Liverpool and Everton go head-to-head in the 238th Merseyside derby on Saturday. While the Reds are looking to end a run of three straight home defeats, the Toffees will be hoping they can end their own Anfield hoodoo having not won there since Kevin Campbell netted the Toffees’ winner in 1999.
We spoke to former Liverpool defender Gary Gillespie ahead of the clash to discuss current form, the Reds’ recent issues, Everton under Carlo Ancelotti and the Eighties, when Merseyside ruled English football...
Liverpool go into this game on rocky form at home, they’ve lost their last three games. What have you made of their displays at Anfield this season?
“I think with no crowds it’s been difficult, not just from Liverpool’s point of view but for most teams. If you look at Everton, their away form is slightly better than the home form and that can be said for a lot of teams in the Premier League. It’s been the highest percentage of away victories so far (40%) so that suggests every team is struggling without any fans.
I think Liverpool have been affected a little bit more, that might be an easy way out to get around the problems they’ve had. The centre-back positions haven’t helped them, they’ve had key men out at key times and sometimes it happens. After 68 games undefeated [at home] they can’t seem to win a game. You can’t put it down to one thing as to why they’ve struggled at home.”
Liverpool have a ridiculous record at home to Everton, having not lost since 1999. Will the Reds see the derby as a great opportunity, or does the fact it’s Everton next actually add to the pressure?
“I think when you’re playing for a club like Liverpool or even Everton, there’s always pressure, and on the managers as well. After the recent run of form Liverpool have shown, there is a lot of pressure, especially the fact they’re reigning champions as well.
This is a massive game for both sets of players and both sets of fans. It’s always a big encounter and there’s always pressure going into these games. The build-up is maybe more intense than what other games would be, and in the strangest way that might help Liverpool.
When you look at that record, records are there to be broken. I’m sure Carlo Ancelotti will be saying exactly the same to his players - that’s history, it’s in the past, it’s not about the present and certainly not the future. I think Everton will be coming to Anfield with confidence.”
Everton are seven games unbeaten on the road and showed real character to come from behind at Manchester United. Carlo Ancelotti has changed the mentality at Everton away from home in a short space of time...
“Not just the mentality but the playing staff as well, he’s brought in players in key areas of the pitch which has certainly helped them. When you look at Everton, the one criticism in seasons gone is they didn’t have the legs in the middle of the park and they have that now, with Allan and Abdoulaye Doucoure.
They look an all-round decent outfit and I think when you have Dominic Calvert-Lewin, they’ve certainly found a goalscorer who can equal the best of them. If you have players who score goals I think you’re always in games and have a chance of winning.”
If Everton are to end the hoodoo where will the battle be won?
“I think when you look at most big games, all the key battles come in the middle area and that will be one area Liverpool will want to dominate. When you look at Liverpool and even the games they’re not playing at their best, they have had the majority of the ball. It’s using that possession to create opportunities to score and they’ve not been able to do that.
It’ll be interesting to see the team selection, whether Jurgen Klopp will go with the new guys at the back and push Henderson back into the middle of the park to give them some more industry and guile and more of a threat going forward.”
As a defender yourself, how difficult will it have been for Fabinho and Jordan Henderson to fill in that void and do you agree the defence has hampered the functionality of the team?
“Maybe the balance has been lost in the middle of the park. I personally think they play better when Henderson plays with his energy and ability to close people down and win the ball in good areas, that’s something that’s been lacking. If you can play central midfield in the holding role, I don’t see why you can’t play as a centre-back.
The amount of possession Liverpool have, sometimes it can be easy. But it’s the experience, they play an awful lot of games, they have the know-how to get through games playing centre-back. It’s like Manchester City last year with Fernandinho, he was more than comfortable there.”
What have you made of Liverpool’s attack this season? It hasn’t clicked as well as it has in the past...
“People say that but if you go on stats and goals scored they’re not a million miles away from last season. Salah has a far better record. Liverpool were top scorers in the league until the other week, it’s not all doom and gloom with the guys upfront.
When you set your standards so high, if you start losing games everybody wants to point fingers and question where it’s going right and wrong.”
Does a perceived invincibility have an effect on the away team players?
“From a Liverpool point of view we didn’t think we were going to lose any games. That was our psyche going out on the pitch. For the opposition, if you’re Coventry City who I played for, going to Anfield you’re not thinking you’ll stroll through the game and get three points, it’s going to be a battle, you’re going to have to play exceptionally well and maybe Liverpool will have to have an off-day.
That’s only natural, [I would look at] Dalglish, Rush, Hansen, Souness, Neal. You still look at the quality of the opposition and you do feel over-awed at times. I do think some teams go with the mentality, before they even get onto the pitch, that they’re actually beaten.”
Back in the Eighties, Merseyside football ruled the roost. What are your memories of derby day?
“They were always great occasions. If you lived in Liverpool at the time, it was dark times, not on the pitch but certainly off it, and Liverpool as a city was going through its own problems. The crowds weren’t fantastic, it wasn’t a full stadium week-in, week-out, but it was an escape.
Both teams gave the people something to shout about because for the majority they were the two best teams. It was fantastic to play football in the city. Going into derby day there was always hype and it’s a football city. As players we felt it and understood the pressure to deliver for people going into work the next day, and we felt that as well and it was always great to get one over your biggest rivals. Fortunately for us we did it more often than not!”
To end, we’re going to put you on the spot... do you have a score prediction?
“It’s always a difficult one to predict and it’s going to be a tight encounter. I’m going to say Liverpool to win but I’m sure there’ll be a few Evertonians shouting me down. Liverpool to get back on track and keep that run going from 1999.”