It was Ross Barkley’s attempt to spin a ball around Lucas Leiva and make some progress beyond him into the Liverpool area which spoke for his contribution to a day which deepened the psychological chasm Anfield has become for his team.
Running behind Lucas and collecting it was a feat well beyond Barkley so he ran into the 30-year-old Brazilian instead and plunged theatrically to the turf. The referee was not remotely interested and Lucas protested about the pantomime. It was a fine afternoon for the Liverpool player, who ended it in a bear hug with his manager, but he should not exactly been an immovable object for a 24-year-old with designs on a regular starting place in the England team. By half time, the sum total of Barkley’s contribution by had been four fouls, one speculative shot, no legitimate tackles and no interceptions.
This was the week when Barkley allowed it to be known that he considered his latest omission from the England team to have been a substantial injustice. Those kinds of noises-off feel ill-judged at the best of times and they certainly demand a big club performance to follow them up, though this kind of derby performance was certainly not what those behind the Ross for England campaign had in mind.
His touch was generally heavy, his reactions generally slow and when it came to challenging or closing down, Barkley always seemed to be a second or so behind the pace of the game. Some contributions did begin to materialise for 15 minutes or so after the break, as Liverpool began the second half indifferently. A 55th minute shot from the edge of the box and a run across the same space a few minutes later, holding off three challenges to release an advancing Mason Holgate. But there was not much for the player’s interior mind to hold on to as he trudged around the centre circle on his own, at the end.
The capacity to be “really smart but also emotional”, as Jurgen Klopp described the necessary derby quality after the 3-1 win, was not there, either. The game was 17 seconds old when Barkley made an eye-watering statement of intent – an illegal challenge on James Milner. Emre Can felt the Englishman’s studs before they were also planted into Dejan Lovren’s left ankle and earned Barkley the booking that had seemed to be coming.
Any moral outrage about this should be tempered by an awareness of the occasion and all that it has brought down the years, yet even Ronald Koeman did not deny, when it was all over, that Barkley could have been dismissed. “Maybe he deserved two yellows for two tackles,” the Dutchman said. His reluctance to defend the player was surprising given the uncharacteristic and rather ridiculous air of denial the Everton manager exuded in the aftermath – presumably his means of protecting the youngsters he had thrown in and who had suffered. Never mind Gareth Southgate’s reluctance to field Barkley; Koeman will take some persuading if he does not summon something consistently better than this.
He has certainly looked like a player of class, once again, in the right-sided role the manager has found for him in the past few months, though his stellar performances have tended to be against weaker opponents at Goodison Park. His reversion to a central role here restored him to the kind of form which put him out of the team back in autumn. Overwhelming West Bromwich and Hull on home turf is one thing. Anfield is something different.
Compounding matters was the contribution of the individual to whom Liverpool look for a broadly similar size of contribution as Barkley. Sadio Mane brought the barrelling bursts we have come to expect of him and a finish of sublime quality: two derbies, two goals. Yet his contribution in the deep was just as significant on an occasion which demanded it. If a moment speaks for his own game then it came just before the interval, when Tom Davies was booked for fouling the Senegalese in Liverpool’s rear. We’d just seen a heavy controlling touch from Sane at the time, yet he’d sprung off in pursuit of the ball and accelerated ahead of Davies to reach it, putting his side out of danger and Davies into trouble.
Barkley operated on a lower parallel. The game had five minutes to run when he ran across his own area, where he was promptly and comfortably dispossessed by Divock Origi. “It is always a bit different for the local boys in this Merseyside derby,” reflected Koeman, whose cover-up showed how bad the whole business had been.