In a season that has seen more than its share of less than stellar performances while discussion about his future has pushed to the fore, the reaction to Jamie Carragher's composed performance at Goodison on Saturday was swift and unanimous. The club's official website, never ones to shy away from hyperbole, gauged the prevailing mood and turned things up to eleven when they skipped obvious choices Lucas Leiva and Jose Enrique in favour of promoting a Carragher every-touch compilation. It was dubbed a "heroic display," one that saw the defender once again at his "brilliant best," while even less easily impressed outlets called him untouchable and still excellent, and we were happy to acknowledge him as one of the club's standout performers on the day.
Given the opponents and Carragher's tendency to still pull off a handful of classy performances each season even as his career winds down, it perhaps shouldn't be a huge surprise that he had his strongest showing of the season to date against Everton—and that for some, it might have even been sign of a longer-term resurgence. And it's hard to argue that it wasn't a composed display that helped lay the foundation for a derby win, even if Everton going down a man early led to a situation where Carragher was put under less pressure defensively than would usually be the case. While it wouldn't be fair to knock a player's performance because the opposition didn't hit the heights they might normally have been expected to, it still can't be overlooked completely that as far as Everton versus Liverpool goes, Everton was put in a position where exerting heavy pressure on an at times shaky Liverpool backline would be extremely difficult. That Liverpool ended the day with 64% of the possession after trailing the home side for the twenty-three minutes leading up to Jack Rodwell's sending off speaks to this.
Still, when it came to things that he could control, he was outstanding on the day. He kept the lofted long-balls to a minimum, leading to his second highest pass completion rate of the season as he easily cleared the 80% plateau that for Carragher seems to signal a dividing line with generally composed play on one side and aimless hoofs that hurt the team's performance on the other. The clearest sign of this comes when one looks at where his passes went: Against Stoke, where the combination of a conceded penalty and frequently turning the ball over through agrarian punting led to widespread discussion as to his future in the first eleven, OPTA records him playing 63% of his passes forward, 10% backwards, and 27% to the right wing. Against Everton, on the other hand, he's recorded as having only played 55% of his passes forward, 3% backwards, and 43% to the right.
There's some room for ambiguity in the statistics, as any pass played within the center of the park to a level defender or nearby midfielder is counted amongst the forward passes, but combined with his passing charts on the day a clear pattern emerges in both cases: On one hand an unusually high percentage of forward passes reflecting a frequently bypassed midfield, and on the other an increased willingness to play it square to maintain possession while actively looking to launch attacks down the right with relatively safe medium-distance balls to the fullback and right midfielder. He was also more willing to use Lucas as an outlet against Everton, making 8 of his 36 successful passes to him while the only players Carragher attempted to pass it to more often were Skrtel and Martin Kelly. Meanwhile against Stoke, he managed the rather amazing feat of not completing a single pass to Lucas, choosing to bypass him constantly, often in favour of more risky passes that as often as not didn't come off.
All of which speaks to a much better day in possession for the center back, though in defense the question of whether Carragher turned in a much improved performance against isn't nearly as clear. Again comparing his day to the much maligned Stoke performance, he had two more aerial wins against Everton. Against Stoke, however, he had two more successful tackles, and until his rash challenge that led directly to Stoke's winner from the penalty spot his overall tackling and challenging numbers actually look more sound against the latter, as do chalkboards illustrating his defensive clearances. Of course there was the penalty, an inevitable black spot, yet when looking instead for positives in his performance against Everton there's very little in the numbers to suggest a dominant display.
Certainly that Everton were down to ten men played a roll, meaning he likely didn't need to put in a wall-to-wall dominating shift for Liverpool to leave victorious. Nonetheless it's intriguing that talk of a Jamie Carragher revival, with many post-match player ratings suggesting he was among the club's best performers on the day and Kenny Dalglish singling him out for praise, comes on the back of what was in fact never a particularly special defensive display. Instead it comes after he did what most hope a defender in a side dominating possession would do: Keep it simple and get the ball moving up the pitch with high percentage passing. And if the high percentage pass isn't there simply retain possession.
None of which suggests that Carragher didn't have a good game, or that it isn't worthy of praise when a player does his job helping to build the base on which others perform. Because he certainly did have a good game and it is praiseworthy—and noteworthy—when Liverpool's aging throwback at center back restrains his long-ball urges to play an intelligent game in possession. It might not, however, be time to kick off a spontaneous ticker tape parade celebrating the revival of the oft maligned defender's fortunes. It's certainly true that even as Jamie Carragher's overall game has declined, he has still managed to come to glorious life on a handful of occasions each season, beating back the tide of doubters and reminding everyone of just what sort of player he was in his prime. That match—or those matches—may come. If one was a gambling man, the safe money would be that it will come. This week, however, wasn't that week, even if for Carragher it was a positive, noteworthy day.