Liverpool headed to Milton Keynes this evening to start their Carabao Cup campaign.
The Reds’ modest domestic cup record is arguably the only negative of Jürgen Klopp’s tenure, with the German consummately prioritising the Premier and Champions League. Calls for this competition to be taken more seriously have somewhat abated since May, but there remains a desire to build a trophy culture on Merseyside.
Reflecting that desire, Klopp made a sensible eleven changes for the trip to Buckinghamshire, with a blend of youth and first-team members. Joe Gomez, Dejan Lovren, James Milner, Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were drafted in to offer experience, with the most esteemed youth in the ranks starting alongside them.
Harvey Elliott made his professional debut at the tender age of 16, while Curtis Jones, Ki-Yana Hoever and Rhian Brewster all started the game at the Stadium MK. Caoimhin Kelleher also made his debut in goal, fulfilling a back-up role that Adrian will occupy for the remainder of the season.
The first half was level until the 41st minute, when a James Milner free-kick was haplessly parried into the MK Dons net by keeper Stuart Moore. Despite the deadlock not being broken until that point, the first period wasn’t without incident.
Harvey Elliott, already fulfilling his prodigal promise, almost put the Reds ahead in the 12th minute. A precise pullback from Milner found the 16-year-old who had stepped back to create the space. His shot cannoned off the bar, but it was an almost profitable example of the youngster’s evident talent.
Curtis Jones had the first of his four first-half shots in the 14th minute, with Milner once again providing the pass. Jones’ near ‘shoot on sight’ policy was demonstrative of his desire to impress, but also of the occasional deficiencies in his decision-making.
That quality will have to be improved upon should he wish to become the next Scouser to break into the first team, though both time and talent favour him. That talent saw him be awarded the Sky Sports Man of the Match, an accolade merited by a display infused with positivity.
Next up to be fed by Milner was Rhian Brewster, with an active first-half touch map indicative of his known industry. His best opportunity was from a teasing Milner cross, which scarcely evaded the young Englishman.
Brewster has the look of someone so saddened by the slightest failing or imperfection, which undoubtedly fuels the belief that he possesses the mentality to play for Liverpool FC. His debut didn’t end with the goal he craves, but his overall play will please Klopp.
Dejan Lovren is not a player that benefits from time away from defending, and on a couple of occasions MK’s Sam Nombe worried him with his play. As often separates lower league opposition from the elite, the Dons weren’t able to convert pressure to goals.
The first half ended a fortuitous 1-0, with Liverpool playing as they often do in domestic cup competitions: disjointedly. Play resumed with the second half settling into a similar pattern.
An observation from the first period was Elliott’s desire to find space, which he utilised in the 51st minute to find himself unoccupied in the box. His subsequent shot hit the side-netting, but Klopp would’ve been undoubtedly pleased with the intelligence that created the opportunity.
MK Dons threatened in the 57th minute, with Nombe latching onto a through ball which evaded both Gomez and Lovren. He couldn’t apply the finish, but that chance began a two-minute spell of pressure by the hosts. A cross was hit into the box by Alex Gilbey, with the flick-on reaching Jordan Bowery, whose contact forced the ball goalward. Only the post saved Liverpool.
It would take the Reds 10 minutes to score the decisive second goal. After a game of attempting to lay goals on a plate, Milner finally got his assist. His cross found an onrushing Hoever, who rose athletically to header home his first Liverpool goal.
Not dismayed, MK Dons continued to press, with Bowery forcing a good save from Kelleher. His dipping effort was parried by the Irishman, who would find himself tested by the same player minutes later. A wonderful run and cross found Bowery, whose pinpoint header was brilliantly saved by Kelleher.
After he appeared to handle the ball outside the box in the first period, Kelleher recovered to perform commandingly. If age and talent favour the outfield debutants, they most certainly favour a young goalkeeper whose peak is more than a decade away.
Liverpool’s best opportunity fell to Elliott, who struck the bar for the second time in the game. Only the woodwork separated the lifelong Liverpool fan from a debut goal, with the narrative not feeling sentimental.
The game finished 2-0, with the clean-sheet a product of profligacy and goalkeeping excellence. Klopp’s interest in the Carabao Cup is likely to begin and end at the opportunity it provides to youth. With that considered, this will be deemed a positive night in Buckinghamshire.
The young debutants all acquitted themselves positively, anchored by the infallible example set by Milner. Liverpool proceed to the next round despite a stern test from Paul Tisdale’s side.
Such are the Reds’ priorities that positive performances from the young players are unlikely to propel them into the first-team, but the pathway does exist. A healthy academy, a healthy squad to choose from, and a healthy trophy cabinet. Those are the aims of Liverpool Football Club.