Mohamed Salah’s fast-break turns Merseyside derby and lifts Liverpool’s mood
The 242nd Merseyside derby lasted some 95 minutes, including stoppage time, and was decided in 15 seconds. It was determined when James Tarkowski hit the post and Mohamed Salah sprinted away and scored 100 yards away, when the blueprint that brought Everton victory against Arsenal was inches from an action replay and when the Egyptian ended a host of waits.
He had not scored at Anfield in the Premier League since October. Liverpool had not struck anywhere in the top flight since 2 January. They had not won in the division in 2023. But for Everton, the shortest journey on the fixture list is often their hardest and, as they retreated across Stanley Park, it may have been having spurred Liverpool back into form. The margins can be narrow and, in a meeting of two sides who really need to score the first goal in a game, Everton were inches from doing so, but with a lead and confidence, Liverpool became buoyant and dominant.
There was a new element to victory, too: a Cody Gakpo goal. The Dutchman had neither scored nor assisted in his first six games and if a false start to his Liverpool career was more a consequence of the team’s failings than his own shortcomings, a tap-in felt a welcome development nonetheless. And yet, on a night when two of Liverpool’s front three scored and an increasingly rampant Salah threatened a brace, there was a case for saying the most telling contribution still came from Darwin Nunez, such was his barnstorming role in the opener. Liverpool could celebrate the parts played by a fourth and fifth forward, too: Diogo Jota and Roberto Firmino made their comebacks as substitutes.
Even as Liverpool were without Thiago Alcantara, it was a night when they had few reasons to rue the injuries that have pockmarked their season. While much else has changed at Anfield this year, this was an occasion with a depressing familiarity for Everton. Jurgen Klopp has only lost one of 17 Merseyside derbies. Everton have never won at Anfield in front of a crowd since 1999. Sean Dyche should be able to find plenty of predecessors who know how he is feeling.
His first defeat as Everton manager prompted the Kop to tell Everton it will be their last trip to Anfield. Relegation remains a threat but the immediate regret for Dyche should be that his team, who began set up with a nine-man defensive block, were twice caught on the counter-attack: once from a corner, once when Alex Iwobi lost the ball in open play.
They could not afford such laxness. A team with few likely scorers lost their most obvious source of goals, with Dominic Calvert-Lewin out injured. It was a vote of no confidence in Neal Maupay when Dyche preferred Ellis Simms, who was recently on loan at Sunderland and whose sole previous Premier League start came in 2021. Granted little support, the biggest game of his career passed the 21-year-old by.
Meanwhile, Liverpool had a more formidable forward line, even if recent results suggested otherwise. Salah’s goal was their first in 347 minutes of Premier League football. The Egyptian had not even mustered a shot on target in his previous four leagues games. Like many another statistic about Liverpool’s season, it would have sounded implausible a few months ago.
Everton’s strikes are rarities but Dyche had a strategy to score. Once again a corner led to a goal; just not for Everton this time. Tarkowski again met a set-piece – albeit from Iwobi, not Dwight McNeil this time – with a header that beat the goalkeeper. Yet it rebounded back off the inside of the post. Nunez led a break from the edge of his own box; he found Salah, who returned the ball to him. The favour was returned, Nunez crossing for Salah, who had also run some 80 yards, to poke the ball past Jordan Pickford. The goalkeeper added to his history of Anfield errors by being caught out of position, seemingly expecting the cross to reach Gakpo.
When Gakpo did open his Liverpool account, however, there was no one near him. The Dutchman had the simple task of converting in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s low cross after a swift break, led by Andy Robertson and allowing Salah to feed the overlapping right-back. A first goal for Gakpo was just a third assist in the Premier League this season for Alexander-Arnold.
Nunez was a menace; Pickford repelled one shot, another was curled wide. He may not have intended a scissor kick to be a cross, but it turned into one when Gakpo headed just wide. There were times when Everton struggled to contain him. Klopp had chosen to use the Uruguayan on the left, pitting him against Seamus Coleman’s ageing legs, and start with Gakpo in the middle. He was vindicated, just as he was in recalling the out-of-form pair of Jordan Henderson and Fabinho to add ballast and height to the midfield. And yet such verdicts may have been different if Tarkowski’s header was directed slightly to his right. Fifteen seconds can change a lot; perhaps even two clubs’ seasons.