Liverpool v Everton is still a derby but cannot be considered a rivalry | Everton
For Evertonians, perhaps the most upsetting aspect of the past week has been the number of Liverpool fans and former players reflecting on what a shame it would be if they were relegated. “I would be sad and I’m sure there are plenty of other Liverpool fans who would feel the same way,” Ian Rush said on Friday. Jürgen Klopp used his press conference to lament Everton’s fate, admitting he would miss the derby if they end up in the Championship next season.
In a way, the outpouring of wailing is its own sneaky little stab. It turns out Everton could handle the hate from Liverpool. They could live with the mockery and tribal jokes. It’s sympathy they can’t stand.
But commensurate with the gaping void between these two clubs ahead of the 240th Merseyside derby, it’s as good as any. Undoubtedly, there are still some Liverpool fans who would happily celebrate Everton’s relegation as their fifth trophy, just as Everton fans will enthusiastically cheer Villarreal in the Champions League on Wednesday.
However, the divergence between them is such that one has more and more the impression that neither is more the business of the other. Sportingly, these two clubs can also live in different universes.
Frank Lampard has said he will draw at Anfield on Sunday. Of course he would. It would be the same for most of its predecessors. But until recently, it’s a prospect none of them would dare to consider, let alone say on camera. But Liverpool have bigger prizes in mind these days, as do Everton.
The form does not pop out of the window. Local pride is not at stake. The larger showdown has already been won and lost. Liverpool v Everton can still be a derby in the strictest definition of the word. But it is no longer a rivalry.
These things have always had their ups and downs. Everton and Liverpool were in separate divisions for most of the 1950s, played each other for much of the 1980s and as recently as 2013 Everton finished above Liverpool in the league. But rarely in our lives has the chasm felt as wide or as dramatic as it does now. Liverpool finished 14 places ahead of Everton in 1998 and 50 points clear in their title-winning season in 2020. Barring an extreme change in fortune, both marks are set to be broken in 2022.
How we got here is a more complex question: a confluence of bets taken and not taken, missteps and mismanagement, of a team that discovered its identity and a team that lost its identity. It’s easy to forget that Liverpool have been a dysfunctional club for almost as long as Everton, enduring their own decades of nostalgic neglect, desperately chasing lost glories. Take a snapshot of the two clubs a decade ago and on or off the pitch there is frankly little choice between them.
For all the disparity in resources, the greatest contrast over the next few years was one of vision and conviction. All clubs make mistakes, go astray, go through periods of turbulence or crisis. Liverpool may have hit the jackpot with Klopp, but it also forced them to remain confident in his leadership and his brand of football, even when the results changed and no one could quite know what lay ahead.
By comparison, Everton’s reaction to a difficult few months under Ronald Koeman in 2017 was to press the panic button and bring in the cloven hoofs of Sam Allardyce to coach a squad full of technical passers. In the short term, it worked. But the curb he put on their long-term ambitions was fatal. He broadcast to everyone – future coaches, potential players, fans and sponsors – that their principles were essentially disposable. Everton is probably not the same club since.
Even during the briefly promising years of Marco Silva, the decadent years of Carlo Ancelotti, the months of Rafa Benítez, the strange eruptions of Duncan Ferguson, there was no sense of larger strategy, no basic idea. Scour the list of Liverpool’s twelve biggest signings of the past decade and only Christian Benteke really stands out as a mistake. Scan Everton’s roster and you’re faced with an army of squandered talent, from Gylfi Sigurdsson to Yannick Bolasie, from Moise Kean to Davy Klaassen, players signed to serve a grand master plan who would invariably be phased out within months.
Lampard, for his part, at least seems to have a clear idea of how he wants Everton to play and who he wants to play. Last week, footage emerged of a training drill in which Everton practiced long fastballs over a high back line, similar to what they are likely to encounter on Sunday.
It will certainly be interesting to see what he can do with some time, a full transfer window and a team that, despite all its unevenness and injuries, is still much better than its league position suggests.
Somehow you wonder if the reality of being left behind by their city rivals might just be a blessing in disguise. For some time now – decades, really – much of Everton’s psychology and approach has been tied to trying to emulate Liverpool, to match them, to surpass them.
That giant blur of red in their windshield informed some of their costliest mistakes and most destructive delusions.
Well, this war is over. The blur of red has faded away and it’s not coming back. Better to start over, at your own pace and on your own terms.