Klopp's belief in fringe figures can extend Liverpool's golden age

Players like Kelleher have delivered on major occasions and club's deep pool of talent shows a succession plan is in place

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Jurgen Klopp has the happy habit of appearing prophetic. Things he says can come true, sometimes in strange fashion.

After the League Cup semi-finals, he branded it “the Caoimhin Kelleher competition.” It is safe to say even Klopp did not envisage the goalkeeper scoring what proved to be the winning penalty in the shoot-out in the final.

Kelleher failed to save any of Chelsea’s 11 spot kicks and yet ended up the hero, and if that sounds illogical, his performance in the preceding 120 minutes justified Klopp’s decision to bench Alisson, who he has often called the world’s best goalkeeper, for one with 17 previous senior appearances.

Part of Klopp’s management stems from the power of belief; time and again, fringe figures have seemed fuelled by his trust on major occasions. If Divock Origi is the most emblematic example, the performances of Nat Phillips and Rhys Williams last spring to secure Champions League football showed how understudies can accomplish the improbable.

Kelleher feels a player with more pedigree. “The best No. 2 in the world,” Klopp said, highlighting two issues. Will the 23-year-old, who looked raw and unconvincing in his early outings in 2019 and now seems transformed, be content to remain Alisson’s deputy?

Meanwhile, the most expensive second-choice goalkeeper in the world is the costliest of any: Kepa Arrizabalaga, whose own ill-fated cameo - from failing to save any of Liverpool’s spot kicks to blazing his own penalty into orbit - and infamous involvement in the 2019 final illustrated that this is definitely not the Kepa Arrizabalaga competition.

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But Kelleher also forms part of a bigger picture. Perhaps Liverpool’s renewed interest in the domestic cups came in part when it seemed Manchester City might run away with the Premier League and when it seemed a team of their quality had won too few trophies.

But a quadruple hunt has been facilitated by a greater strength in depth. Some 33 players featured in Liverpool’s Carabao Cup-winning run and a 34th, Thiago Alcantara, was due to start the final.

Kelleher is proof Klopp can use the FA and League Cups to blood the emerging players. If Kaide Gordon is the academy’s flagship talent now, there are plenty of others to allow weakened teams to navigate the early rounds.

There are also more enviable senior options. Klopp has called this his best ever squad. Various factors have coalesced. Fine recruitment stands out and Luis Diaz’s immediate impact gives him five elite forwards, with the menacing Colombian a man-of-the-match contender at Wembley.

The summer signing Ibrahima Konate has had a more gradual introduction but looks potentially formidable. Kostas Tsimikas has kicked on in his second season.

Add in improvement of young players like Harvey Elliott and a bigger group has been forged. That, even without the injured Roberto Firmino, Elliott, Curtis Jones and Joe Gomez had initially been omitted from the bench on Sunday indicates that Klopp is now picking from a group of 24.

There remains a question about how long a generation entering their thirties can sustain their standards, though Virgil van Dijk appears back to his best, but there is evidence that a succession plan is in place.

That a manager who felt worn down last season, losing his joie de vivre amid a combination of ill-luck with injuries, the loss of his mother and a lockdown that denied a people person of company has recaptured his zest helps.

Liverpool are showing a renewed hunger and it is no longer impossible to believe Klopp will extend a contract that expires in 2024. Their future for the next few years looks bright. If it seemed a team had peaked in 2019 and 2020, this might be part of a longer golden age.

Updated: February 28, 2022, 1:46 PM
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