Jürgen Klopp admitted Exeter City made life difficult for Liverpool as they clinched an Anfield replay with a 2-2 draw against the Reds on Friday night – but was satisfied overall with the exertions of his young team.
Due to the club’s current injury situation, coupled with a hectic fixture schedule, the boss elected to make 11 changes for the FA Cup third-round tie at St James Park.
Debutants Tiago Ilori, Kevin Stewart and Ryan Kent were included in a starting line-up that had an average age of just 22.36 and a total of just 135 Liverpool appearances between them, with Christian Benteke and Jose Enrique the most senior players.
Exeter took the lead with just nine minutes on the clock via Tom Nichols’ well-taken strike, before Jerome Sinclair notched a quick-fire equaliser for the visitors.
Lee Holmes put the League Two side back in front before half-time when he scored directly from a corner; however, Brad Smith’s neat finish in the second period ensured the teams will require an Anfield re-run later this month to determine who will take a place in round four.
Afterwards, Klopp told his post-match press conference: “It smelt and tasted like cup games do – the first round is always very difficult, in our situation especially.
“We tried to create a line-up under time pressure – [some loan players] came back yesterday and we trained together yesterday and this morning for around 40 minutes.
“We tried to create a common plan and idea. It was not too good, it was not too bad, but it showed that in football it’s very important you work together and train together and we couldn’t do that with this team.
“You saw in a lot of moments that Exeter did really well and we didn’t defend it too well, we lost a lot of one-on-one situations. The pitch was difficult for both teams and it was not too easy for the young boys. In an atmosphere like this, there were legs getting tired and so on. It was good to strike back and we had a few more moments, but not enough in the end.
“We have to respect our situation and that’s what we did. We were here to go through to the next round. It didn’t work out 100 per cent – 50 per cent – so now we have another game at Anfield.
“It is like it is…and I can’t believe we have another game!”
Liverpool were forced to contain periods of pressure from Exeter, who sensed the possibility of causing an upset in front of the television cameras at St James Park.
Asked by one journalist if he felt the Reds deserved a draw, Klopp replied: “Yes, of course we deserved a replay. These players worked and tried what they could tonight.
“If they made mistakes, it’s my responsibility. If they were not good in one-on-one, it is the responsibility of all the coaches of Liverpool FC. If they were not good in headers, it is the responsibility of all coaches of Liverpool FC – not the players.
“We picked them and said, ‘Come on, help us in this moment’. They did, 2-2, we go home, now the next game.
“[They didn’t play] as good as they can, but it was good enough for a draw.”
The replay serves to add to an already frenzied January fixture list for Liverpool, who will now contest at least five more matches before the conclusion of the month.
However, Klopp said: “It's only a situation that we have, it's no problem. We had some more games than other teams because we are still in the Capital One Cup, we played Europa League, that's all.
“The main problems we have is because our centre-halves are injured in this moment. We had five centre-halves at the beginning of the season and at this moment no centre-halves, that's the situation, but next week it could be different. Then we have to see what we can do, we work on it, and go on.”
Klopp was also eager to reserve words of praise for Exeter following their efforts against his Reds side and, on a personal level, acknowledged he’d enjoyed his first taste of FA Cup football.
“They played really good,” said the boss of the opposition. “It was a difficult pitch for both teams. It helps if you know where you can play football and where you have to hit long balls.
“So it was a little bit of an advantage for Exeter, they know the pitch better than we do. But they were strong on the wing, quick in transition, they did really good.
“The pitch helped a little bit more Exeter than it helped us but that's normal so they did well. It was a good atmosphere.
“For me, it was a good experience in the first round of the FA Cup.”