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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Will Unwin

Klopp trusts youth amid injury chaos as farewell tour arrives at Old Trafford

Jarell Quansah, Jayden Danns, Bobby Clark, Conor Bradley and Mateusz Musiałowski
Jarell Quansah, Jayden Danns, Bobby Clark, Conor Bradley and Mateusz Musiałowski. Composite: Guardian design

Liverpool have used 35 players in all competitions in an energy-sapping season requiring a fight on four fronts as Jürgen Klopp aims to leave with a pot of gold. Despite the need to change things constantly, form has not been adversely affected as players who have arrived in the first‑team squad from near or far have seamlessly transitioned.

There was a complete renovation of the midfield as four players arrived to complement Harvey Elliott and Curtis Jones, while a cabal of academy graduates have received debuts thanks to a consistently lengthy injury list, which has meant Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Alisson, among others, missing crucial parts of the season. Still Liverpool are challenging at home and abroad.

The next destination on Klopp’s farewell tour is an FA Cup quarter‑final against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday. Whereas United’s constant injury crisis is hampering Erik ten Hag’s ambitions, Liverpool are embracing the chaos. Arguably they should have defeated Manchester City last Sunday despite four of the back five being second choice at best and a tough opening 20 minutes from which they recovered to produce one of the best performances of an impressive season.

Sparta Prague were given short shrift on Thursday when Liverpool scored four times in the opening 14 minutes. Although the tie was in effect over given the 5-1 win in the Czech Republic, Liverpool were ruthless as they tore apart their Europa League opposition. Klopp could make a triple substitution at half‑time to rest players.

“Injuries have affected us a lot but two things [have helped us]: the dressing‑room culture and the structure we have set on the pitch,” Klopp said.

“We have developed a lot during the season – we don’t change the way we play, the boys know what they have to do when they come on, and when they don’t play they train at least in the same way, so if they do step on to the pitch they know what they have to do. It is not always ‘something else, something else’.

“Everything around changed but we didn’t, we just played the way we wanted to play and that helped a lot. We did that from the first day of the season and that made a real difference. We really found a good way to play with this group of players and it was obviously right for the whole squad and that is why we’ve been pretty stable.”

Consistency is key in the Liverpool dressing room, where standards have been set by Virgil van Dijk and Salah for a number of years. The captain is keen to praise the youngsters who have been called on in key moments and welcomes the chance to impart much-needed knowledge to youngsters such as the 21-year-old Jarell Quansah, who performed impressively against City. Van Dijk shoulders large portions of the pressure, knowing it is part of his role, whether it is speaking to the media after a match or giving a pep talk on the pitch.

Regardless of how talented Liverpool’s academy graduates are, being part of a squad that wants to win four major trophies can be a pressured environment but a lot is being alleviated by senior colleagues. Conor Bradley, 20, and Bobby Clark, 19, have looked incredibly mature and fearless since coming into the squad, the latter rewarded with his first senior goal on Thursday, while Jayden Danns, 18, has signed a new-long term deal, ensuring Klopp’s legacy continues.

Mateusz Musialowski was the latest to make a first appearance, when the 20-year-old came off the bench against Sparta Prague. The Polish forward was beaming when called back to the bench because it is easy to come on for a successful team and learn while winning. Even when a youngster makes a mistake, something to be expected as the standard and speed of opponents improve, they know they have the backing of their manager, allowing them to play as they always have.

At United Luke Shaw, Lisandro Martínez, Casemiro and Mason Mount have all missed lengthy periods while Rasmus Højlund and Harry Maguire were absent in recent weeks. Ten Hag said “no team can deal with so many injuries” but Liverpool are doing a decent job of it. Whereas Klopp has shown faith in teenagers, Ten Hag has found it harder. Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho have proved their worth and Willy Kambwala has shown promise, but others are yet to earn his manager’s trust.

Another of Ten Hag’s sayings is that not everyone can cope with the pressure that comes with being a Manchester United player. Thursday was Salah’s first club start since New Year’s Day after missing most of the first three months because of injury and the Africa Cup of Nations, but others have stepped up in his absence to keep the momentum flowing, whereas United have struggled at regular intervals. United’s best run of four successive Premier League wins ended with defeat by Fulham at home and it was not a coincidence that Højlund was absent that day.

United edged past Everton last weekend to boost confidence and in August 2022 they produced one of their best performances of Ten Hag’s first season in England against Liverpool at Old Trafford, to offer added optimism for the Cup tie. “In general, it is a good place to go actually,” Klopp said of Old Trafford. “It’s real football, it’s all or nothing, a cup competition and then in a few weeks’ time we go there again in the league. Now it is the Cup and it will be decided that day. It sounds great.”

The prospect of any match must sound like music to Klopp at the moment because the conductor can guarantee all his players will be producing the same tune on Sunday, regardless of who is the concertmaster.

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