Liverpool rested the big boys and thus wound up in nil-nil draw with Plymouth Argyle in the third round of the FA Cup. A replay now heads back to Argyle’s house.
The Guardians Andy Hunter wrote: “Home Park will constitute a “welcome to the real world” for Jürgen Klopp and Liverpool, according to the Plymouth Argyle manager, Derek Adams. For the League Two club and their 8,600 followers from Devon, Anfield was fantasy. This was no bona fide upset or compelling cup tie but the exuberant celebrations that commenced in the away end shortly before the final whistle told otherwise. Plymouth had their day, and they still have a chance.
Klopp had no regrets over ringing the changes for the FA Cup third round but even with a full complement – and Liverpool ended the tie with a forward line of Divock Origi, Roberto Firmino, Daniel Sturridge and Adam Lallana – it would have been difficult to pick a hole in a 10-man Plymouth rearguard that produced what Adams claimed was “probably one of the best defensive performances Anfield has seen”. The rueful smile on the Liverpool manager’s face as he shook Adams’s hand at full-time said it all. Liverpool dominated the ball but could find no way through.
Only Manchester United had kept a clean sheet at Anfield this season prior to Plymouth’s visit and now a team with designs on the Premier League title and the EFL Cup final must travel to the south coast for a replay on 17 or 18 January. It was one of those days for Klopp, one of those dour stalemates that can arise between clubs of contrasting resources.
Moments before kick-off the entire Plymouth team walked towards the Anfield Road end to applaud the away fans who had made the early-morning, 300-mile journey north. They never ventured much further for the next 45 minutes as Liverpool dominated totally against opponents who may be riding high in League Two but whose over-riding ambition was a goalless draw. It made for a hugely satisfying result for the stubborn visitors and their vociferous support but also a grim spectacle.
Klopp made 10 changes to the Liverpool team that drew at Sunderland last Monday and in the process fielded the youngest starting XI in the club’s history, with a forward line comprising Ben Woodburn, Ovie Ejaria and Sheyi Ojo bringing the average age to 21 years and 296 days. All three impressed – particularly the 17-year-old Woodburn with his awareness, movement and touch – and all saw plenty of the ball in a first half that resembled a training ground exercise of attack versus defence.
Liverpool’s problem was that it was a defence containing 10 green shirts, each prepared to throw itself in the way of every cross, shot and attempted through ball. Sonny Bradley typified their commitment with a commanding display in central defence but took the spoiling tactics too far with a series of pinches on the ear, armpit and side of Emre Can. The Germany international had every right to bring his complaints to the match officials.
The rearguard action succeeded to the extent the goalkeeper Luke McCormick had more touches than any other Plymouth player in the first half but also no serious save to make. Ojo should have worked him more, or indeed scored, with a free header from close range after Can’s blocked free-kick was sent back into the penalty area, but the winger’s effort was tame and straight into McCormick’s grasp. Origi did beat the keeper with a low finish from six yards but only after being penalised for a pull on Gary Miller.
Plymouth’s defensive ploy may not have been entirely by design, as a slightly more adventurous second-half display suggested. Liverpool were simply so much quicker both to and on the ball than Adams’s players, ensuring the visitors’ midfield were easily caught in possession or closed down on the few occasions they did venture forward. The men in green showed greater urgency and ambition in the second half but their cause was not helped by the loss of striker Paul-Arnold Garita and right-back Miller, the latter to what appeared serious injury, in rapid succession. Miller was given oxygen as he was carried off with a suspected broken ankle and to a sporting ovation from the Anfield crowd.
Yet they continued to dig in and resist. The finest compliment to Plymouth’s performance was the introduction of Sturridge, Firmino and Lallana from the substitutes’ bench as Klopp sought to avoid an unwanted replay. The crosses rained in from right and left, Sturridge twice went close with low, rasping shots and McCormick gratefully pounced on the ball when Trent Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick deflected off Connor Smith during six minutes of stoppage time.
Plymouth had their moments to relieve the pressure too but Jake Jervis shot well wide of Loris Karius’s goal with substitute Craig Tanner well-placed inside and a free-kick from an inviting position was wasted. Not that the massed ranks from Devon had any cause for complaint when the final whistle sounded. Job done. All to play for at Home Park.