Liverpool and Chelsea produced a quite brilliant League Cup final before Kepa Arrizabalaga stepped in and notched up the entertainment factor.
1) Whoever chooses to pore over the refereeing decisions in forensic detail and debate the complexities of VAR for more than a cursory moment after watching those 120 minutes plus penalties is obviously welcome to. Naby Keita could have been sent off; it was peculiar but crucially not unprecedented to rule out Joel Matip’s goal; the justification for disallowing Romelu Lukaku’s became less clear with each replay; offsides should be flagged sooner. Yet if any of that is the focus of analysis for longer than a fleeting second, if time is wasted discussing shirt sleeves and misinterpreting the game’s laws instead of revelling in the entertainment and gorging on the quality, there must be an acceptance that we are part of the problem. Don’t fall into the usual trap. This final was naturally brilliant enough not to have to manufacture any reaction other than giddy enjoyment at the sport being played at its highest possible level and loftiest emotional plane.
2) It turns out that Carabao does six flavours: the mysterious Original, the dubious sugar free Original, Green Apple, Mixed Berry, Orange Blast and Narrative. Kepa Arrizabalaga refused to be substituted for a penalty shootout in this competition’s final three years ago. He was more than willing to close the loop by making a triumphant entrance in the 119th minute at Wembley against Liverpool. On both occasions he wanted his chance to become the hero; in both instances he lived long enough to become, if not the villain, then the subject of ridicule.
Kepa saved one of Manchester City’s penalties in the 2019 final. That is often forgotten. The Spaniard kept out Leroy Sane to bring Chelsea level, only for David Luiz to immediately squander that psychological advantage. He made no such positive impact in 2022, only really getting close to Ibrahima Konate’s spot kick before squaring his own into the exosphere. After 21 perfect penalties, Kepa was the first to err, transforming his story from sympathy at being harshly overlooked to a sort of Willy Caballero-centric schadenfreude.
The situation in 2019 was a key factor in Kepa’s eventual demotion from Chelsea starter to back-up. Many speculated that it could be the end of his Stamford Bridge career but he carved out a compelling niche as useful understudy. This feels entirely more critical to his long-term hopes at the club. There is no coming back from this one.
3) Thomas Tuchel will be similarly chastised for his decision to remove the sensational Edouard Mendy and introduce Kepa for the impending 12-yard drama. The only certainty from that point was outcome bias: it would be either a masterful or disastrous decision, dependent entirely on whether Chelsea won or lost. There would be no room for nuance or middle ground.
Kepa is better at saving penalties than Mendy. That is provable not only through anecdotal evidence but the numbers themselves. Chelsea had won their last three shootouts, each with Kepa in goal. The previous two occurred in this year’s League Cup en route to the final; the other was in last August’s Super Cup, when he replaced Mendy after 119 minutes. Tuchel would have been stupid to ignore those signs on the basis of vibes.
4) But football is stupid. Football is vibes. Mendy had played so phenomenally well until that point that keeping him on and feeding that sense of invincibility must have been a serious consideration.
Tuchel’s initial call to pick Mendy from the start was spectacularly justified. The vindicating moment was not as instantaneous as Jurgen Klopp’s in a similar position as Liverpool took until the half-hour mark to manage their first shot on target. It was followed immediately by a second. Mendy pawed Keita’s long-range effort into the path of the lurking Sadio Mane, with the Chelsea keeper conjuring a follow-up save that 2005 Jerzy Dudek would consider farfetched.
That's the most accurate depiction of *that* goalkeeping drill I've ever seen in an actual game.
— Football365 (@F365) February 27, 2022
Mendy was not content with that. He rushed out quickly to foil Mane early in the second half, atoned for his own poor kick by saving from Luis Diaz, dragged Chelsea through and kept out Virgil van Dijk as extra-time beckoned, inspiring a determined team defensive performance.
The plan to bring on Kepa was clearly premeditated but it would have been made without that sort of display in mind. Mendy looked and surely felt unbeatable; facing him from 12 yards after failing to beat him from any distance might have unsettled at least one Liverpool player, which is all Chelsea ended up needing. Tuchel might look back and think he should have lived in the moment.
5) That furore will overshadow the winners, much as it did when Manchester City kept their own quadruple hopes alive in late February 2019. The Champions League hurdle was their solitary failure then; talk will inevitably turn to whether Liverpool can go one better now.
They remain second favourites for the Premier League and one of the leaders in busy fields for the Champions League and FA Cup. Not until March and April are safely navigated should a four-trophy haul even be seriously spoken of at Anfield. But there is an undeniable sense of a team gathering momentum and harnessing that thirst for victory that was lost last year. A first domestic cup in England for Klopp edges his collection to near-completion, which ain’t half bad when you consider his first press conference as manager including a “pretty sure” promise to win one trophy in four years. Five in seven is decent. Most importantly, he doesn’t look even close to finishing.
