James Milner had been bending ears at Anfield, reminding Jurgen Klopp and Jordan Henderson that Liverpool were rubbing shoulders with a stellar English club last night. “Leeds are one of the great teams,” Klopp wrote in his programme column. “Big history, big support. I know this because James Milner always tells me, again and again and again.”
Milner has never lost touch with his roots, a Horsforth boy with Leeds United in his blood, and by the end of a fierce League Cup quarter-final, Klopp was made to see what it is that Milner loves: fight, commitment and the sense that, no matter the circumstances or the odds, Leeds are always be capable of something. They took discipline and ambition to Anfield last night and ran Liverpool ragged. Klopp’s players scraped through to the semi-finals by the skin of their teeth.
History will record a 2-0 defeat but it might not make mention of the shot from Kemar Roofe which shook a post at 0-0 or the pressure from Leeds which failed to pay off before Divock Origi and a record-breaking teenager in Ben Woodburn spoiled an exemplary evening by scoring in the final 15 minutes. Leeds can rue the result and the loss of a first League Cup semi-final appearance in 20 years but in the context of their Championship season, they should take confidence from this in spades. Perhaps their exit at Anfield will not hurt in the long run.
Something about Liverpool’s stadium, the setting and the stage of the EFL Cup, brought Monk’s squad to the boil and allowed them thrive. Roofe’s performance was that of a £3million signing, his best and most imaginative since Leeds threw money at Oxford United in July, and Monk’s midfield – Ronaldo Vieira in particular – made light of their surroundings. His defence were exceptional until tired minds and tired legs allowed Origi and the baby-faced Woodburn to appear at a range from which neither player could miss. In the space of five minutes, the tie was dead.
Chances went begging when Leeds needed them to go in and two injuries in the first half tied Monk’s hands in the second. The luck was largely Klopp’s and Liverpool made the most of it. From a neutral point of view, it was a game which said that 13 years without a meeting between these two clubs on Merseyside was a travesty. With more of this football, Monk can hope to back here next season.
The pleasantries exchanged between him and Klopp during the build-up Monday set a cordial tone and Klopp gave United the respect of a prolonged examination during the warm-up, standing on the halfway line and looking on as Leeds went through their usual routine. There were changes to both teams – more among Liverpool’s line-up, inevitably – but no sense of either manager trying to get the tie out of the way.
From Monk’s perspective, he could not have asked for a better opportunity to strike first than the chance which sat up for Hadi Sacko in the fourth minute. The winger went one-on-one with Simon Mignolet after Stuart Dallas steered a perfectly-timed chip to his feet but Mignolet ran out and diverted Sacko’s shot behind with his legs. There were two emotions for Monk as the ball went wide – satisfaction in seeing Liverpool split open but the fear that Leeds could not afford to waste openings so good.
His tactics were obvious from the start: to sit deep, stay compact and attack whenever possession dropped to his players. Roofe drew a straightforward save from Mignolet with a shot from 25 yards on 10 minutes, a shadow of a reaction by Marco Silvestri moments later. Silvestri reached out with one hand to palm Georgino Wijnaldum’s volley wide after the midfielder slipped into space eight yards out, an excellent save at a time when a concession might have opened the floodgates.
It was, despite those moments, a game of chess rather than murderball before the break and little dropped kindly for either side. Lucas failed to apply a clean touch to a hanging cross from Kevin Stewart as Monk’s defence lost sight of him briefly while at the other end, Charlie Taylor walked through a tackle from Lucas inside Liverpool’s box but could not pick out Souleymane Doukara. From the resulting corner. Mignolet spilled the ball to Vieira whose dragged shot made nothing of an exposed net.
Doukara’s inclusion came at the expense of Chris Wood and Marcus Antonsson, both of whom started on the bench, and Monk was tempted into fielding a front two of Doukara and Roofe. The thought that went into his line-up was negated somewhat when Eunan O’Kane pulled up after 28 minutes but a like-for-like swap with Kalvin Phillips kept Leeds’ formation intact. Phillips, however, very nearly shipped the opening goal five minutes later.
His weak backpass sold Silvestri shot and Emre Can dived in between the goalkeeper and Kyle Bartley to touch the ball goalwards. Anfield watched in anticipation as his poked finish rolled slowly wide of Silvestri’s right-hand post. It was, all the same, an isolated scare in a half which ticked almost every box for Monk. Origi’s pace was rarely unleashed and beside him, Sadio Mane traipsed around with Taylor and Liam Cooper all over him. The casual performance at Rotherham on Saturday was quickly forgotten and quickly redressed.
To Monk’s frustration, Cooper followed O’Kane in limping off at half-time with an injury sustained amid a sharp spell of Liverpool pressure. With Pontus Jansson ill and absent, Luke Ayling replaced him. Aside from the quality of Cooper’s performance, United’s head coach found his scope for changing the tie extremely limited with 45 minutes of normal time left. It would have been left to Klopp to do that had the woodwork not rescued Liverpool with 53 minutes gone.
Leeds hustled Liverpool on the edge of their area and Phillips’ tackle teed up Roofe for a first-time shot which curled over Mignolet. The usually placid Monk moved to celebrate, only to watch the ball crack back off the inside of a post. With that near-miss on his mind and with the tie looking winnable, Monk rolled the dice for the last time and sent Wood on with 28 minutes left.
For a long time the traffic flowed one way towards Liverpool’s goal. Bartley glanced a corner from Taylor wide, holding his head in his hands as the ball smacked into the advertising boards, and an irrepressible Roofe forced Mignolet into a sprawling parry with a low strike. It took until the 72nd minute for Liverpool to wake up and curse their own misfortune when Wijnaldum bucked a strange reluctance among Klopp’s player to shoot by driving an effort across Silvestri and against the far post. Woodburn, Liverpool’s 17-year-old prospect who had come off the bench, sniffed for a tap-in but watched the rebound whizz past his feet.
The decisive goal, however, came four minutes later in one of the few moments where United’s concentration failed them. Trent Alexander-Arnold, who had started to make inroads into Monk’s defence, whipped a cross to the near post where Ayling and Silvestri left the ball to each other and Origi dived into force it home. As Leeds began to run out of energy, Origi and Wijnaldum combined to set up Woodburn for a ruthless finish which usurped Michael Owen as Liverpool’s youngest ever goalscorer in the process. Even Milner, waiting to appear as a substitute, could not resist a clench of his fist on the sidelines. Leeds deserved better and Monk deserved better but he and Klopp shared a warm handshake at full-time. United’s head coach asked his players to “do ourselves justice” on Monday. The only injustice last night was the scoreline.