Jurgen Klopp clearly doesn’t pay much attention to marketing campaigns.
Remember BT Sport and its 2019 effort?
“Don’t mug off the cup,” was the message from the UK broadcaster, eager to hammer home the point that world football’s oldest club competition was still relevant; something to cherish and to respect.
That point is hard to argue today, following the news that Klopp, together with his Liverpool first-team squad, will effectively boycott the Reds’ fourth-round replay with Shrewsbury next week.
It is not quite Manchester United withdrawing from the competition entirely in 1999, but it is the next best thing. This is an elite club, the seven-time winners of the competition, prepared to give up their place in order to make a point. We are used to weakened teams, low crowds, awkwardly rearranged kick-off times and dwindling interest, but this is something entirely new. It will, if Klopp goes through with his plan, be a historic moment – and certainly not for the right reasons.
“We will not be there - it will be the kids who play that game,” Klopp stated after his side’s 2-2 draw at the Montgomery Waters Meadow on Sunday. When asked by Goal if that meant he, too, would be missing, he replied: “Yes. Neil Critchley [the manager of Liverpool’s Under-23 team] will be in charge.”
Klopp’s logic is clear. He has the backing of Fenway Sports Group, the club's owners, and he was willing to explain himself too.
“In April 2019 we got a letter from the Premier League,” he said. “They asked us to respect the winter break and not to organise international friendlies or competitive games. We respect that.”
The letter he refers to was sent to all Premier League clubs and did, indeed, state that clubs should avoid scheduling matches during their two-week hiatus. Clubs were, according to the letter: “expected to honour and respect the underlying rationale for the mid-season player break, namely to provide their players with a break from the physical and mental rigours of playing matches during the season.”
Klopp is ready to do exactly that. "You cannot deal with us like nobody cares about it,” he continued. “I know that it's not very popular but that's the way I see it. The Premier League asked us to respect the winter break. That's what we do. If the FA doesn't respect that, then we cannot change it.”
Klopp has barely concealed his distaste for the FA Cup since arriving in England. Remember the line-ups selected against Exeter and West Ham in 2016, Plymouth and Wolves in 2017, and Wolves again last January. Even the side which beat Everton earlier this month contained five teenagers.
Liverpool play at West Ham in the Premier League on Wednesday and then host Southampton on Saturday, after which they were due to have a two-week gap before visiting Norwich on February 15. Their disappointing surrender of a two-goal lead at Shrewsbury, though, threw a spanner in the works, with the replay due for the week commencing February 3. Jason Cummings, Shrewsbury's two-goal hero, has a lot to answer for.
Klopp is not the only one to complain about this rather bizarre scheduling – Southampton defender Jack Stephens called it “daft”, while Tottenham boss Jose Mourinho and Manchester City’s Pep Guardiola have called for replays to be scrapped entirely – but the German has been persistent, and vocal, in his belief that elite footballers are asked to play too many games.
He too believes replays should be shelved, and has openly questioned the logic of a two-legged Carabao Cup semi-final as well. The decision to move the 2021 Africa Cup of Nations to January, meanwhile, prompted an impassioned seven-and-a-half-minute monologue about the issue of fixture congestion and player burnout. He has already expressed his concerns to UEFA directly.
On Sunday, he said: “We have to respect the players' welfare. They need a rest. They need a mental rest, a physical rest, and that's what the winter break is all about.
“Then another competition tells us that's not so important, so we had to make these decisions beforehand.
“These boys have families. International players like Jordan Henderson, Virgil van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Mo Salah, Sadio Mane, all these guys, they are never off. The players will [now] have one week off.”
The news, of course, will be met with a mixed reaction, both inside and outside of Liverpool. There will be plenty, naturally, who sympathise with Klopp, and who understand his desire to prioritise. The desire for a league title tops everything, and with the Champions League due to resume in three weeks’ time, there is plenty for fans and players to get excited about. Many will argue that, with the backing of Anfield, 'the kids' are perfectly capable of beating a League One side. They are certainly talented, as they showed even when beaten in the quarter-final of the Carabao Cup at Aston Villa last month.
But there will be others, die-hard supporters included, who will wonder if this is an extreme reaction, if Liverpool are cutting their nose off to spite their face. They haven’t won the FA Cup since 2006, and would take some stopping this season if they took the competition seriously. There is a genuine chance the league leaders could emulate Manchester United’s treble winners of 1999 here. History is written by the winners.
Surely, the sceptics will ask, there is another solution? Plenty will wonder why, exactly, the manager needs to miss the game at all. They have a point.
One only needs to look back to that Carabao Cup game at Villa, actually. Then, with Klopp and his senior squad in Qatar preparing for the Club World Cup, Liverpool fielded the youngest XI in their history, handed out nine debuts and lost 5-0.
It was, for want of a better word, farcical. Critchley’s side acquitted themselves well but were clearly unable to compete with their opponents both physically and in terms of experience. Had Villa not eased off in the second half, we might well have witnessed the biggest defeat in the Reds’ history. They were boys sent to do a man's job, with the whole world looking on.
Liverpool had little choice then, but they have one now. We know why they are taking such a drastic course of action, but they don’t necessarily have to.
Klopp could easily, for example, field a team similar to the one which drew on Sunday. Indeed, many would argue that he has first-team players – Xherdan Shaqiri, Naby Keita, Dejan Lovren, Joel Matip, Adrian, Adam Lallana, James Milner – who could do with getting some good, competitive minutes under their belt. Klopp speaks regularly about “rhythm’, and a fixture like this, a home tie against inferior opposition, looks ideal for that. It would require, at most, two extra training sessions and would still leave 10 days to rest and recover before the Norwich clash – ample time, surely?
Unless there is a dramatic change of heart, though, it seems unlikely that any senior player will feature. Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott, the gifted teenage trio, may be allowed to play, along with Spanish midfielder Pedro Chirivella.
The chances of any Under-23 player leaving on loan before the transfer window closes on Friday, Anfield sources say, are now slim at best. Critchley’s boys are needed to keep their club’s ‘treble’ dream alive – some task, given the Under-23s have already been beaten by both Oldham, Accrington and, on penalties, Fleetwood in the Football League Trophy this season.
Ticket details for the Shrewsbury game should be released in the next 24 hours, and we can expect prices to be dramatically reduced given Klopp’s comments. If they are not, questions can and will be asked.
As for Shrewsbury, they will head for Merseyside buoyed by an impressive showing in the original tie. For Sam Ricketts, his players and their supporters, it will still be a big night, a momentous occasion. “We could have won it,” Ricketts said of Sunday’s game. “But I think everybody wanted to go to Anfield.”
In end they got their wish. The replay, Ricketts says, will enable them to buy some new video analysis equipment. For his fans, it is a rare chance to visit one of the world's great stadiums.
It’s just a shame that when they get there, they are likely to be watching a side which is ‘Liverpool’ in name only.
Don’t mug off the cup? It’s too late for that.
It has been for years, in truth.