Liverpool avoided an embarrassing early exit from the FA Cup with a fairly comfortable win in their third round replay away at Plymouth. The scoreline ended up being a narrow one, but the visitors looked in control for most of the game – no mean feat for what was not far away from being an u23s side. Some of the young players to whom Klopp gave a chance have come under criticism following the match: this is extremely harsh. To put in a professional display and come away with the desired result against a senior football league side desperate for a result is a testament to the calibre of the players.
As in the initial game at Anfield, Klopp selected a second-string starting eleven. This included a handful of senior players – Origi, Sturridge, Coutinho, Moreno and Lucas – but was largely made up of products of the youth system. In fact, it was the youngsters who impressed the most in the early exchanges: Alexander-Arnold and Woodburn looked particularly assured, whereas Moreno floundered and Sturridge and Origi struggled to influence the game. Daniel Sturridge must be getting increasingly frustrated; he has now failed to take the last few chances he has been given to impress, and in a squad with as much attacking talent as this one he cannot bank on getting too many more. Fortunately, his lack of goals was compensated for through the most unlikely of candidates – Lucas Leiva of all people opened the scoring midway through the first half. Coutinho showed the benefits of having a competent set piece taker back in the side, and Lucas got on the end of his teasing corner to power the ball into the net. It was his first goal in seven years, and in the end proved to be the goal that saw Klopp’s side safely through to the fourth round.
There were chances to add to the lead – Origi had the most blatant of these, seeing a tame penalty saved late on. However, the failure to extend the gap never really looked like being punished. Alexander-Arnold had to make one excellent last-ditch challenge and Karius had to be on his toes to keep out a sweetly struck long-range effort, but on the whole Plymouth were contained professionally and effectively. This makes some of the criticism of the performance even more odd: it wasn’t the most exciting, end-to-end game of all time, but if anything this is a testament to the temperament of our young talents. The questions asked of Sturridge and Origi are a little more valid – they would undoubtedly have wanted to have made a bigger impact against a League 2 outfit – but facing a deep line who undoubtedly had specific instructions to keep close tabs on them, the performances were certainly forgivable. In any case, performance was always going to be secondary in this fixture; nobody really wanted the extra game in an already congested schedule, so the goal was simply to get through it with minimal fuss.
The next round sees Liverpool host Wolverhampton Wanderers. It will be interesting to see what kind of team Klopp puts out – it will be an even tougher challenge for the young players than Plymouth, but it seems likely that they’ll be given a chance. Perhaps Harry Wilson will have won himself a long-awaited start: he has been in excellent form for the under 23s side all season, and impressed after coming on in the Plymouth game. Whatever the exact personnel, on paper at least Liverpool have been handed a strong chance of progressing further. The FA Cup is clearly not the priority, but it serves the dual function of blooding youth talent and giving the team a shot at some silverware. In the meantime, Liverpool return to the test of league action: a win against free-falling Swansea is a must in order to keep title ambitions alive.