These Pool Boys Became Pool Men

No matter the size or relative importance of the tournament, cup finals always carry with them that special something. Not every competition is equal, of course, but every trophy is worth fighting for, even if just a little. In England, the littlest and least important one is the energy drink–sponsored League Cup. It’s not as prestigious as the more historic FA Cup, and is practically irrelevant when compared to the Premier League and the Champions League. The League Cup exists in a funny middle ground: If a fan’s club wins it, it’s a stellar achievement. If that same fan’s club loses, well, it’s a tinpot trophy anyway. Regardless, everyone in it wants to win it, especially by the time the final comes around.

Sunday’s Liverpool-Chelsea League Cup final felt weighted with more importance than the typical edition, and I’m not just saying that because Liverpool won 1-0 in the depths of extra time. This might be due to the absence of Manchester City, who won five of the last eight cups prior to Sunday, which gave this final a helpful dose of novelty if nothing else. Or perhaps it is because Liverpool and Chelsea faced off in another banger of a final in the tournament just two years ago; I remember it as the Kepa final, for his penalty shenanigans. Whatever the reason, these two clubs entered the final desperate to win, each for its own reasons.

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Chelsea is in a bit of a tailspin domestically; millions—billions even—of dollars spent on a lopsided squad have left it no better than 11th in the Premier League this season, a year after finishing a similarly disappointing 12th. Manager Mauricio Pochettino has not brought his signature “do more with less” style to a club where he has as much as he could want, and though Chelsea can still manage a marquee performance, like its 1-1 draw with City on Feb. 17, the Blues are struggling.

Liverpool, on the other hand, is having a heck of a season. The Reds lead the league by a single point over City (and two over Arsenal), and are in the round of 16 of the Europa League, another relatively minor competition in the shadow of the Champions variety, but a European trophy nonetheless. In Jürgen Klopp’s final season at the helm, every trophy feels like a chance to further enhance the legacy of the man who returned this club, once a giant and then a fallen one, to a behemoth status befitting its glorious past. Perhaps most pressingly, though, Liverpool must have wanted to win on Sunday just to prove it could, even when at something below half-strength. And it was that very weakness of available personnel that made the Reds’ lifting of their first trophy of the season so rewarding.

The injuries facing Liverpool at the moment are heavy enough that listing them out can induce a bit of nausea. Missing on Sunday were Mohamed Salah, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Darwin Núñez, Dominik Szoboszlai, Curtis Jones, Diogo Jota, Alisson, Joel Matip, and Thiago (yes, he’s still on the roster). There were still enough good, experienced players to field a competent XI on Sunday, though, and those veterans performed their roles well.

Wataru Endo has been a revelation in midfield in his debut season, running everywhere to interrupt attacks and giving Liverpool much-needed solidity both in and out of possession. (The club has yet to lose a match in his 17 starts, which is an astounding stat for a player no one marked as a major addition when he signed.) The Chelsea attack targeted center defender Ibrahima Konaté on Sunday, but save for a couple small mishaps here and there, he was a rock. In goal, Caoimhin Kelleher was brilliant, keeping out waves of Chelsea attacks and looking quite comfortable with the ball at his feet in some form of Alisson cosplay.

Then there was the captain on the day, the man of the match himself, Virgil van Dijk. There’s been enough talk about the Dutch center back’s ability to remain calm under even the most intense pressure at the back, but his ability to score crucial goals needs to be praised once more. That Van Dijk actually scored twice on Sunday from headers—his first was waved off for a, shall we say, questionable offside decision—underscores how crucial it is to have your best defender—maybe anyone’s best defender, really—be able to also provide match winners.

In the 118th minute, that’s just what he did, latching on to a Kostas Tsimikas corner and nodding it home at the far post, giving an exhausted and undermanned Liverpool a 1-0 lead that it would hold for the final chunk of the final. It was perfect that the title-winning goal came from Van Dijk, one of the pillars of the Klopp era, the only one of his cohort out there on the field as time waned to a close.

