The Liverpool team that finished the EFL Cup final against Chelsea was filled with players you might mistake for Football Manager regens, but their boldness and the leadership of Virgil van Dijk won the trophy for Jürgen Klopp’s men/boys.

“There are longer careers than mine but in more than 20 years, [it’s] easily the most special trophy I ever won. It’s absolutely exceptional.”

Jürgen Klopp

Jürgen Klopp’s familiar toothy expression was beaming with pride after his Liverpool team beat Chelsea 1-0 in the 2024 EFL Cup final, despite having to rely on his younger players perhaps more than he’d originally have hoped.

Sunday’s clash at Wembley had a strange feeling about it. Liverpool comfortably beat Chelsea 4-1 at Anfield just a few weeks ago and are top of the Premier League, while Mauricio Pochettino’s side are 11th in the table, but this still felt like anyone’s game.

Chelsea have been without several players with injuries during the season, which has not helped the settling in period for Pochettino or his young but expensively assembled squad.

It was Liverpool who were riddled with injury problems going into the game, though, turning to their own youngsters as it wore on, more out of necessity than anything else.

Klopp was without 11 senior players before the match, and lost Ryan Gravenberch to an ankle injury during the first half. By the end of normal time the 11 on the pitch for Liverpool included three academy players with just 220 minutes of senior football between them.

Both teams had chances to win it in the first 90 minutes but the woodwork, marginal offsides, excellent goalkeeping and wasteful finishing denied them.

Then Virgil van Dijk rose highest to nod in a Kostas Tsimikas corner with just two minutes of extra-time remaining. It gave Liverpool their record-extending 10th League Cup, handed Chelsea their sixth consecutive defeat in a domestic cup final – also an English record – and guaranteed Klopp at least one trophy in his final season in England.

But where exactly was the game won and lost? We take a look at the key battles.

Act Your Age

The story was just so easy to find. Liverpool’s team during the game featured seven players who played for the academy. It was men vs boys, and the boys won, right?

Well, not quite. It was more men and boys vs other men and boys, and the boys who didn’t cost a lot of money won.

Chelsea’s starting XI (23 years, 314 days) was almost two years younger than Liverpool’s (25y 300d) on average. Raheem Sterling (29) and Ben Chilwell (27) were the only two players older than 25, while they started with five players aged 22 or under.

Chelsea team v Liverpool EFL Cup final

Those players were Levi Colwill (21), Malo Gusto (20), Moisés Caicedo (22), Cole Palmer (21) and Nicolas Jackson (22), though. All very much established first teamers who cost the club more than £200 million combined. They aren’t responsible for their price tags but it’s not hard to see why you can’t in good faith compare them to Liverpool’s youngsters.

Klopp started with three players aged 21 or younger, but also with three players aged 29 or older. On the face of it, Liverpool’s XI seemed more balanced than Chelsea’s even if it was missing six or seven players who may otherwise have been likely to start. Pochettino would argue he was also without eight senior players, but realistically only Thiago Silva, Reece James and possibly Wesley Fofana would have started ahead of those who did.

Liverpool team v Chelsea EFL Cup final

Without Alisson, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Dominik Szoboszlai, Curtis Jones, Mohamed Salah, Diogo Jota and Darwin Núñez among others, Liverpool were left with little choice but to select the team they went with. Their substitutes bench consisted of Adrián, Joe Gomez, Tsimikas and the cast of Grange Hill.

Harvey Elliott started in attack just a few days after making his 100th appearance for Liverpool. It’s easy to forget he’s only 20 years old, and he shone again on the big stage for the club he’s supported since his relatively recent childhood. Apart from the 21-year-old Gravenberch, Elliott was the only one of Liverpool’s youngsters who arrived with much top-level experience, though.

Conor Bradley started at right-back and the 20-year-old is already beginning to feel like a first-team regular, despite playing fewer than 1,000 minutes for Liverpool in all competitions prior to Sunday’s game and being on loan at League One Bolton Wanderers this time last season. Less than a year after lifting the Papa John’s Trophy at Wembley, the Northern Irishman was back to try and claim the EFL Cup.

Although Liverpool were down to the bare bones of their squad, it wasn’t until the latter stages of normal time that their team started to get less and less experienced. Hardly ideal in a tense final that remained 0-0 at the time.

Bobby Clark only turned 19 earlier this month but replaced Bradley in the 72nd minute, while another 19-year-old in James McConnell as well as the recently-turned 18-year-old Jayden Danns were brought on for World Cup winner Alexis Mac Allister and Netherlands international Cody Gakpo in the 87th minute. And they didn’t disappoint.

Only Mac Allister and Wataru Endo (both six) made more tackles for Liverpool than Bradley (three); only Endo (12) and Andy Robertson (seven) won possession more often than Clark (six); only four players who attempted more than 20 passes had a better completion rate than McConnell (34 of 39 – 87.2%, including 20 of 25 – 80% – in the opposition half), while no Liverpool player had more than Danns’ two shots on target.

Bobby Clark possession won v Chelsea
James McConnell pass map v Chelsea

It was also McConnell and Clark who combined for the latter to take the shot that earned the game-winning corner kick.

This is merely the beginning for them, but winning a major trophy before you’ve even reached 200 senior minutes on the pitch isn’t a bad way to get started.

Jarell Quansah came on for the second half of extra time and once again didn’t put a foot wrong. The 21-year-old centre-back has now played more minutes for Liverpool’s first team this season (1,381) than he did during his loan spell at Bristol Rovers last season (1,373).

Chelsea also had youth prospects on the bench, but Pochettino chose to turn to the more experienced and established quartet of Mykhailo Mudryk, Christopher Nkunku, Trevoh Chalobah and Noni Madueke.

