The Merseyside derby is an odd game. In some ways, it conforms completely to the classic tropes: the first bone-crunching challenge generally arrives early on, almost as a matter of ceremony; it’s officially the Premier League’s dirtiest fixture, having produced 21 red cards; in the stands, red and blue can be seen side by side, loved ones cast as sworn enemies for 90 minutes.
The form book tends to go sailing out of the window, too – but not in the way you’d expect. In recent years, the fixture has taken place inside its own bubble, except the power imbalance between the two clubs has not been flattened, but steepened. In its own way, the modern history of the Merseyside derby is a lesson in the psychology at work in top-level sport.
Of the 37 meetings between the sides since the turn of the millennium, Everton have won just four – a faintly staggering statistic whichever way you cut it (Crystal Palace, for instance, have won seven of their 15 games against Liverpool during that time) and one that suggests an ingrained psychological dynamic as much as it does any disparity in talent, technique or tactics.
The relationship between the two sides has long since had the feeling of a self-fulfilling prophecy: both go into the fixture with a deep-seated conception of their own status, which then invariably plays out on the pitch. And the outcome, most of the time, merely reinforces that process.
Local derbies are hailed as the great leveller. In English football’s longest-running top-flight derby, the opposite has proved true: Liverpool have found it remarkably easy to exploit a superiority that has often been only marginal.
The period between 2009-2013 is especially instructive. For those three seasons, no more than a single league position separated the two clubs come the end of the campaign. Yet Everton only won once in nine meetings during that time, including a big-stage choke at Wembley. This was Carroll and Downing-era Liverpool, so we’re hardly talking about men of indomitable mental fortitude. But the advantage afforded to them by the established superiority complex carried them through just fine.
Over the last two decades, bold Everton sides have been enfeebled with anxiety and self-doubt when faced with their neighbours. Compared with how Manchester City, say, have risen to the challenge of playing their rivals (they’ve won 14 of 38 meetings since 2000, and five of the 15 prior to their 2008 takeover) Everton’s figures make for grim reading.
Read the full article on eurosport.co.uk: Why Liverpool's derby dominance is all in the head