Liverpool hit the wall at Old Trafford to leave Jurgen Klopp with one regret

An improbable pursuit of all four trophies came crashing down with a dramatic defeat in the FA Cup, as tired legs and minds finally caught up with Klopp’s side

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 18 March 2024 13:48 GMT
United 'can do amazing things' after win over Liverpool - Ten Hag

So, a formula has finally been found to stop Liverpool. It involves fielding Harry Maguire as a lone real centre-back in a team with two specialist defenders on the pitch, with the £85m right winger Antony reinvented as a left-back and Bruno Fernandes part quarterback, part centre-back. It entails an 11 with a host of wingers but no one who really wants to be a centre-forward. It relied on Antony’s first goal against a top-flight team in 336 days and Amad Diallo’s first for Manchester United in three years. It remains to be seen if anyone copies Erik ten Hag’s blueprint, let alone how it goes.

It needed moments of inspiration from United. But the key to beating Liverpool, perhaps, was just to make it a game too far: or even a part of a game too far. Jurgen Klopp felt they needed to win in 90 minutes at Old Trafford. They were ahead after 111. But in the second half of extra time of their 46th match of the season, a game slipped from their grasp, a quadruple from the realms of possibility. Which, in part, underlines why no one does the quadruple: sooner or later, the pursuit of everything becomes too exhausting and something has to give. Especially in knockout football; especially against gifted opponents. No one wins at brinkmanship forever.

“Today was on and above the edge, it was really tough for us,” said Klopp. “That was the first time I really saw my team really struggling.” As he congratulated United, Klopp was magnanimous in defeat; it was just Liverpool’s third in domestic competitions this season and two – including the loss with nine men at Tottenham – have come with very late goals when their resources were stretched in extenuating fashion. “I saw a team who understood the importance of the game and gave absolutely everything and it wasn’t enough. And that’s what we have to accept,” he said.

But he was also analytical. “You cannot compare our season to United’s with the amount of games,” he said. Arguably Liverpool paid a price for United’s ineptitude in Europe and the Carabao Cup. This was their 18th match of 2024 and United’s 12th. It gave Ten Hag’s team an advantage. For Liverpool, the team who keep on running, whose gameplan depends on energy, Marcus Rashford’s late equaliser and Amad’s even later winner showed failings that would have been damning if they were fresher. In the circumstances, Klopp was forgiving. “The way we conceded the last two goals shows we were absolutely not on the top of our game any more,” he said. “We gave the balls away; absolutely no criticism of that.”

Darwin Nunez lost the ball for Rashford’s 112th-minute leveller. The tie ended with Alexis Mac Allister, some 120 minutes into his 16th outing in those 18 games in 2024, unable to keep up with Alejandro Garnacho before Amad struck. Wataru Endo, another workhorse of a starter, was partly culpable as United robbed Harvey Elliott. Thanks to them, Liverpool had been the superior side as long as their legs allowed. In extra time, it felt as though Liverpool’s hope came from the irrepressibility of the substitute Elliott. But too few others shared his liveliness. There were tired legs, tired minds.

Klopp was irritated that the regulations in this particular competition denied him an extra substitute. “I have no clue why the FA make it so you cannot change a sixth player in extra time,” he said. “All other competitions have six but the FA thought, ‘we must make it a little bit harder’.”

Klopp accepted Liverpool’s defeat as United reached the FA Cup semi-finals
Klopp accepted Liverpool’s defeat as United reached the FA Cup semi-finals (Getty)

Not, though, that he had a compelling candidate to be that sixth substitute. He had improvised in previous games, somehow winning the Carabao Cup with three kids on the pitch. Yet that was an indictment of Chelsea. At Old Trafford, no matter how many changes Klopp was permitted, in reality, he was running out of elite players. “For a while it was alright, for 90 minutes it would have been everything fine but in extra time there were not options,” he said.

And it illustrated why, of all their many injuries and while Trent Alexander-Arnold or Diogo Jota or Ibrahima Konate may have made a difference, the most pertinent may have been the loss of Curtis Jones. Partly because of the superlative form the Merseysider was in and partly because, with him in addition to Endo, Elliott, Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, Klopp could have had two high-class midfielders on the bench to give Liverpool a second wind.

Privately, the German may have had another regret. His decision-making has been almost flawless in recent weeks but he had surprised with the strength of the side he named for the second leg against Sparta Prague, with a 5-1 advantage already. Mohamed Salah ended up playing 90 minutes, which could have been a factor in his removal at Old Trafford. Endo, Nunez and Joe Gomez, three of the constants, came off at half time at Anfield but may have benefited more from a night off. That aside, Liverpool have never had the luxury of rest and rotation.

Salah could have been rested for the trip to Old Trafford
Salah could have been rested for the trip to Old Trafford (Getty)

As they always do, Liverpool showed against United they can adapt and adjust, that they can score goals and could have got more. For once, they did not find a way to prevail. “We didn’t finish the game off and when you leave the door open away at Old Trafford, it’s clear they will get chances,” Klopp said.

And now the chance of the quadruple is gone. Liverpool have been playing a high-stakes game for much of the season, living on the edge, turning to the last men available, coming from behind, sometimes scoring late goals. It was never a failsafe formula. But the oddity was that when they finally hit the wall, it was against a weird assortment of players in a team with Antony at left-back.

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