Jurgen Klopp made his players a promise. And his intention not to break it will send a strong message.
Even if that means throwing away Liverpool’s chances in one of the most storied competitions in soccer. Even if that means giving up on a treble, something the Reds have never accomplished. Because the Liverpool manager promised his first-team players a break, and so they shall have a break.
On Sunday, Liverpool squandered a two-goal lead on third-tier Shrewsbury Town in the fourth round of the FA Cup, settling for a 2-2 tie – a remarkable upset against a team leading the Premier League by 16 points. The consequence is a replay on Feb. 4. And there’s the rub.
After much lobbying from managers and clubs, the Premier League finally scheduled a winter break this season, for roughly the first half of February. This was a welcome development for teams playing straight through the holidays and winter, leaving them running on fumes in the early spring, often suffering in European competition as a consequence.
But this fourth round replay steps on that break. It would potentially turn Liverpool’s 14-day break, between league games on Feb. 1 and 15, into an 11-day break. And Klopp wouldn’t abide that.
The German, who can seemingly do no wrong after winning last year’s Champions League, stated flatly that he would be sending his under-23 team and wouldn’t even manage the game himself, delegating it to the youth team’s manager, Neil Critchley.
“I said to the boys already two weeks ago that we will have a winter break, which means we will not be there,” Klopp said of the fourth-round replay, per the BBC. “You cannot deal with us like nobody cares about it. I know that it's not very popular but that's the way I see it.”
Klopp added that Liverpool had conformed to the Premier League’s request not to schedule any exhibition games during the break, preserving the time off for the players. But that if the Football Association, which oversees the FA Cup, ran roughshod over that, it wasn’t his club’s fault. The FA, for its part, says it warned teams of the possibility of a replay during the break.
“We have to respect the players’ welfare,” Klopp said. “They need a rest. They need a mental rest, a physical rest, and that’s what the winter break is all about. We had to make these decisions beforehand because these boys have families.”
Newcastle United manager Steve Bruce and Southampton’s Ralph Hasenhuttl have spoken out against the interruption of their own breaks as well.
In truth, Liverpool’s approach will not be so different from how it went into the third round, when its reserves beat arch rivals Everton 1-0. Or when the under-23 team was sent out to play Aston Villa in the quarterfinal of the League Cup, while the first team was away at the Club World Cup in Qatar. Critchley oversaw that game too, a 5-0 loss. As a matter of fact, until the late going, Liverpool’s lineup against Shewsbury was heavily diluted as well.
Yet this time around, Klopp is being criticized for throwing in the towel on the storied FA Cup. When all that’s really different is that he’s saying it out loud now – and perhaps not bothering to show up himself, which is the bit that really rankles.
Klopp’s move is a powerful one. Whether wittingly or as a byproduct, out of loyalty and concern to his players and their wellbeing, Klopp’s decision amounts to a stand against the ever-worsening fixture congestion, of which he is a vocal critic.
The sport suffers from a perpetual schedule creep, further cluttering the congested calendar with new tournaments and expansions to the existing ones. The Champions League wants to grow again, lengthening the path to the final by as many as four games, somehow. The Club World Cup is slated to triple in size next year. UEFA is bringing back a third-tier European competition. And that’s to say nothing of the international calendar.
By big-timing the FA Cup, which still holds a cherished place in English football lore, living a level above the laughable and unloved League Cup, Klopp is sending a message that something has to give and that the European champions have other priorities. The subtext, of course, is that they’ve had to prioritize in order to keep their league and European campaigns on track.
Certainly, the gargantuan league lead allows for squad rotation, and this game could probably be fit into the fitness and workload plans over the long run, but Klopp seems to have drawn a line in the sand. The strongest team in Europe will show up, but in name only, thereby diminishing a hallowed institution.
And in the end, the administrators of the sport, who can muster no revenue-generating ideas but to put on more games, will listen only when their top competitions begin to decay from neglect by the big teams. Liverpool has the leverage here. Klopp is using it.
Whether he’s doing it on principle, delivering a warning to the FA that it’s overreaching, or simply making a practical decision protecting his weary squad, Klopp is in the right here. The only way to combat the excess of games is to stop playing them.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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