6) For all their philosophical, educational and national similarities as counter-pressing German coaches from the schools of Ralf and Mainz, Klopp and Tuchel bore one key difference in their starting line-ups. The latter allowed his goalkeeping situation to fester to the extent that Kepa reportedly felt ‘owed’ a start in place of Mendy, if stories from earlier this week were to be believed. The former favoured complete clarity over his choice, stating in no uncertain terms soon after the semi-final victory over Arsenal that Caiomhin Kelleher would start at Wembley. The Irishman was the hero in a quarter-final penalty shootout against Leicester, played against Chelsea in the Premier League last month and had only lost two games for Liverpool before: at home to Brighton last February and in that League Cup mauling by Aston Villa in December 2019. He had earned his chance in this meritocracy.
These selection decisions are always judged in hindsight, particularly in the case of rotating goalkeepers for cup competitions. If they play well, it is genius man and squad management. But any mistake immediately renders it an unnecessary risk with silverware at stake.
Fortunately for Kelleher and Klopp, those nerves were settled quickly. He produced a fine one-handed save from Christian Pulisic after six minutes, aided by supreme positioning. Many of Chelsea’s other chances rendered the Irishman effectively moot, a background prop in Chelsea’s profligate play, but his anticipation forced Kai Havertz into shooting wide from a delayed offside, while Pulisic was kept out again in the first half. Mason Mount, minutes after a quickly-taken effort left Kelleher rooted but hit the post, was then thwarted well in the second, before an excellent stoppage-time block from Romelu Lukaku’s deft flick. The clinching penalty was an added bonus as Klopp trusted heart over head and was rewarded with a glorious game from the 23-year-old.
7) Klopp certainly walks the walk in that regard, giving players a chance to repay his ultimate faith on the grandest stages. Luis Diaz’s fourth start since signing was a cup final in which he thrilled and thrived. Harvey Elliott went from matchday squad exclusion to dispatching one of the better penalties. James Milner had a shot within two minutes of coming on – and scored the first spot kick – because he understood the assignment of a wonderful match.
Milner improved on his proud record of being the only player to feature in every Liverpool final under Klopp. Jordan Henderson missed the 2016 Europa League final and Divock Origi never came on against Real Madrid in the 2018 Champions League. All three were on the pitch in the League Cup final defeat on penalties to Manchester City in 2016. Few would have said then that they would be cogs in a trophy-winning machine six years later. But Klopp knows how to recognise loyalty when it matters most.
I'm no Klopp but at this point i'd have put Origi on and let nature take its course
— James Yorke (@jair1970) February 27, 2022
8) The loss of Thiago, injured in the build-up, frames Liverpool’s subsequent performance even more favourably. Those intricate pre-match preparations were always liable to falter when built upon the Spaniard’s frail brilliance. Keita was called in on short notice but left his mark on little more than Trevoh Chalobah’s thigh: the Guinean had one shot, created no chances, completed no dribbles and made no tackles after coming in cold and proving to be the ultimate bystander.
Thiago’s absence meant that mouth-watering midfield meeting with Mateo Kovacic was snatched away. It would have been a technical masterpiece, although the Croatian maximised the opportunity to impress alone. He was involved in the early Pulisic chance, snapped into every second ball with unerring effectiveness and was the architect of three fine moves: one with an inch-perfect slide-rule ball; another with a great tackle on Mane and instant pass upfield; and finally clipping over the Liverpool defence for one of those 427 offside goals.
His passing is phenomenal and the defensive work is underrated, but perhaps most impressive of Kovacic’s many attributes is his press resistance. As Liverpool started to assert themselves more after a shaky start to the first half, the Chelsea midfielder found himself in the centre circle with two forwards bearing down on him. Kovacic slipped yet still retained possession, forcing it back to Marcos Alonso on the ground. No player was fouled more often; Liverpool knew full well who makes Chelsea tick.
9) The most striking thing about Luis Diaz is how seamlessly he has slotted in at Liverpool. So many of these crucial first-team players experienced a bedding-in period under Klopp: Fabinho and Andy Robertson barely featured at first, while Keita and Takumi Minamino are among those yet to have that moment of enlightenment. Luis Diaz, however, feels like a perfect fit before he has even completed his first month on Merseyside.
His understanding with the other components of the front three is already strong, but so too is that grasp of how Liverpool’s defenders tend to work. Van Dijk and Alexander-Arnold both have excellent passing ranges that rely on the wide forwards being able to bring 50-yard balls out of the air to instantly face up against a defender. Twice in the first half, Luis Diaz dragged such passes from Van Dijk out of the sky, first with his toe in a move that resulted in a free-kick from a promising position, and second with his chest as part of the attack that produced Mendy’s double save. Luis Diaz was more than a match for the occasion, as well as this team.
