Liverpool take on Arsenal in the rearranged first leg of their League Cup semi-final on Thursday night, and they’ve got a great chance to taste domestic cup success this season
First impressions tend to stick in football, and where Jurgen Klopp is concerned they have often proved hard to shift.
It is widely acknowledged, not least by the man himself, that the German was blown away by the relentless schedule he faced from the moment he arrived at Liverpool in October 2015, with festive fixtures and the Christmas programme in particular proving demanding.
Klopp had always seen it from afar, and in fact in Germany they refer to any week in which a team plays three times – weekend, midweek and then weekend again – as an ‘English week’, but being in the middle of it blew him away somewhat.
Less than three months after arriving at the club he saw his side win 1-0 up at Sunderland in the Premier League on December 30, lose 2-0 down at West Ham on January 2, win the first leg of a League Cup semi-final at Stoke on January 5 and then go all the way down to Exeter with a shadow side in the FA Cup on January 8. He was memorably interviewed under the watchful eye of the tea ladies at St James Park in the latter fixture.
The fact that those Stoke and Exeter games then needed second matches to settle them – a second leg for the former and a replay for the latter – seemed to bemuse the Liverpool manager, but he clearly values the rite of a little guy to take on the big boys, something he used to do back when he was at Mainz.
Liverpool made it through on both occasions only to lose to Manchester City on penalties in the League Cup final and then West Ham after an FA Cup fourth round replay. Then came another run to the semis of the League Cup the following season, and a 2-0 aggregate defeat to Southampton.
And after that… well not so much.
Klopp’s outspoken views on winter fixture congestion are now well-known, but also widely shared by pretty much all top-flight bosses even if some views are less reported than others.
For the Liverpool boss, a narrative has taken hold that he seeks to navigate disruption and fixture pile-ups by ‘disrespecting’ the domestic cups.
With the rather unique situation that was the Shrewsbury Town fourth round tie in 2020 taken out of the equation though – a game Liverpool won, remember – that is a theory that doesn’t really hold up.
That’s because bar the FA Cup fourth round home loss to a Wolves side then in the Championship in 2017, and then a loss to a West Brom side bound for relegation the following year, the defeats Liverpool have often suffered in domestic cup competitions under Klopp are fairly unsurprising given the nature of the draws and the idea that everyone rotates to some extent.
The next season it was Chelsea again in the older competition, and Villa away in the League Cup when the first-team were unavailable, then last season Liverpool were knocked out of the competitions by Arsenal and Manchester United. Hardly giant-killed.
This season things are opening up for the Reds though, with the draws among the kindest they have received.
Norwich, Preston and Leicester were beaten en route to the League Cup semi-finals, with Shrewsbury seen off in the FA Cup and a fourth round tie at home to Cardiff to come.
Arsenal await on Thursday in the first leg of the League Cup semis, and with selection issues seemingly rising for Mikel Arteta just as they diminish for Klopp, utilising the Anfield atmosphere for the switched around tie could see the Reds look to build up an unassailable advantage. A Wembley final could beckon for the first time in six years.
With the Premier League title looking increasingly out of reach, and a Champions League to go for starting next month, there’s a growing sense that the cups are as important to Liverpool this season as they ever have been under Klopp and Fenway Sports Group.
Both know the value of adding trophies to underscore the enormous strides they’ve made, because both are surely increasingly aware they won’t be at Liverpool forever.