|Curtis Jones celebrates his moment |
of Kop glory (Source: Liverpoolfc.com)
A youthful-looking Liverpool team produced a hugely entertaining and faintly ridiculous tie against a typically chaotic Arsenal, eventually emerging victorious on penalties after 18-year-old Curtis Jones kept his nerve from the spot.
Both defences looked out of their depth in a remarkably open encounter
that at times looked set to threaten Arsenal’s own record for the number of goals in a League Cup game. Klopp’s side could at least plead their extreme youth in mitigation, but their opponents will be scrambling for excuses after being matched step for step by an outrageously determined home side, who sent the game to penalties with a last-gasp Divock Origi equaliser.
The casual observer would have been forgiven for mistaking this for an exhibition match, but in fact there was a place in the quarter-finals at stake. Nonetheless the Liverpool manager turned to his youngsters, a tactic to which supporters have grown accustomed in this competition. There was a debut for Welsh defender Neco Williams, who was joined in defence by 17-year-old summer acquisition Sepp van den Berg.
The deadlock was broken after just six minutes in remarkably straightforward fashion. A simple ball from Williams took Joe Willock out of the equation entirely, leaving Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in acres of space. Sead Kolasinac scrambled across towards the former Arsenal man, but this just left more room in the middle: Shkodran Mustafi produced a desperate dive to try and deny the waiting Rhian Brewster, but could only succeed in turning the ball into his own net.
It was Arsenal rather than the hosts that looked like the side lacking experience in these opening exchanges. Unai Emery’s side left gaping holes when pressed by Liverpool’s hungry attack. They were in again minutes later when Adam Lallana carved open the defence with a lofted pass – only a poor touch from Oxlade-Chamberlain prevented a second goal.
The visitors, however, struck next. The first signs of naivety in the Liverpool back line were exploited, as they remained far too static and allowed Lucas Torreira to ghost in and score after a fine Caoimhín Kelleher save. Replays showed that the Uruguayan was in fact offside, but there was no VAR in operation to bail out the shoddy defensive work.
The goal allowed Arsenal to grow in confidence, and as increasing pressure was applied to Liverpool’s defence the inexperience became more and more apparent. Gabriel Martinelli turned the game on its head in the 26th minute, making it 2-1 after Kelleher could only palm the ball into his path. There was again too much passivity among the ranks as the initial square pass came in, and the Irish stopper should have done better when van den Berg deflected the ball towards him.
It was 3-1 by the 36th minute. Another individual error was punished by an increasingly ruthless Arsenal side – 16-year-old Harvey Elliott, who became the second-youngest player ever to start for Liverpool in last round’s victory over MK Dons, played a blind pass that Ainsley Maitland-Niles cut out easily. It was then a simple task of passing across the box to Martinelli, who was on hand to tap in his second of the game.
Roles were reversed in the 42nd minute, when Martinelli clipped Elliott while back defending a corner. The youngster is obviously raw, but showed his talent with a clever change of pace to win the penalty, which James Milner converted without fuss.
There was still time for glorious chances to be spurned by both Martinelli and Divock Origi in a frenetic end to the first half.
The break did little to calm things down. Brewster nearly nicked in behind Mustafi minutes after the restart before Bukayo Saka got in a couple of sighters for Arsenal. In the 54th minute the away side made it 4-2, in a moment of contrasting fortunes for two of the more experienced players: James Milner produced an uncharacteristically loose pass inside his own box, and Mesut Ozil kept the ball in play with a delightful flick. This allowed Maitland-Niles to convert into an empty net, Kelleher having been left in no-man’s land by the initial misplaced ball.
In any other game that might have settled it, but in a match where defences were well and truly second-best there were more twists to come. Less than five minutes had passed before Oxlade-Chamberlain reduced the deficit once more, producing a stunning swerving strike to beat Emiliano Martinez. The ball sat up invitingly and he met it emphatically on the bounce to put one over on his old club.
With 61 minutes on the clock Divock Origi stepped up to level the game. He produced a wonderful Cruyff turn to beat his man before firing beyond Martinez in front of The Kop. This was met with a huge roar from a crowd that seemed almost as bemused as they were impressed: it was a rare outing for the chaotically high-pressing but wide-open Liverpool that has been largely banished at senior level since the arrivals of Virgil van Dijk and Fabinho.
The competition for goal of the game intensified further when Willock got involved in the 70th minute. He was left with too much space on the edge of the box and clattered the ball into the top corner beyond a helpless Kelleher, changing the complexion of the game once more.
This looked to have finally clinched it, but there was yet more madness to come. Origi added to his impressively growing collection of iconic moments, meeting a great cross from Williams to acrobatically convert a dramatic 94th-minute equaliser.
This sent it to penalties. There were remarkably few nerves on display given the youth of the players stepping up on both sides, and ultimately the only slip-up came from one of the more senior squad members. Dani Ceballos, a second-half substitute for Arsenal, saw his effort turned away by Kelleher in a moment that the keeper is bound to savour for a long time. Academy product Curtis Jones then made indelible memories of his own, wrapping things up by netting the winning penalty into the corner.
It is hard to draw any meaningful conclusions from such an utterly absurd game, but it was fitting that on a night when VAR was conspicuous by its absence we witnessed footballing entertainment in its purest form.