Jurgen Klopp played a strong side as Liverpool overcame stubborn resistance from Aston Villa’s youngsters to win 4-1 and move into the fourth round of the FA Cup. It was a risk that paid off but it will leave many without sympathy for the former Borussia Dortmund manager.

Klopp has used a number of his interviews and press conferences this season to push for five substitutes and complain about the Reds’ fixture schedule. Sure, the German boss had a point at times with Liverpool being given “25 hours” to prepare for the game against Brighton at the end of November. The clash against the Seagulls, a Saturday 12.30 kick-off after a midweek Champions League match, caused hia subsequent tiff with BT Sport reporter Des Kelly. Klopp was understandably frustrated at such a quick turnaround but probably aimed his annoyance at the wrong person on that occasion.

Even Chris Wilder was mentioned, as Klopp seethed at the AmEx Stadium, with the Sheffield United boss calling Klopp “selfish” and a “world-class politician” in the week leading up to the match. Whether he was right or wrong to respond to Wilder, it felt like an outburst that had been building for some time in response to a packed programme. Normally I find myself nodding along in agreement with Klopp on a wide range of subjects about football and the world –  but that interview with Kelly was uncomfortable to watch.

Which makes it even more odd that he chose to play such a strong starting XI against an Aston Villa side who were forced to deploy their under-23 squad to take on the Premier League champions on Friday night. Four of Villa’s line-up weren’t even born when James Milner made his professional debut for Leeds United in November 2002, while their shirt numbers added up to a total of 609. Yet Klopp decided to play five of his players that started in a 1-0 loss to Southampton on Monday night, with Sadio Mane, Mo Salah, Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijnaldum all starting at Villa Park.

Considering the moans about fixtures and their injury issues at the back, the biggest surprise was to see Fabinho’s name on the teamsheet. A midfielder by trade, the Brazilian has been fantastic when called upon in the back four this season and is now their key centre-back. Liverpool have lost Virgil van Dijk and Joe Gomez to long-term injuries, while Joel Matip has also struggled to keep himself fit, meaning Fabinho has taken on the role of a senior centre-back. Surely it would’ve make sense to give Phillips a game there, especially considering Villa’s inexperienced forward line.

It is possible that Klopp didn’t have enough time to prepare for the news that Villa would be playing a younger side due to a mass coronavirus outbreak in the first team. But the Liverpool boss claims he would’ve played the same team anyway, even if he’d known Villa’s struggles earlier. Pre-match he said: “Yesterday we sat in analysis meeting with coaches and someone opened the door saying Villa had problems. Then later we were told a lot of their first team players were out. Then they said the training ground had shut down. Then we later learned of their situation. This is the side we would have started with tonight because we trained like that. For the boys it’s nice they can play. So far they [Villa’s senior players] are all fine. I wish they all come back quickly. If we will win clear they will say something. if we don’t win clear they will say something. Who cares? We want to go to the next round. What scenario will they say ‘that was brilliant from Liverpool’?”

Liverpool have a week off now before they host fellow title challengers and arch-rivals Manchester United a week on Sunday but it seemed like a needless risk to take. Klopp may have feared the worst when Mane was seen holding his back after opening the scoring and Milner got a bloody nose early on but his squad came through largely unscathed.  The impressive Villa kids put up an almighty fight with Loiue Barry scoring an equaliser just before half-time. In the first half Liverpool had 83 per cent of possession and 14 shots, while Villa could only muster two but a few glimpses of quality gave them a chance.

Ignoring any of Klopp’s comments so far this season, it was good to see the Liverpool boss show respect to the Villa youngsters. Mungo Bridge and Callum Rowe particularly inspiring at the back, while Akos Onodi produced a number of good saves to keep Mark Delaney’s boys in the game at the interval. It was 421 passes to 85 in Liverpool’s favour at the break and Villa could only run around for so long before fatigue set in. Liverpool killed off the match in a five-minute second-half spell that saw Wijnaldum, Mane and Salah all get on the scoresheet.

Presumably the idea of starting Salah and Mane – with Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri on the bench –  was to play them into form with the Reds only scoring one goal in their last three Premier League matches. In the end, Liverpool got the job done, but there can be no sympathy for Klopp now, with his team selection at Villa Park undermining much of what he’s previously said about fixture congestion and injuries. Praise though has to go to those amazing Villa kids who, despite being peppered by shots, stood tall throughout.

Joe Williams

 



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