Sunday's lunch time kick off brings the season's first Merseyside derby, as Liverpool (on at 2.65) travel to Everton (2.60) for a game in which both sides will be looking for a big result. Liverpool have struggled to get going this season, only recording their first home win under Brendan Rodgers last weekend versus Reading.
Everton, on the other hand, have enjoyed an uncharacteristically good start to the season, especially at home. The Toffees finished above Liverpool last season and will be looking to do the same this time around and they currently sit 4th with 15 points, while Liverpool are 12th with nine points. The Reds will thus be desperate to close the gap and climb up the table as their new manager looks to slowly imprint his style on the side.
How the sides will set up
Liverpool will set up with a 4-3-3. The three central midfielders will sit relatively close together, looking to control the game and cut off the space in which Everton's ball players operate. Up front, Luis Suarez will lead the line, with Raheem Sterling and probably Suso interchanging on the flanks to provide width and penetration. Everton have come to play a pretty standard 4-4-1-1 in recent years. Jelavic will lead the line with Fellaini, if fit, in behind him as Everton’s furthest forward midfield player.
Fellaini is key to midfield battle
Fellaini's inclusion will be key; he'll sit on Joe Allen, Liverpool's deepest lying midfielder, in order to disrupt him from playing his natural passing game. Despite the fact that Fellaini plays high up the field for Everton, no player in the Premier League has committed more fouls per game than him, with 3.4 so far. As such, the curly-haired Belgian is a decent bet to pick up a booking in this always feisty encounter. Nevertheless, Fellaini’s presence will give Allen something to worry about due to his size and the combative nature of his play. Liverpool’s midfield possess a lot of technically sound footballers, but without Lucas they lack the midfield bite required for high tempo games such as this.
Baines' forward thinking
When Everton regain possession, they will ask Fellaini to move forward and join Jelavic to act as a long ball outlet, as he did against Manchester United on the opening day. Everton overwhelmingly attack through left back Leighton Baines, with 47% of their attacks coming down the left. This means that Mirallas, who starts from the right, actually operates in very central positions, often looking to get close to Jelavic in support play. In turn this can help placate Liverpool in the centre of the pitch as he can join in pressing Liverpool's three centre midfielders, who, as noted, will try to enjoy a lot of the ball.
Phil patrols deep midfield areas
Phil Neville will also do a crucial job here, sitting right in front of his back four. The former Manchester United utility man tends to barely leave his own half, as his heat map from the Wigan game illustrates:
Pienaar a big miss
A significant loss in Everton's regard is Steven Piennar.The South African playmaker undertakes a very subtle but essential role down the left for Everton, particularly in his brilliant link up play with Leighton Baines on the overlap. Another thing Piennar does is cover for Baines defensively, serving as a contingency for when the left back ventures very high up on the. Piennar completes 1.4 tackles and 1.8 interceptions per game, a relatively high number for a left midfielder. With him out of the game we will probably see Leon Osman move wide left (from the left central midfield position) to undertake a similar role. Fortunately for Everton, Osman is blessed with similar attributes to Pienaar and also a decent tactical brain.
Johnson indicative of attacking full backs
Meanwhile, Liverpool's Glen Johnson will probably play from left back as he did so well versus Reading. It would have been interesting to see him play right back and go head to head with Baines, both of whom are quite attack minded, especially since Rodgers pushes his full backs very high up the field in order for them to provide outlets for the midfield players. Baines also does this for Everton, playing the role of the side’s creator from left back. No player sees more of the ball for Everton than Baines, so much so that Osman as well as Piennar often cover for Baines on that left hand side. Baines average position against Wigan was higher up the field than both of Everton's centre midfielders, demonstrating how far forward he likes to play.
Liverpool could pay for inexperience on right side
With Liverpool playing wingers Baines might have a lot of work to do going the other way, especially if Sterling comes at him from the right. This obviously will work both ways with Sterling having to be equally adept at going back the other way and tracking Baines' movement, a trait he has adapted to well since Rodgers' arrival at the club. A worry for Liverpool could be their relatively inexperienced right hand side playing against Baines if Suso starts wide right and young Wisdom at right back. If the right back ventures too far up the pitch, as Liverpool full backs do so often, he'll have to be able to recover quickly, as Baines will eagerly exploit any space in behind.
Suarez to roam in behind Baines
Another way Liverpool can look to exploit the space in behind Baines is through Luis Suarez who himself likes to drift across the pitch and take up wide starting positions. His goal against Everton in last season’s FA Cup Semi-Final came this way as he got in on Everton's left hand side to exploit Distin. Ultimately Suarez's battle with Jagielka will be one to watch. Suarez has five league goals this season but remains incredibly wasteful in front of goal at times. His conversion rate of clear-cut chances is a dismal 10%.
Both sides have plenty to prove in this most intense of fixtures. Everton have drawn their last two and will want to show that they can finish above Liverpool again this season. Liverpool on the other hand have had a slow start to the season and Rodgers will know that a win at Everton could serve as a springboard in kick starting their season.
With Liverpool’s continued trouble scoring goals and Everton’s impressive defence, it may be tough for Liverpool to break them down. Jagielka showed against QPR what an in-form centre back he is and he will want to bolster his England credentials in a big fixture such as this.
The key battles will be both in the midfield as well as what happens down Everton's left in respect of whether Baines' forward escapades work for or against them. Fellaini’s fitness will be crucial; his ability to stamp his authority on the midfield will be necessary to ensure that Everton are not over run by a possession based Liverpool side.
Amit Sing is Editor of Think Football, the thinking person's football website. You can follow him on Twitter @think_football