Capital One Cup: Liverpool search for killer touch as Jurgen Klopp confronts errors of the past

Liverpool possessed neither the acceleration to break quickly enough, nor the variance in passing range to penetrate City’s vulnerable defence

Click to follow
The Independent Football

Mamadou Sakho’s unconventional style made it a challenge for onlookers to determine whether he was suffering from the effects of concussion or whether it was service as usual here this weekend. 

Having clashed heads with his Liverpool team-mate Emre Can when trying to meet the same high ball, his substitution was necessary because he did not appear capable of grasping where he was: that a cup final was going on around him.

The central defender tried to continue, only for Manchester City’s Sergio  Aguero to turn him easily, forcing Simon Mignolet into the save of the first half and with that, Jürgen Klopp, the Liverpool manager, chose to make the change.

Sakho attempted to convince his manager that he was all right by twitching the muscles in his neck and spraying liquid over his face but Klopp’s mind was settled and the Parisian’s name was already being beamed across Wembley’s giant screens.

Sakho’s anguish from there was so raw and audible he almost achieved the improbable feat of reaching a greater volume than the stadium’s notorious public address system: hurling a water bottle towards the substitutes’ bench, he trudged to his seat where he remained for the next 10 minutes wearing a tracksuit top over his head, attempting to cover the visual proof of pain.

Liverpool would have to try to win the League Cup against City – the most expensively assembled team in the history of English football – with Kolo Touré and Lucas Leiva as centre-halves, and for the last 20 minutes at least, with James Milner at left-back. By then Alberto Moreno, on a booking, had made so many mistakes – caught way out of position so many times – that he could not be trusted to carry on.

On Thursday night, after Liverpool crept past Augsburg in the Europa League, Klopp revealed how Lucas, indeed, reacts when he is left out. “Usually so positive, he’s a different person in these times,” Klopp said, grimacing. 

When 30 players reported fit at Melwood the following morning, Klopp had the type of decision to make that he has admitted to dreading. His man-management skills might be famous, but having witnessed players cry in front of him while in charge of Mainz, he essentially uses the old trick of pinning the teamsheet to a wall before leaving the room for a few minutes.

That Lucas’s name was present at the moment of reckoning proved to be significant. He was Liverpool’s best player, his defiance a feature of the narrative from the instant he soared highest to head clear a Bacary Sagna cross from the zone of uncertainty between goalkeeper and defence in the opening five minutes. Yet he also missed a penalty in the shoot-out.

The Brazilian could not have had too many visions during a childhood spent in Porto Alegre, where he was regarded as a box-to-box midfielder, of anchoring Liverpool’s defence in a game of such importance. It was Klopp’s boldest selection since arriving at Liverpool five months ago, possibly the bravest decision of any Liverpool manager in a game of similar magnitude since Rafael Benitez switched to a back three at half-time on that night when Milan were the opponents in Istanbul 11 years ago. 

Liverpool recovered from Fernandinho’s opener to equalise. Fortune, initially, was involved. There will be jokes about Raheem Sterling having his best game for his former club. He missed two glaring opportunities to secure the outcome in City’s favour, then surrendered  possession in the seconds before Philippe Coutinho took the game to extra time. Thereafter, Liverpool dominated without ever really convincing that they would finish as winners. 

City’s midfield was unimpressive and they could not supply Aguero with enough possession. Yet Liverpool, despite their numerical advantage in the area after Fernando was withdrawn, possessed neither the acceleration to break quickly enough, nor the variance in passing range to penetrate City’s vulnerable defence. 

Throughout Friday and into Saturday, Linda Pizzuti Henry, the wife of Liverpool’s principal owner John W Henry, released a series of photographs on social media of the pair taking in some of London’s classic sights: Churchill’s war rooms in Whitehall being the first before they moved on to Tate Modern. In Sunday’s small hours, there was another one: this of Henry and chairman Tom Werner engrossed in conversation with Klopp at the team hotel before a table of Italian lager. 

The images simultaneously acted as a reminder that the key decision-makers from Fenway Sports Group are not based on Merseyside and that, in their absence, many vital calls have not been the correct ones. Klopp might prove to be better than others, though he is still being forced to contend with mistakes of the past.

It was telling that of the Liverpool team that started here against Cardiff City the last time they lifted the League Cup, only Jordan Henderson remained – and that was four years ago. When FSG became owners of Liverpool they preached the importance of buying players young and building from there. 

Sterling may have endured a torrid performance against his former employers but he travels back to Manchester as a victor, vindicated in his decision to push through a controversial move last summer which meant Liverpool lost a talented player, albeit one with much to improve upon, before he had even attained his potential.

Liverpool reached a penalty shoot-out with a centre midfielder in defence, a right winger at left-back and their high-profile summer signing, Christian Benteke, long resigned to his fate of spending the day on the bench. Klopp says he does not need to sign a minimum of seven players like Liverpool have done in the last two summers. But he might need to go close.