Exciting enough under normal circumstances, this weekend’s Merseyside derby between Everton and Liverpool holds added importance given the two sides' explosive starts to the season. In a clash that has all of the ingredients to be a classic, here are three key battles that could decide the course of the match.
Key Battle One: Ross Barkley vs. Lucas Leiva:
Fourteen years ago, a 19-year-old local lad named Steven Gerrard made his first Merseyside derby appearance, producing a late goal-line clearance to help his side hold out for a 3-2 victory. Fast forward to 2013, and 19-year-old Ross Barkley will be hoping to experience the same fate when he makes his derby debut. The parallels between the two all-action midfielders are obvious, and this season could mark the beginning of a changing of the guard in terms of English midfielders in Merseyside derbies.
Lucas Leiva is likely to be tasked with nullifying Barkley’s threat, in what will prove to be one of the game’s big battles. Barkley has been given creative license for Everton in his position behind lone striker Romelu Lukaku, and has flourished in the role. Recently capped by England, Barkley’s ability on the ball with both feet is a major weapon in Everton’s attacking arsenal.
Opening the season with a spectacular goal from range against Norwich, Barkley is dangerous when shooting from range. In the Norwich game he had four shots—all from range—including a blocked shot and a saved shot alongside his goal.
Over the course of the season Barkley has produced 17 shots on goal. The map above shows that he has peppered the stands as well as the goal, but his two goals show that he is a danger from range and will have to be watched.
Patrolling the holding-midfield role for Liverpool, Lucas will need to make sure that Barkley doesn’t receive the ball in positions in which such shooting prowess can hurt the away side, and will need to get tight enough to prevent shots if he does get in such positions.
Such a role is bread and butter to Lucas, who has eventually proven to be a solid successor to Xabi Alonso in front of Liverpool’s back four. Barkley may have fancied his chances of exploiting the space between midfield and attack more if Liverpool had employed the 3-4-1-2 system that manager Brendan Rodgers has dabbled with recently, but having ditched such a system Lucas can revert to his holding role rather than the more box-to-box role required in a 3-4-1-2. His heat map from Liverpool’s last game, against Fulham, shows the deep positions occupied by Lucas, and such a role has added importance for Liverpool this weekend against an Everton side that possess a midfielder such as Barkley.
Whilst he will need to get tight to prevent the Evertonian’s shooting skills coming to the fore, Lucas will also be wary of staying too tight to the midfielder. Barkley’s change of speed has allowed him to complete 31 take-ons this season. A snapshot of such direct running is shown in his take-on map from the fixture with Newcastle, where he successfully took on an opposing midfielder four times in central areas. Barkley will pose a threat to Liverpool if he can run directly at the back four, and it will be up to Lucas to prevent that.
Key Battle Two: Luis Suarez v Sylvain Distin:
In spite of his age—35 years old—Sylvain Distin has continues to prove a rock at the back for Everton, and is one of the first names on Roberto Martinez’s team-sheet. However he may be in for a long afternoon this weekend, as he comes face to face with the Premier League’s form strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge.
Having sat out Liverpool’s early season fixtures due to the remnants of his suspension for biting Branislav Ivanovic, Suarez has made up for lost time and leads the league’s goalscoring charts with eight goals in six games. Shown above, all of these have come from within the penalty area. A livewire in the box, Suarez comes alive near the goal and is sure to test Distin.
Suarez has also created 18 chances for his teammates, with 56 percent of them (ten) being created from within the box.
Fortunately for Everton, Distin has been in imperious form over the last few seasons and has averaged 12 defensive actions per game this campaign. The defender was key last time Everton shocked a top side at home, making nine clearances as Chelsea succumbed to a 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park in September, and if he can replicate such form then he may stand a chance of stopping the league’s most lethal forward.
Key Battle Three: Romelu Lukaku v Martin Skrtel:
A physical battle between two of the league’s heavyweights is another subplot to this intriguing affair. Lukaku scored in both fixtures against Liverpool for loan club West Brom last season, and can cement his growing status in the blue half of Merseyside with a similar contribution this weekend.
Lukaku has become the focal point of the Everton attack, and has proved to be a useful out-ball for the side. Whilst he has won a surprisingly low percentage of them—32 percent—Lukaku has contested 50 headed duels in his seven games. This is eleven more than Skrtel has contested, in two fewer games, and shows the usefulness of having the big Belgian up front to aim for when under pressure.
Skrtel is likely to be in for a busy afternoon in the air, with Daniel Agger sweeping behind him, but goes into the game with a 62 percent success rate from his headed duels.
Lukaku has scored five goals for Everton this season, with an extremely impressive 38.5 percent of his shots finding the back of the net. He offers good hold-up play on which Everton can base their attacks, and his battle with Skrtel could be another area in which the derby will be won or lost.