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EPL TALK: Liverpool's youth-led Carabao Cup win shows why they could never replace Jurgen Klopp's self-belief

All clubs rely on academies, but no manager keeps faith like Reds boss as he engineers a stirring triumph over Chelsea's expensive misfits

Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (centre) hugs goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher and Conor Bradley after their Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea.
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp (centre) hugs goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher and Conor Bradley after their Carabao Cup final win over Chelsea. (PHOTO: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

NO OTHER manager does what Jurgen Klopp did in the Carabao Cup final. Nobody hands Wembley Stadium over to half a dozen kids still getting to grips with regular shaving. And nobody gets away with it as often as Liverpool, because Liverpool are getting away with nothing.

Beating Chelsea in extra time wasn’t a smash and grab, but the result of one man’s addiction to his faith, in himself, his philosophy, his club and every member of his squad. Age isn’t just a number to Klopp. It’s an irrelevance. Such numbers do not compute. Self-belief really isn’t the jargon of the lazy pundit, not at Liverpool. It’s a way of playing, a way of instructing, a way of life.

Let’s start with the way of playing. Conor Bradley is making a name for himself, despite limited experience in the English Premier League, but his name still isn’t Mo Salah. And yet the 20-year-old walked like the Egyptian in his first cup final at Wembley. In fact, the youngster was guilty of impersonating two Anfield legends. In the first-half, he was doing a decent Trent-Alexander Arnold at right-back. In the second, he pushed forward and had a go at mimicking Salah.

The way of playing wasn’t compromised, not under Klopp. There’s no alternative but to press, whatever the personnel. Liverpool’s manager remains the eternal optimist, but he’s no one’s fool. He instructs his players to own their position and responsibilities, whatever their age or the occasion.

Thanks to an injury crisis and Ryan Gravenberch’s early departure, Bobby Clark eventually found himself in central midfield, not to make up the numbers – Klopp doesn’t advocate such cowardly maths – but to dominate. The 19-year-old duly won the corner that won the game. By that stage, James McConnell was keeping Clark company. He’s also 19. And Jayden Danns was up front. He’s an 18-year-old striker. Klopp was creating a Benjamin Button best XI and still made room for Jarell Quansah in extra time. At 21, Quansah already feels like a veteran.

Liverpool’s line-up at the final whistle included five players under the age of 21 – Bradley had already gone off – but Klopp had effectively used six academy players to win a cup final. When the Reds brought their 2001 League Cup trophy to Singapore, none of these players had been born yet.

But the youngsters' inclusion didn’t reek of desperation. It was an act of instruction. None were fazed or cowed by their surroundings. The atmosphere powered them. They owned Wembley.

It was Chelsea’s billion-dollar misfits who blinked in the floodlights. Neither Raheem Sterling nor Ben Chilwell clamped down on Bradley’s exuberance. He glided away from both. In central midfield, the expensive duo of Moises Caicedo and Enzo Fernandez shrank in extra time as Clark and company took charge, an inexplicable state of affairs to anyone, except the beaming, bearded chest-thumper in the dugout.

Liverpool players (from left) Jarell Quansah, Andrew Robertson, Jayden Danns, Bobby Clark and Caoimhin Kelleher celebrate winning the Carabao Cup.
Liverpool players (from left) Jarell Quansah, Andrew Robertson, Jayden Danns, Bobby Clark and Caoimhin Kelleher celebrate winning the Carabao Cup. (PHOTO: Chris Brunskill/Fantasista/Getty Images)

Outstanding examples of Klopp's coaching way of life

Klopp called the Carabao Cup win his greatest trophy triumph, which initially smacks of post-match euphoria, but the approach, selections and substitutions were certainly outstanding examples of his coaching way of life. Maybe Roy Keane really is right. Maybe elite football remains a simple game overly complicated by data science geeks. At this level, the talent on either side largely cancels each other out. In the finest of margins, perhaps only belief separates them.

All teams must come equipped with Keane’s greatest hits – spirit, hunger and desire – but how many play without fear, both on the pitch and in the dugout? Even if David Moyes had his best XI available to him, to pick the most obvious example, he still doesn’t play like Klopp’s Liverpool. Pep Guardiola does, but he has more toys. Mauricio Pochettino has almost as many toys as Guardiola, but he can’t do it at Chelsea.

Only Klopp can, because he advocates a basic principle that may always elude Pochettino at Chelsea, that malfunctioning pinball machine masquerading as a stable football club. At Liverpool, players play. Or they leave Liverpool. It’s no more complicated than that. While other clubs and their accountants may view academies as cattle markets and handy resources to bypass or offset financial fair play regulations, Klopp sees no separation. The first team and the academy squads train at the same venue. Transitions are comparatively seamless. There’s no step-up, only a continuation in philosophy and belief.

Bradley, Clark, McConnell, Danns and Quansah look like they belong because they do, every day in training, following the same instructions and emulating the same, astonishing self-belief of their irreplaceable leader. They are devoted to a manager, who rewards their commitment in a unique, reciprocal relationship. They impress. Klopp picks them. He grants them the freedom of Wembley. Seriously. Who does that?

Relegation-threatened managers rarely dip a toe into the uncertain waters of their academies, let alone coaches chasing four trophies. The risk of being bitten is often too great. But Klopp gives out precious minutes in cup finals like he’s passing his teenage son the keys to a gleaming red Ferrari. It’s rarely a car crash though, is it? The training and trust were taken care of beforehand.

And maybe the youthful selections were a calculated bluff of sorts. Had the Carabao Cup been a Premier League title decider, maybe Salah and Darwin Núñez would have shaken off their injury niggles. Maybe the first of potentially three cup finals could’ve been written off as an expendable venture, a gamble with no downsides. Lose and the academy graduates earn praise for their plucky efforts. Win and Klopp is Captain Marvel once more.

Either way, Klopp established the culture that elevated boys to men at Wembley. He nurtured that fearlessness. And it's that ineffable quality that Liverpool will struggle to replace. All players run. But Klopp’s kids never hide.

Klopp established the culture that elevated boys to men at Wembley. He nurtured that fearlessness. And it's that ineffable quality that Liverpool will struggle to replace. All players run. But Klopp’s kids never hide.

Neil Humphreys is an award-winning football writer and a best-selling author, who has covered the English Premier League since 2000 and has written 28 books.

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