Liverpool make the long trip to Devon this week, to determine who advances to take on Wolves in the fourth round of England’s most-celebrated cup tournament.
Held to a 0-0 draw by a stubborn Argyle outfit in their initial third-round tie, the Reds will be desperate to secure victory at the second time of asking, as Klopp looks to challenge on three fronts this season.
At Anfield, Klopp fielded the youngest starting lineup in the club’s history, including five teenagers, with an average age of just 21.8 years.
It was a remarkable feat that, depending on the stance taken, either highlights the quality of young talent at the German’s disposal, or the paucity of options available at a crucial stage.
Either way, Wednesday’s journey down to Plymouth should see Klopp take a similar approach, giving his youngsters another opportunity to impress against League Two opposition.
Unfair Audition at Anfield
Flooding their half with bodies, Argyle kept 10 men behind the ball at all times, restricting Liverpool to long shots as they grew increasingly frustrated.
“It’s probably one of the best defensive performances that Anfield has seen,” Argyle manager Derek Adams said after the draw. “We defended deep and we defended in numbers. We have allowed Liverpool to have the ball and that was our game plan.”
While it wasn’t a game for the purists, Argyle’s approach was clearly effective, securing them a lucrative replay at Home Park—ensuring they earn more than £1 million for their FA Cup run.
This was, therefore, not the ideal opportunity for Klopp’s young side to flex their attacking muscles and foster fluency as a rapidly developing unit.
Joe Gomez had little to do in his first appearance for the first team in 14 months, with his duties at centre-back limited to launching headers back into midfield (four) and hooking hopeful long balls clear (six).
Kevin Stewart‘s role as No. 6 saw him instead stationed high up the field, with his six shots on goal more than any other player, and two more than the entire Argyle lineup mustered combined.
Ovie Ejaria, Ben Woodburn and Sheyi Ojo were unable to showcase their attacking ingenuity, struggling to find pockets of space within a tightly packed Argyle defence, with few clear opportunities crafted.
That only two outfield players—Emre Can (77.4%) and substitute Daniel Sturridge (60%)—completed under 80 percent of their attempted passes underlined Liverpool’s dominance, with six players completing over 90 percent.
Having so much of the ball—with 76.9 percent of possession—and being unable to do anything meaningful with it served as a major disappointment for Klopp’s young Reds, but they cannot be faulted for that; it was an unfair audition.
Another Test at Home Park
Wednesday’s replay serves up a much different proposition: both sides will be pushing for victory, with Argyle having secured their payday and with nothing left to lose.
Backed by thousands of home supporters, Argyle will be expected to attack with more ferocity, pushing for a winner and progress to the fourth round to take on Paul Lambert’s upwardly mobile Wolves.
This should ensure a considerably more open game than that witnessed at Anfield 10 days previous, with Plymouth typically a more attacking side—only two sides have scored more than them in League Two this season (41).
As a result, Wednesday’s clash should give Liverpool’s defenders more to do, while allowing the attackers more space to thrive pushing forward into the final third, able to express themselves.
Similar to the tactical differences the first team have experienced playing home and away this season, this would give Klopp’s youthful side a more realistic portrayal of senior football.
Gomez can test his defensive ability against a more determined Argyle attack, while he and Trent Alexander-Arnold can pair this with the expectation to push forward when possible; just as Joel Matip and Nathaniel Clyne are in the Premier League.
Stewart will be required to be more diligent in the No. 6 role, keeping things simple and giving Ejaria and his midfield partner, likely Can, a safety net as they build in tandem with Klopp’s attack.
And Woodburn, Ojo and Divock Origi can look to drive at the Argyle defence with pace and flair, as three young forwards capable of damaging an ardent back line; or, given Origi started against United on Sunday, Sturridge may fill in for the Belgian.
With the likes of Sturridge, Can, Lucas Leiva and Alberto Moreno providing an experienced edge, Liverpool can form a more balanced outfit in Wednesday night’s replay, unburdened by an expectant Anfield crowd.
If they are able to dominate as they did in the initial tie, this young side will have made considerable progress, passing a vital test as they push for more regular first-team action.
Sending the Right Message
Perhaps most importantly, backing his young side to do the business at Home Park would see Klopp sending the right message: that he has unwavering belief in the club’s future.
Ripping up the teamsheet and fielding James Milner, Jordan Henderson, Georginio Wijnaldum, Adam Lallana, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho for the replay would see Klopp turn his back on his initial ideal.
It would, likely, give Liverpool a much better chance of progressing to the fourth round, but could serve to demoralise his youngsters, with this being their best opportunity to shine.
The same would go for Loris Karius, who is continuing his rehabilitation after a shaky start with a series of solid displays in cup competition, and Moreno, who has been left to make do with a peripheral role due to the rise of Milner as first-choice left-back this season.
Furthermore, the possibility of Matip’s inclusion could see the centre-back work his way back to fitness, while Harry Wilson‘s omission from the U23s on Monday night suggests Klopp could experiment further.
Given the manager’s track record so far, this is likely to be the case on Wednesday night, with the German utilising his young players throughout last season’s FA Cup run, too.
Though the Reds fell to defeat in a fourth-round replay in 2015/16, the likes of Stewart, Ojo, Connor Randall, Brad Smith and Cameron Brannagan will no doubt consider it a formative experience.
Fielding another young side against Argyle at Home Park should not be considered the sacrifice of Liverpool’s FA Cup hopes, but instead a statement of intent from Klopp towards the academy.
If this crop of youngsters are to make it on the first-team stage in the future, appearances in these games are not only invaluable, but essential.
Possible Liverpool XI vs. Plymouth: Karius; Alexander-Arnold, Gomez, Lucas/Matip, Moreno; Stewart, Can, Ejaria; Ojo, Woodburn, Sturridge.