To win football matches you need many qualities. Of course, skill and ability help, as well as leadership and experience. Those things will take you a long way—but fortune favours the brave more often than the timid.
Undoubtedly headline writers will wax lyrical about the plucky Leeds side who gave the Reds a hard time. But for me it is a youthful Liverpool side who deserve a medal of valour for seeing off the Yorkshire men and making a fourth semi-final in six years.
Jurgen Klopp has already established his reputation as a nurturer of young talent. He’s opted to blood youngsters in this competition already, but a quarter-final is a different story. At this stage of the competition you can almost smell Wembley. The weight of expectation grows and few would have complained too much if the manager had selected his strongest possible team.
After all Leeds are a decent side. They’re in the play-off places in the Championship and, on Tuesday’s evidence, they’ve got a really good chance of playing in the Premier League next season. Yet the boss stuck to his principles and by his young charges.
Most notably he handed starts to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ovie Ejaria, and threw on 17-year-old Ben Woodburn at a time when others would have turned to more experienced talent. Each of them repaid their manager in spades.
From the first moment it was obvious this was going to be a tough game. Chances fell to both teams, but arguably Leeds had the better of them. The away side clearly had a game plan and they executed their managers orders to the letter.
The Reds were finding it difficult to find their rhythm and although they dominated early possession, couldn’t build up the kind of momentum they’ve shown to such effect in other games. Credit Leeds, who will have gone in at half-time more than satisfied with their showing.
At times this season, Liverpool’s passing and movement has bordered on the telepathic. But for much of the first half against Leeds they were struggling to share the same wavelength. Gini Wijnaldam and Emre Can went closest for Liverpool, but overall there was little to write home about as the referee called time on the first half.
Liverpool’s usually slick passing and movement had deserted them and the problem got worse after the break. Leeds, emboldened by the fact that they were still in the game and facing their own supporters now, slowly grew in stature.
It took just seven minutes from the restart for them to give the Reds their first serious scare of the game.
Wijnaldam and Alexander-Arnold did well to repel a Leeds attack, with the latter showing great composure under pressure. He squared the ball to Kevin Stewart who reacted too slowly and gave it away on the edge of the 18-yard box. Kemar Roofe picked it up and unleashed a fierce curling shot that beat Simon Mignolet, but mercifully not the upright.
Liverpool immediately went up the other end thanks to a surging run by Lucas, who had courageously shouldered the responsibility of captaining his side despite the pain he must have felt following the tragedy that had befallen so many of his countrymen in Colombia.
He passed to Emre Can, but as was too often the case, the ball was deflected and the keeper gathered with ease.
Liverpool were labouring now and for the first time the feeling that a shock could be on the cards began to gnaw at the gut. Surely it was time to introduce some cooler, more experienced heads. Most managers would have done just that. But Jurgen Klopp is not most managers.
With the game entering the final crucial period, the manager looked at his bench and bypassed the seasoned professionals he had at his disposal and instead summoned Ben Woodburn, aged 17 years and 45 days. I have to admit my stomach sank. Yes, this kid looks an amazing talent but, with the visitors in the ascendancy, was he really what we needed at that time?
Playing it safe would have been my choice, but the boss once again demonstrated that he has the courage of his convictions. His faith in the conveyor belt of talent, emerging once more at the academy, will have sent a message to every youth player down the ranks and to the wider footballing world. Something very special is happening at Anfield.
Five minutes after the introduction of Woodburn, Mane fed Wijnaldam down the right, who must have thought he’d scored, only to see his shot crash off the post. Had it not been for the stellar performance of Alexander-Arnold, the Dutchman may have taken the man-of the-match award for himself. He was everywhere and is clearly growing in confidence.
It has been said that Klopp dreams of stocking his squad so full of young talent that he doesn’t have to spend any money in transfer windows. On Tuesday’s evidence he may have the right-back slot sewn up for a generation. Trent Alexander-Arnold looked like a veteran all night. It’s frightening how good this lad might become.
When he picked the ball up on the right in the 76th minute, the 18-year-old might have played it safe. He had players in front of him and attempting a pass might have given possession straight back to Leeds.
A better option for a youngster finding his way in the game would have been to have passed to a more experienced player; maybe go sideways or even backwards. After all at this stage of the game who wants to make a mistake and give the ball away?
Instead the teenager showed remarkable faith in his own ability, delivering a sublime pass onto the foot of Divock Origi. So good was the youngster’s vision and execution that the Belgian needed only the merest of touches to score. Sure the striker’s movement and positional sense is deserving of much praise, but this goal was all about Alexander-Arnold’s assist.
With the deadlock broken Liverpool seemed to visibly relax. Suddenly they found their passing range and seemed to be enjoying themselves, but things were about to get a whole lot better.
The game was entering the final 10 minutes when Origi, clearly running on fumes at this point, burst forward. He played a great one-two off Mane, who returned the striker’s pass with a delightful backheel. The Belgian ran at the Leeds defence, who seemed to back off him, allowing him to square it to the waiting Wijnaldam. The former Newcastle man shielded the ball from the defender and, back to goal, guided it to the waiting Woodburn, who had the goal at his mercy.
Imagine you’re 17. Imagine you’re making only your second competitive appearance for Liverpool. Imagine you’re in front of the Kop. Time seems to be moving at breakneck speed, the goal is shrinking and you can see the expectation in the eyes of every fan behind it. There’s no time to think and yet your thoughts are racing, your options multiplying. It’s enough to derail the most experienced of professionals—but not this kid.
Woodburn showed no fear at all and simply blasted the ball into the top corner. The Kop erupted in celebration and the the look of sheer delight on the lad’s face would have warmed the heart of even the most cynical of supporters. This was the stuff of dreams.
Have Liverpool just unearthed another star? Whisper it quietly, so Klopp doesn’t hear you, but they just might have.
This was not a first-choice Liverpool side. It was full of youth and inexperience. This was a team that didn’t play at its best and at times was put under pressure. Yet still they found a way to win the game. It seems that no matter what permutation Klopp puts on the pitch, they somehow deliver.
This is now 21 games unbeaten at Anfield, 15 games without defeat in all competitions and three consecutive clean sheets. Liverpool have reached yet another semi-final. It seems that despite injuries and regardless of squad rotation, the Reds just go marching on.
There are many reasons for the club’s resurgence; skill and ability, leadership on and off the pitch and a manager with experience at the highest level of the game. But most of all this is a team full of the most precious of commodities: courage. It will take them far.
Whatever happens this season, the future is very bright indeed.