Liverpool’s fearless youngsters are Jürgen Klopp’s greatest legacy

<span>Enzo Fernández of Chelsea is halted by 19-year-old James McConnell of Liverpool.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian</span>
Enzo Fernández of Chelsea is halted by 19-year-old James McConnell of Liverpool.Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Nobody looks overawed. Nobody looks out of place. Nobody looks as if they have school in the morning or are wearing a shirt two sizes too big for them. Conor Bradley walks over towards the Liverpool fans, arms aloft, Virgil van Dijk and Cody Gakpo either side of him, and this doesn’t feel like a dream or a Photoshop job or an artfully shot credit-card advert. James McConnell gets his turn with the trophy, and it doesn’t feel awkward or hefty in his hands. This is Liverpool, this is Wembley, and once you slip on the red shirt – no matter how high the number on the back of it – you know exactly what is expected of you, and what to expect in return.

And so even amid their injuries, their relative inexperience, the pummelling of Caoimhín Kelleher’s goal, it felt like the most natural thing in the world that Liverpool should win this final. Chelsea had the better of the chances and the more expensively assembled side, and yet did we ever really doubt the team built from candy floss, Melwood undergraduates and veterans of the Papa John’s Trophy? Perhaps, as Jürgen Klopp begins the long turn for home, this is the real measure of his work: a machine where winning is so ingrained that the parts themselves are largely interchangeable, even when the parts replacing them were recently children.

Related: Liverpool win Carabao Cup as Van Dijk’s extra-time header sinks Chelsea

Of course, you could point out that Klopp’s choices here were born as much of expediency as necessity. Strictly speaking Liverpool didn’t really need to win this: not as much as they need to win the league games against Manchester City and Everton in the next month, certainly not as much as Chelsea needed to win here. Had this been a genuinely monumental game, rather than the fourth-biggest trophy they can win this season, you can be sure that Mohamed Salah and Darwin Núñez would have been made available, that Andrew Robertson and Alexis Mac Allister could have pushed through into extra time.

But then, putting faith in young players is not a simple binary. There are degrees and shades to this business. Is it braver to give your academy products 10 minutes at the end of a league game you are already winning, or to throw them headlong into the pandemonium of a Wembley final? There are plenty of coaches out there who hide their best young talents away, rear them on cheap low-intensity minutes, set them up to fail. Klopp, by contrast, does not simply take them along for the ride. He throws them the keys.

This is how you end up with Bradley, a 20-year-old right-back with 302 minutes of Premier League football to his name, playing the Salah role in a cup final. Bradley had begun the game in the Trent Alexander-Arnold role, driving forward and drifting infield in a similar manner to his predecessor and mentor. But a first-half injury to Ryan Gravenberch forced Harvey Elliott to move inside, with Bradley stepping into the right-wing role he used to play as a kid at Dungannon.

Bradley is 5ft 11in but – as you might expect from someone who stopped growing only last year – plays like a much shorter man: quick feet, low centre of gravity, instinctively bracing himself for contact. Raheem Sterling showed little interest in following his forays up the right flank and so for most of the game Bradley went one-on-one against Ben Chilwell, frequently winning the ball high up the pitch and rattling the England defender to the point where both were booked for angrily tangling with each other.

Related: Chelsea 0-1 Liverpool: player ratings from the Carabao Cup final

After he departed on 71 minutes, having blown himself out a little, on came the 19-year-old Bobby Clark to orchestrate things in the centre of midfield, winning the corner that ultimately produced Liverpool’s game‑clinching goal. Next came the 19-year-old McConnell to slot in alongside him, a refined but relentlessly busy presence in the final third, and the 18‑year‑old striker Jayden Danns, who almost opened the scoring in the 94th minute with a header. In the second half of extra time came a relative veteran in the 21-year-old centre-half Jarell Quansah. Six academy players. Six players born after the release of Destination Calabria in 2003, the song wafting across Wembley as the trophy was hoisted.

And, of course, Klopp was by no means the sole architect of this strategy, in the same way that he was by no means solely responsible for the tired and washed squad he bequeathed to Thomas Tuchel when he left Borussia Dortmund in 2015. It takes a whole village to raise a footballer, from the people who do the spotting, to the people who do the recruiting, to the coaches who put out the cones on freezing Tuesday nights.

But the culture that allows them to play without fear, the sheer audacity to give them the big stage and the belief to fill it: perhaps this, as much as any win percentage or precious metal, is Klopp’s real bequest. Since he announced his departure a month ago, much of the talk has naturally centred around memories and legacies. But here, under the twinkling Wembley lights, was a reminder that every end is the beginning of something else.