10) A consequence of that was a difficult afternoon in parts for Chalobah, who struggled to contain Luis Diaz before Mane switched to the left to try his hand. The Chelsea defender understandably exuded nerves and while he never comfortably established himself, did really well to recover and find his footing. Chalobah ended with three tackles and seven interceptions – both the most of any player – when he could have quite easily succumbed to the pressure that came with Liverpool specifically targeting his side. That penalty at 10-9 summed up Chalobah’s character because for his second Chelsea start since Boxing Day, that was an admirable display.
11) Havertz was Chelsea’s best outfield player, the fulcrum through which pretty much everything flowed in normal time. There is a greater fluidity when he starts as the centre-forward as the attackers can dovetail and defenders need to have the utmost concentration to figure out who or where to mark. Havertz’s movement must be a nightmare to deal with; Van Dijk and Matip would prefer to face Lukaku, even on one of the Belgian’s better days.
Havertz set up Pulisic to test Kelleher, laid on that monumental chance for Mount and linked up so well with both throughout. He dropped deep, drifted wide and played whichever role Chelsea required in the moment. The only riddle involved in using him in that position from the start is that he can lack a personal goal threat: Havertz officially had no shots, although two goals were ruled out for offside and another opportunity, when he stepped just beyond Van Dijk, was dinked wide of the post when put through.
He improves Chelsea’s overall attack while not quite being potent enough to guarantee his own spot. It’s quite the conundrum for Tuchel, albeit the German should be generally pleased with Havertz’s output in the final.
12) Lukaku had 18 touches in 47 substitutes minutes. Good lad. He actually did look really sharp – even if being ruled offside for his goal because he was pointing to where he wanted Chalobah to pass is proof of some sort of cosmic curse.
13) Mount will perhaps be most grateful for Kepa’s headline-grabbery, such was the costliness of his profligacy. The timing of his runs were impeccable but he seemed to delay the volleyed finish in the first half a fraction too long, then took his next chance in the second quickly when he had more time to get the ball out from under his feet. Those were the instances that cost Chelsea, as well as Pulisic’s early miss in the first half and inability to get to Havertz’s drill across goal just after half-time. The Blues would ordinarily expect to convert at least one of those chances. It encapsulates their issues that Mount has no goals since December 16 yet is their leading Premier League scorer. He is a useful and potentially excellent player but even on Sunday his work off the ball was lacklustre.
14) That wastefulness from Mount and Pulisic was held by some as a key difference between Chelsea and Liverpool: had those chances fallen to Salah or Mane, the stalemate would have been broken. Yet the former missed when put through, his dinked effort spinning wide of the line before Thiago Silva cleared, while the latter was repelled by compatriot Mendy. Mane’s headed miss from Alexander-Arnold’s inswinging cross from deep was pretty egregious, too. Even with the right-back at his creative-but-defensively-suspect apex, Liverpool found no breakthrough
That did briefly change in the 67th minute when Matip finished a free-kick routine from a couple of yards, only for Van Dijk to be penalised for blocking Reece James from an offside position. It was notable just how high-quality and well-worked the opportunities for both sides were, with that goalmouth scramble in the first minute of second-half stoppage-time the only exception. Liverpool and Chelsea both restricted each other to massive chances and precious few snapshots. Ten points separate them in the Premier League but they are closer than many might think.
15) The standard of those penalties was preposterous but the sight of Fabinho’s Panenka did lead to some regret that Luis Diaz had been substituted; a no-look penalty in a major tournament final shootout would have been quite something.
16) There will be rumination about the renewed vigour and worth of the League Cup, whose previous managerial runner-up prior to Sunday was Ryan Mason. It has a curious existence – never higher than fourth priority for the elite until the semi-finals at best, yet still out of reach to the rest – but it absolutely does have a place. The idea of scrapping it will never fade, much as the talk about the FA Cup’s magic will linger long after humanity has been destroyed. English football needs the League Cup, though.
It simultaneously matters and absolutely does not. The winners can celebrate it as a major honour and tangible proof of success. The losers can deride it as a meaningless Mickey Mouse Cup. It suits everyone, allowing for goalkeepers to be substituted for tactical reasons in a way no other tournament would – save for Louis van Gaal dicking around in a World Cup – while affording both a marker and a springboard for the champion.
It had been 612 days since Liverpool last won a trophy; Chelsea’s wait was just over a fortnight. In whatever form the silverware comes, it is a difficult craving to kick but even tougher to satisfy. The Reds have 22 games left to feed that beast – and as unfeasible as it sounds, their form over their last 22 games is 17 wins, four draws and one defeat. This trophy undoubtedly increases Klopp’s legacy at Anfield and while adding three more this season remains incredibly unlikely, it could be the precursor to even more glory.