Gary Neville was wrong - why story of Liverpool vs Chelsea wasn’t ‘Klopp’s Kids vs. Billionaire Bottle-Jobs’

The narratives surrounding Liverpool's EFL Cup final win over Chelsea are misleading, and do a disservice to the game's story.
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It’s a line that may be remembered for as long as the match itself – “Klopp’s kids versus the blue billionaire bottle-jobs”, Gary Neville’s on-air summation of Liverpool’s triumph over Chelsea in the EFL Cup final. A broadcaster-friendly soundbite which neatly encapsulated the battle between the youthful victors’ mental fortitude and the vastly wealth of the defeated side. The only problem is that it’s a largely inaccurate reflection of the game in almost every way.

It isn’t unfair to say that it sums up the closing minutes, as long as you squint a little and don’t pay too much attention to the fine details. As extra time wore on, Chelsea’s highly expensive squad (over a billion pounds worth of talent in total, so Neville wasn’t barking entirely up the wrong tree) had rings run around them by several teenage Liverpool players that few outside of the Kop had even heard of before Sunday. James McConnell and Jayden Danns, in particular, seemed to be everywhere.

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Given that Chelsea had been all over Liverpool for a good 30 minutes before those two came on and really should have buried the game in the second half, it is admittedly tempting to see Chelsea’s rather limp extra-time performance as a defeat in the face of youthful vigour and, from Liverpool’s standpoint, a win for ‘one-of-our-own’ academy products over the poor man’s galácticos.

There are a few issues with all of that, of course. First of all, Chelsea had the younger team, even after McConnell and Danns came on. The eleven players that finished the match in blue had an average age of 23.9, one-and-a-half years less than Liverpool’s team at that point. The gap at the start of the game was even larger.

You can certainly accuse Chelsea of spending too much, or spending it unwisely, but they cannot be accused of not basing their recruitment around youth, or of failing to make use of their own academy – when the final whistle went and Liverpool’s rapturous celebrations began, they only had one more academy product on the pitch than Chelsea did, and had they had a fully fit squad the Blues would likely have had more. Chelsea have invested more on young players than any club in history at this point, not that that’s necessarily been a good thing given the results they’ve endured since the current owners took over.

The “Klopp’s kids” comment also overlooks the fact that, while the energy of Liverpool’s most youthful players was undoubtedly a substantive factor in the closing stages, the biggest contributions were made by rather more experienced players – in particular, Virgil van Dijk, who at 32 years old scored the winning goal, had another disallowed, and put in an absolutely colossal performance alongside Ibrahima Konaté at centre-half.

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As Liverpool’s midfield lost all control of the game in the second half of normal time and Chelsea sent wave after wave of attacks in the direction of the Liverpool box, Van Dijk and Konaté stood tall time and again. Keeping count of the crucial and often last-ditch interventions they made was more or less impossible. They were quite brilliant, as was 25-year-old goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher, who made a string of superb saves on the occasions when the players in front of him couldn’t keep Chelsea at bay. Liverpool fans can count themselves lucky that Kelleher continues to be content to play second fiddle to Alisson, because he once more looked every inch like a goalkeeper that would be first choice for almost every other club in the Premier League, including Chelsea.

It was Van Dijk who really won it, though, more so than any other player on the field. Earlier in the season, following a rough run of form which culminated in the first red card of his Liverpool career after a bad misjudgement against Newcastle United, I wrote an opinion piece which wondered if we were seeing the start of the decline of one of the greatest defenders in English top-flight history. The answer has been emphatic. For the first couple of months of the season, he seemed to have lost a step – he has since found it again, and then some. The “Klopp’s kids” line has the unintended consequence of minimising his stellar contribution to yet another trophy win.

And yes, both Chelsea’s owners and their squad can be described as billionaires. It wasn’t just Neville seizing on that narrative – rather bizarrely, Scottish Nationalist Party MP and apparent Liverpool fan David Linden tweeted out a picture of his view from the Wembley stands captioned “Dockers 1-0 Hedge Funders.” The only slight issue with that is that Liverpool are, like Chelsea, owned by a billionaire American investment manager. The idea that this was a win for the underdog bears no scrutiny whatsoever, and the notion that any elite club in Europe can be linked quite so directly to the economic history of the region they represent grows more tenuous by the year.

Liverpool’s squad cost £570m to assemble, according to Transfermarkt – less than Chelsea’s by a fair distance, granted, but still the fifth most expensive side in the Premier League. Van Dijk, the key difference-maker alongside Kelleher, cost £75m, making him the third-most expensive defender in the history of the sport and the most expensive at the time of his signing in 2018.

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So Klopp’s team weren’t really the kids, and kicking up a fuss over how much more money Chelsea have spent resembles nothing so much as that well-worn meme of three identical Spidermen (Spidermans?) pointing fingers at each other. Which leaves us with the question of whether Chelsea can be said to have bottled it.

Neville is, undeniably, on firmer ground here. As extra-time wore on, it was Chelsea who lost the will to fight and looked to settle for penalties, and Liverpool who hassled, harried and pushed for a knock-out blow. Liverpool played that final 30 minutes with far more vigour and determination than their counterparts in blue.

It never should have come down to extra time, of course. Chelsea had every opportunity to win the game, but their cool deserted them in the crunch moments. Too many chances fell to players who aren’t natural finishers – one of the faults in their heavy spending has been the failure to find a natural goalscorer – and too many final balls were just that half an inch too heavy or too far away from perfection.

This was, absolutely, a victory for the team who won the mental battle. It was also a win for the more experienced team, and the team that kept pushing and working as penalties drew near. And while there were many lessons for Chelsea buried in the rubble of their defeat - on how to spend their money wisely and how to foster a unified team spirit within an overarching tactical ideology, which Liverpool have done and Chelsea have not – to boil the game down to Kids vs. Cash is to miss the point. Both teams were young, and both teams are rich. It’s just that Liverpool were better when it counted most.

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