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Liverpool trump Everton in direction, identity and coherent thinking

Georginio Wijnaldum explains why he doesn't consider the Merseyside derby to be Liverpool's most significant match.

They are separated by Stanley Park, a distance of a few hundred yards. They are also 26 points apart in the table. They have had completely contrasting experiences in continental competition this season, with Liverpool the Champions League's top scorers and still alive in the competition's quarterfinals and Everton enduring the most ignominious of Europa League campaigns and having been knocked out in the group stage.

Yet when the 231st Merseyside derby kicks off on Saturday, the greatest divide will come in the identities of the two teams. To put it bluntly, Liverpool's side have an identity. Everton's lack one entirely.

Liverpool's is not yet reflected in silverware and there is the sense they remain a perpetual work in progress. Yet, unlike Everton, they have a brand of football and a type of player, a commitment to pace and pressing, to energy and attacking. They are allying an ethos with entertainment, sustainability and style. They have been rebranded in Jurgen Klopp's image, but it is more than a mere marketing exercise.

In mitigation, continuity helps give a side distinct characteristics and Klopp, who is up against a third Everton manager of his comparatively brief reign at Anfield, has a two-year head start on Sam Allardyce. It is also true that it is easier to construct a side with an identity with a bigger transfer budget, larger salaries and, now, the greater pulling power of Champions League football. But it is also easier to construct one with coherent thinking.

Everton's last year has revealed ambition without strategy, money without philosophy. In as much as there has been one, Everton's identity is unwanted. It could be described as failed pragmatism or rubbish pragmatism, with underachievement and underwhelming football. Because it is not really working -- no matter how many flattering statistics Allardyce seeks out about his tenure -- it is unpragmatic pragmatism.

Their last two managerial appointments have been pragmatists, even if Ronald Koeman brought the promise of more style than Allardyce. Summoning a 63-year-old survival specialist to extricate themselves from a relegation struggle they were not really in was indicative of a pervasive, at times self-sabotaging short-termism.

The hiring of Sam Allardyce and signing of Wayne Rooney highlight  Everton's lack of direction.
Everton splashed the cash this summer but their failure to spend it wisely has cost them dearly.

So has been much of the unsuccessful recruitment. Everton's focus on the immediate, inverting the usual trade-off, seems to have brought short-term pain with no long-term gain. Take the case of Eliaquim Mangala: borrowed in January when Everton were not going down and when the younger Mason Holgate was displaying potential in the side. The Englishman has not started since. The Frenchman played just two games, with Everton conceding five goals on his debut, before being injured in his second appearance.

Ashley Williams has been doubly emblematic, his dreadful season mirroring Everton's and his mishaps a common denominator in many of their most wretched displays. He also symbolises the willingness to ignore the future: he joined for £12 million at 32 years old and has swiftly become a liability. Yet the supposedly pragmatic thinking was that Everton were buying a player near his peak, ignoring the realities that decline would set in and his value would depreciate rapidly.

Factor in attempts at more futuristic planning and Everton have a mish-mash of a squad with too many past their best, a handful in the formative stages of their careers and too few in their primes. It has been assembled by different managers and powerbrokers, with different objectives: consistent thought has been conspicuous by its absence. It is an indictment of the theory that spending leads to success, a denunciation of the case for competing voices at a club. The supposedly pragmatic comprises produced a strange situation where everyone got their own No. 10 in the summer, with the end result that Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Davy Klaassen all arrived, complicating selection, depriving the team of balance and wasting money.

There is a supposedly pragmatic theory that the way for clubs in the second bracket to progress is to bring in players from their superiors. It is fine in principle but often backfires in practice, with the reality that there is a reason why the best no longer require their services. A more discerning eye can be needed to ascertain which of the CVs studded with mentions of glamorous employers should be binned. Everton have regressed with the elite clubs' alumni and are now reportedly considering buying more.

The counterargument is that David Moyes brought Tim Howard, Phil Neville and Louis Saha in from Old Trafford. Yet Moyes' reign highlights the failings in the current Everton. He specialised in adding the right characters; his recruitment was rarely scattergun. He constructed an identity, forged of grim-faced determination, marked by the collective commitment of cut-price buys. Joe Royle's Everton of the late '90s also had an identity, one which was summed up in three words: Dogs of War. Before it became warped, Roberto Martinez's more expansive side had an identity, adding passing principles and a progressive feel.

So if an identity is Everton's prime summer need, their problem is that it cannot be purchased. Everton need personnel, but they need purpose. They must unearth a blueprint that goes beyond buying and short-termism. They need direction, not just direct football. They could do with the feelgood factor Klopp has engineered and something of the excitement that surrounds Anfield and which provides a contrast to the gloom at Goodison Park. Rivals may be role models if Everton have the self-awareness to realise where they have been going wrong and the strategic sense to construct a team with the right sort of identity.

Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.


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