Next February will mark 10 years since Steven Gerrard lifted the Football League Cup, a competition Liverpool won for the eighth time during Kenny Dalglish’s brief second stint at Anfield.
It’s no secret the Reds have one of the best squads in the Premier League, yet they have seemed to struggle in recent years in the EFL Cup, with Manchester City winning the competition five out of the last six seasons, going level with Liverpool on eight trophy lifts in history.
Back in 2012, Liverpool started out with a 3-1 win away at Exeter City in the second round, with Andy Carroll, Maxi Rodriguez and Luis Suárez scoring the goals.
Subsequent wins against Brighton & Hove Albion, Stoke City and Chelsea, set up a semi-final against Manchester City. Gerrard scored an early penalty, and Dalglish’s men saw out a 1-0 away win in the first leg. The job was completed a couple of weeks later with a 2-2 draw at Anfield.
Liverpool preceded to beat Cardiff City on penalties at Wembley and became Football League Cup
Since then they have only reached the final once, which was in Jürgen Klopp’s inaugural season at Liverpool in 2015/16. A game they lost on penalties to Manchester City.
So what is Liverpool’s deal with the EFL Cup? Why has a team which has won the Premier League and Champions League in the past three seasons, not been able to come close to what is seen as a less competitive competition?
Let’s start with the 2016/17 campaign. Liverpool were still looking to find themselves under Klopp in his first full season at the Reds. After a disappointing eighth-placed finish in the 2015/16 Premier League season, Liverpool were without European football for the campaign, usually something that gives a reason to go all out for the domestic cups as focus turns, which is exactly what Liverpool did in 2016/17.
After wins against Burton Albion, Derby County, Tottenham Hotspur and Leeds United, once again Liverpool had themselves an EFL Cup semi-final, this time against Southampton. The Reds lost the tie 2-0 on aggregate and fell short, but there was serious ambition to win the competition.
Since gaining entry back into Europe in 2017, Liverpool’s attention turned away from competitions such as the FA Cup and the EFL Cup once again. The Reds were knocked out of the EFL Cup in their first game, against Leicester City, losing 2-0. The Reds fielded a very rotated starting XI, leading questions to be asked towards Klopp about how seriously he takes the competition. None of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were included in the matchday squad.
A year later, Liverpool were knocked out of the EFL Cup at the hands of Chelsea, who went on to reach the final of the competition. This was yet again their first game of the competition.
When 2019 rolled around, Liverpool managed to reach the quarter-final in December, before the academy players lost 5-0 to Aston Villa, as the main squad was in Doha preparing for what would be their Club World Cup triumph.
In 2020, Liverpool lost to Arsenal in the fourth round on penalties at Anfield, only a week after they had comfortably disposed of the North London side in the Premier League.
There is one thing in common with all of Liverpool’s EFL Cup exits over the past few years. They
have rotated their team, and no doubt will do that once again for the trip to Norwich City today.
Curtis Jones and Caoimhín Kelleher are already confirmed starters for the Reds.
The mentality remains the same, but the team doesn’t. Why do Liverpool do this?
It isn’t uncommon for teams to rotate for the domestic cup competitions. All clubs including those lower down the Football League, do so with the famous phrase ‘cup ‘keeper’, because most teams have a backup goalkeeper they play in the domestic cup contests. But it’s obvious to say that no-one quite does it like Liverpool do it.
Pepijn Lijnders described Liverpool as a club that sees the EFL Cup as a chance to let young players shine and give academy youngsters opportunities to impress the coaches.
This comes at little cost to Klopp because, should the gamble to play young players pay off, and Liverpool uncover starlets as done with Curtis Jones and Trent Alexander-Arnold, then the coaching staff are praised for ‘giving the kids a chance’. Should it backfire and some 17-year-old centre-back score a comedic own-goal to ditch the Reds out of the competition… well, it’s only the League Cup.
So, it isn’t that we don’t want to win the competition – all trophies are clearly good trophies. Nevertheless, Klopp sees these games as opportunities for young players to come up through the system.
No doubt should we advance to the more serious stages of the competition, some of the more senior players will have their name put down on the team sheet with a trophy in sight.
There is a club in England which doesn’t tend to give many chances to academy players. Manchester City tend to go all out in these cup clashes, the same way they would for the Premier League or the Champions League.
In doing so, it can be argued that they let players go under the radar and eventually leave the club without much first team action at all, if any. A famous example of this would be Jadon Sancho. Sancho was at the Manchester City academy from 2015-2017, and never made one senior appearance.
He left in 2017 for Borussia Dortmund, where he made a name for himself before joining City rivals Manchester United this summer for £76.5m. Imagine if this happened with a player like Alexander-Arnold, who was first blooded at Liverpool in the League Cup back in October 2016.
The approach Manchester City take can’t be criticised too much because after all, they have been the most successful club in England over the past five years. But you can’t blame Klopp and his assistants for wanting to allow young players a chance to shine in what is a competition of relatively low importance, both historically and financially.
Liverpool do care about the League Cup, but not in the way most teams do. Whilst we will always want to win as many trophies as we can, Klopp prefers to view the EFL Cup as a competition which allows him to scope out the future prospects at Liverpool Football Club, whilst still instilling the winning mentality needed to make a mark in his Liverpool squad.
Hopefully a much-changed Liverpool side can impress in tonight against Norwich City. But, if it all goes to pot… it’s only the League Cup.
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