadic outbreaks of song, it was hard to escape the sense that to Liverpool Everton are just another team now. There may still be a history there, a shared bloodline, a culture and a tradition. But it has arguably never felt like less of a rivalry.