Jurgen Klopp fielded a completely changed starting XI from the last match, against Stoke City in the League Cup semi-final three days earlier, and opted to hand debuts to five players in the match—Tiago Ilori, Ryan Kent and Kevin Stewart from the start, and Sheyi Ojo and Joe Maguire as substitutes.
With 13 first-team players sidelined through injury, and home games against Arsenal and Manchester United next week, Klopp felt he simply had to put out a makeshift side and protect the players he does have currently fit and available—providing them with a six-day recovery period between the Stoke and Arsenal games.
Liverpool's side, with an average age of 22, had just 34 appearances between them this season—21 being for Christian Benteke, who captained the side.
"If you want to criticise anyone, criticise me and leave the players alone," said Klopp post-match, per Press Association (via This Is Anfield).
"If they made mistakes it’s my responsibility, they helped us at this moment."
The Reds youngsters helped Klopp by putting in an admirable performance—and ensuring they weren't the victims of a giant killing. They could easily have been bullied and outfought by the experienced lower-league opposition, but unlike Liverpool's first team in recent months, the kids showed character and resilience to force a replay.
Indeed, the only disappointments on the night were the three senior players on show for Liverpool—Benteke, goalkeeper Adam Bogdan and makeshift centre-back Jose Enrique.
Bogdan, who was once beaten by Tim Howard from 100 yards, followed up his calamity at Watford by conceding direct from Lee Holmes' corner. It's embarrassing that Liverpool have such a poor No. 2, having signed Bogdan in the summer to replace another who failed to inspire when called upon, Brad Jones.
Major upgrades are required in the goalkeeper department at Anfield this summer, no matter what Klopp says publicly.
Having recalled four players from loan for this game—Stewart, Ilori, Ojo and Kent—how Klopp must wish he could have goalkeeper Danny Ward, who is currently impressing north of the border at Aberdeen, back on Merseyside.
Another loaned-out player who could have benefited the Reds in this tie would have been Andre Wisdom. While the 22-year-old has hardly shone on loan spells at West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, the England Under-21 international would certainly have been a better option than Enrique in defence.
This was Enrique's first senior appearance in almost 12 months, having been subbed at half-time in his last two outings for the first team. Admittedly in an unfamiliar position, the Spaniard's positioning left a lot to be desired and he seemed to forget this was actually a competitive match. Too much Under-21 football for the 29-year-old seems to have added to his decline. It's unlikely we'll see him in a red shirt again.
Benteke's performance was more of a varied one; the Belgian did at least attempt to get things going in the final third, but it wasn't easy surrounded by so many youngsters, many of whom he would barely recognise. He should, though, have scored with his headed chance early in the second half, and perhaps a £32.5 million striker should look a little better against League Two opposition.
"If Klopp played him simply to deliver a kick up the backside, the reaction from the Belgian frontman was muted," commented James Pearce of the Liverpool Echo in his match verdict. "He hardly led by example."
It's difficult to assess many of the players in this game due to the awful pitch, but the conditions seemingly meant that, actually, this youthful Liverpool side was more suited to the game than, say, if the strongest Reds XI had been fielded.
So often we see star-studded teams struggle against lower-league opposition, one such example being Cambridge United holding a full-strength Manchester United—a team featuring Angel Di Maria, Radamel Falcao, David De Gea and Michael Carrick—to a 0-0 draw in last season's fourth round.
Instead, Liverpool's youngsters were up for the challenge and, ironically, more experienced at this level. Stewart, Kent, Ojo, Joao Teixeira, Maguire and Brad Smith have all had loans in the Football League, meaning they wouldn't have been so surprised or perturbed by small dressing rooms and League Two-level facilities—including the half-grass pitch.
Australian Smith, scorer of the second goal, was arguably the one to impress the most, but that makes sense with Smith being a full international for his country and having played a handful of games for the first team in recent months. He took his opportunity again to impress.
Credit should go to Stewart, who is naturally a full-back but has played in midfield for the club's under-21s and while out on loan last season. This was his first appearance since September, when he picked up an injury while on loan at Swindon Town. No wonder he struggled in the latter stages, but he and Cameron Brannagan worked well as a duo in the middle—nothing spectacular but nothing bad either. Just solid.
Ojo also impressed, coming on as a sub to assist the second equaliser. The pacy winger had an up-and-down time on loan at Wolves but was used best for the Championship club as an impact sub. He could end up having a useful role as one for Liverpool's first team now.
Another fixture is the last thing Klopp would have wanted for his severely depleted squad this month, but the replay will offer these same youngsters another opportunity on the big stage.
Unlike with similar occasions in the past, this set of youngsters didn't let anybody down and came away with plenty to take heart from. This wasn't a giant-killing defeat, and the experience they will have got from playing in front a packed, noisy stadium in front of millions watching around the world on TV is invaluable for their development.
Perhaps the replay suits all the players involved—Exeter get the chance to play in front of a packed Anfield, as do Liverpool's youngsters.
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