But looking at the squad sheet pre-match, it seemed impossible that Liverpool could win without playing some random ass teenagers in what would surely be the biggest moments of their young sporting careers. Take a look at the substitute list: Aside from Tsimikas, Joe Gomez, and third-string keeper Adrián, the rest of the bench was aged 21 or younger, with 16-year-old Trey Nyoni the youngest one of all.

Klopp had no choice in the matter. With the overstuffed fixture schedule featuring four different competitions, there was no chance of playing all the starters for 120 minutes. (Some of the starters did play that long, and Luis Díaz, who had a hell of a game, was so gassed by the end that even a quick pass to a teammate under no pressure led to hands on hips in exhaustion.) There’s more than just one trophy at stake in this final Klopp campaign, and the German had to balance the desire for the trophy at hand with keeping the squad fresh enough to compete for the bigger prizes on the horizon.

Turns out, though, that the concerns about the team’s depth were unfounded. Of the six substitutes Liverpool brought into the game, only Gomez and Tsimikas could be considered experienced, and the former came on early enough that he might as well have started, subbing on in the 28th minute after Moises Caicedo exploded Ryan Gravenberch’s ankle.

The other four subs barely have a legal drinker, in the United States at least, between them: Jayden Danns, James McConnell, and Bobby Clark are all teenagers, while Jarrell Quansah is the elder statesmen of the group at 21. (Also of note: a pair of 20-year-olds, Harvey Elliott and Conor Bradley, started the game.)

That Klopp was forced to bring on almost literal children didn’t stop Liverpool from, somehow, dominating proceedings at crucial times. Chelsea did have a dominant stretch to close out regular time, including a sequence in the 96th minute where a Kelleher kick save kept Liverpool alive; the Irish goalkeeper now has two memorable League Cup final performances for the club, and should be in line for a bigger role at another club for his deeds.

Once extra time rolled around, the benefits of youth befuddled Chelsea, as the quartet of academy players decided that this was their moment to show out. Danns subbed on for Cody Gakpo and led the Liverpool line admirably; though he didn’t score, he was the exact type of substitute striker a club wants against tired legs. Clark relieved Bradley in the 72nd, and turned in a defense-stretching performance from out wide. Quansah didn’t do much in his 15 or so minutes on the field, but that’s just fine for a center back.

The star of the bunch was McConnell. The 19-year-old stepped into the midfield and became a possession god while wearing a number no one performing like this should ever be stuck wearing (53). He completed 34 passes, 15 of them in the final third, and had a passing accuracy of 87 percent while doing it. The first two stats were first for substitutes across the whole match, which is doubly impressive when looking at how Chelsea brought on Mykhailo Mudryk and Christopher Nkunku (combined price tag: somewhere north of €160 million) from the bench. The Newcastle-born McConnell, who joined Liverpool’s academy in 2019, was everywhere, constantly relieving pressure in a match where he must have felt a world of it on his shoulders.

Liverpool probably doesn’t win this match without Van Dijk’s header off of Tsimikas’s cross, and if someone had told me that was the game winner before the match, I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. The Reds definitely don’t win here, though, if not for the contribution of their Pool Babies, and it’s a victory that validates the academy as much as it does Klopp’s ability to get his team to play his style regardless of who’s out there on the pitch at any time. For all of Liverpool’s successes in this era, this one stands out as Klopp’s best in my opinion; it testifies to the cultural shift he oversaw during his time at Liverpool, one whose effects reach from the very heights of England and Europe and flow all the way down to the academy pipeline, as best represented by Alexander-Arnold. Klopp said as much after the match, calling this win, in a tournament that no top club would ever pretend is the most important one, “the most special trophy” of his career. If this is all Liverpool wins in his swan song of a season, at least the club did it in a way that’s hard to see coming from anyone else, with players few would have known but which Liverpool fans won’t soon forget.

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