Youth more than played its part for Liverpool, but experience ultimately won the day…

A Tale of Two Captains

So often in football, and cup finals especially, strong leadership is key.

Virgil van Dijk certainly lived up to his role as Liverpool captain on Sunday, leading by example as he put in a man-of-the-match performance and scored the winning goal deep into extra-time.

Chelsea were without their skipper, with Reece James still sidelined by injury, so vice-captain Ben Chilwell had the armband, but the former Leicester City left-back had a less impressive day at Wembley than his opposite number.

Van Dijk thought he’d headed in the opener in normal time only for a VAR check to rule it out for offside against Endo. He was not to be denied in the closing stages of extra-time, though, showing determination to meet Tsimikas’ corner and glance his header past Djordje Petrovic.

As well as scoring the decisive goal, Van Dijk completed 92 of his 101 passes (91.1%), gained possession six times and lost possession just 10 times.

Van Dijk touch map v Chelsea

Chilwell completed just 29 of his 42 passes (69%), gained possession five times and lost possession 23 times.

He also seemed a bit too enthusiastic on occasion, getting particularly riled by Liverpool’s younger players. Chilwell got into a shoving match with Bradley in the first half before squaring up to Bobby Clark more than once in the latter stages of the game. Clark’s father, former Newcastle United and Fulham midfielder Lee Clark, would have been a different prospect altogether.

Chilwell Bradley fight
Ben Chilwell (L) and Conor Bradley (R) have a disagreement during the Carabao Cup final

Chilwell was taken off by Pochettino for Trevoh Chalobah with seven minutes to go in extra time with the score still at 0-0, leaving Van Dijk on the field to nod in the winner and complete a frustrating day for Chelsea and their vice-captain.

No Red Regrets

The image of Moisés Caicedo sat dejected on the pitch after the final whistle as Roméo Lavia came over to console him will have raised some smirks on Merseyside. Two players who chose Chelsea over Liverpool in the summer may not necessarily have been regretting their respective decisions, but it can’t have been easy for them seeing those red celebrations.

Lavia has barely been able to play this season due to injury, but Caicedo has. Inevitably, due to his reported £115m price, the Ecuadorian’s performances have been under the microscope.

Statistically speaking, Caicedo hasn’t done too badly, just perhaps not as well as a player of that price might be expected to.

He’s still only 22 years old and did not decide how much money Chelsea paid for him, but it was difficult not to recall that vast amount on Sunday as he came head-to-head with the man who Liverpool turned to for a fraction of the price after Caicedo’s snub; Wataru Endo.

Again, just looking at the stats, Caicedo had a decent game. He completed 64 of 68 passes (94.1%), including nine of 10 in the final third (90%), won possession 12 times and only lost it eight times, also making seven tackles.

By comparison, Endo completed 62 of 68 passes (91.2%), including 10 of 12 in the final third (83.3%), also won possession 12 times and lost it nine times, making six tackles. He also made a brilliant goal-saving block from Nicolas Jackson in the first half.

The Japan international – who, like Gravenberch, also left Wembley on crutches to seemingly add to Liverpool’s injury woes – recorded the joint-third most attacking sequence involvements in the game, and three more than the former Brighton midfielder (8-5).

Liverpool ASI v Chelsea

Ultimately, it was Endo who celebrated with the trophy while the man who cost almost £100m more than him sat on the turf wondering what might have been.

Endo has nine years on Caicedo, so it’s fair to say the Chelsea midfielder has plenty of time to prove any doubters wrong and emerge as one of the game’s premier players, but it should be a chastener for those who immediately declare transfer windows won by the team that spends the most on players they’ve heard of.

Kelleher’s Heroics (Again)

Caoimhín Kelleher is no longer a youngster. At 25 years old, while he may still be young in goalkeeper years, he’s older than teammates Ibrahima Konaté, Cody Gakpo and Alexis Mac Allister.

However, he remains relatively inexperienced at senior level, mostly due to being back-up for one of the best goalkeepers in the world for so many years. Before the final, Kelleher had made just 36 senior appearances for Liverpool in all competitions.

The biggest compliment you can pay the Republic of Ireland international, though, is that Liverpool did not miss Alisson one bit on Sunday.

The hero of the 2022 shootout victory against the same opponents in the same final (because he scored one; Kelleher didn’t actually save any of Chelsea’s 11 penalties that day) was at it again. He made nine saves in total, including a remarkable one from Cole Palmer in the first half and another from Conor Gallagher late in the second.

According to our expected goals on target model (xGOT), Kelleher should have conceded three goals during the final. His xGOT conceded was 2.95, which makes his clean sheet and Liverpool’s win all the more impressive. In all competitions across Europe’s top five leagues this season, only Fulham’s Bernd Leno has kept a clean sheet while facing a higher xGOT conceded (3.31 vs Everton in August 2023), though that was in 90 minutes.

Kelleher xGOT map v Chelsea

Kelleher’s opposite number, Djordje Petrovic, also had a fine game, making 10 saves with a total xGOT conceded of 2.68. The only other time the Serbian goalkeeper has made more than five saves in a game this season was also against Liverpool, making nine in the 4-1 league defeat at Anfield last month.

Liverpool host Southampton in the FA Cup on Wednesday with an injury list of up to 13 senior players. It feels more and more likely that the cliched quip of fans turning up with their boots getting a game could be less of a joke.

Klopp said on Sunday: “I have no idea who can play on Wednesday but for tonight, it is a night I will never forget.”

The senior players may be dropping like flies, but the kids are alright.

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