If there was ever a way to demonstrate how Liverpool are currently top of the world, their FA Cup victory against Shrewsbury was it.
Not the comfortable victory over the old enemy Manchester United, not putting four goals past Southampton at a whim, they’re becoming quite standard. Not the effervescent performances of Liverpool’s stars, all of whom have their case for the various Player of the Season awards.
It was Liverpool’s academy, emblematic of the everything this Liverpool side is. Every club seems to have its own “way” these days, yet few actually resemble anything like a footballing philosophy when push comes to shove. Yet Klopp’s philosophy, one he has taken years to instil into this club, was all too visible in Neil Critchley’s young side.
Shrewsbury weren’t great, but their manager Sam Ricketts admitted that his side couldn’t get near the Liverpool team with an average age of 19 years and 102 days.
The narrative that Klopp abandoned his youth team to go for a holiday isn’t just wrong, the truth is actually the opposite. Everything that Klopp built was flowing through that young side in their FA Cup game: perhaps the first piece of evidence that what Klopp has helped create will live beyond him.
They played with swagger, with fluidity, and with the unyielding mentality that they would emerge victorious.
Much has been made of what Klopp has done to this Liverpool team, turning them into Europe’s most feared footballing force. What the FA Cup fourth round victory proved, however, is that the transformation extends far beyond the first team: it goes all the way to the club’s foundations. Everything has been streamlined, there is no longer a gap between the first team and academy.
The obvious evidence is in Trent Alexander-Arnold’s emergence, but that only came about because of an injury to Nathaniel Clyne. It was the time before his emergence into a world class fullback that was most important: when Pep Lijnders would ensure hand-picked academy players had weekly sessions alongside the first team. Alexander-Arnold and Ben Woodburn were the prodigious ones back then, now it’s Harvey Elliot and Curtis Jones.
Harvey Elliot, who was the most exciting player on the pitch in a similarly youthful side’s 5-0 loss to Aston Villa in the League Cup, and Curtis Jones, who scored a winner in the Merseyside derby earlier in the FA Cup.
For Klopp, the cup competitions represent his investment in the future, ensuring that the academy is not some detached, distant enterprise that bears very little relation to the big boys.
Pep Lijnders, who once acted as the junction between the first team and the academy, had a hand in prising his replacement from Porto: Vitor Matos. He now performs Lijnders’ old role in bringing through highly rated prospects to the first team, and he assisted Neil Critchley on the touchline during the win over Shrewsbury. Matos’ appointment coincides with a significant investment in the new training ground at Kirkby, where Liverpool’s first team and academy will finally be housed at the same location for easier access.
The evidence has been present all season, even against better opposition. 5-0 was an immensely flattering score line for an Aston Villa side that were well matched by Liverpool’s youth, and that Everton game in December will live long in the minds of those fans that can brag “Shankly was right, there really are only two big teams in Liverpool.”
Most poignant, though, is the fact that Klopp’s influence will live on past his tenure. The present and the future aren’t as far apart as they seem.
One is the same as the other, the future is no longer something to be worried about tomorrow. Liverpool’s academy is its present, and the present is currently quite peachy.