Rewind more than four decades and, long before Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp became English football’s defining managerial duel, it was Brian Clough against Bob Paisley. If the German, with his Clough-esque charisma, eminent quotability and seeming ability to shape events by force of personality, seems to borrow more from the architect of Nottingham Forest’s success than his most decorated predecessor at Anfield, he has something in common with both .
He has coached teams to glory in the European Cup but never the FA Cup. For a couple more months, anyway. Guardiola still blocks his path. Thomas Tuchel, another Champions League winner, may too, but Klopp is into the uncharted territory of a first semi-final.
It has been a long and winding road, spanning 20 games over six years featuring 81 players. It took 78 minutes to break down Nottingham Forest. Diogo Jota, who sent Liverpool to Wembley in the Carabao Cup, did likewise in the senior knockout competition.
So an FA Cup run that began with outings for Melkamu Frauendorf and Max Woltman against Shrewsbury now features a date with Kevin De Bruyne and Phil Foden. For Klopp, it has been a six-year odyssey that started with Tiago Ilori, Cameron Brannagan, João Teixeira and Jerome Sinclair playing in a 2016 draw with Exeter. It was not his last eclectic selection in this competition. Naming all those 81 players is no mean feat.
Yet if a lack of strength in depth accounted for some of Liverpool’s early exits in Klopp’s reign, now he has his deepest ever squad. He is better equipped to rotate and advance. With Forest frustrating him, an advocate of five substitutions in Premier League matches made a quadruple change, summoning the high-caliber quartet of Jordan Henderson, Thiago Alcântara, Takumi Minamino and Luis Díaz. If the goal did not directly stem from any, the ability to throw all on felt significant. Rewind a month and other former European champions, Internazionale, were holding Liverpool until Klopp turned to an enviable bench. They duly lost, too.
This was more of a mix-and-match team. Perhaps only Virgil van Dijk, Fabinho and Alisson figure in his strongest side, though Jota’s winner enhanced his case to belong in that bracket. For a long time, Roberto Firmino’s place among the automatic went choices unquestioned. The Brazilian may be the definitive Klopp player, the first great gegenpresser and the fulcrum of the inverted forward line, where wingers ran beyond him and outscored him. Anfield’s favorite false 9 finds himself in a curious position now, and not merely with his habit of dropping deep to scurry after the ball.
Díaz’s arrival gives Klopp five frontline forwards. Perhaps Firmino is now fifth in line. Maybe his Stakhanovite efforts have drained him of his dynamism and threatened him with decline. A non-scoring striker was reinvented as an impact substitute who delivered telling goals in cameos away at Internazionale and Arsenal.
Starting for the first time in five weeks, he overcomplicated matters when trying to chip Ethan Horvath. With Sadio Mané now a rival for his role in the middle of the attack, he may have been an ill-timed miss; if not one that cost Liverpool. Klopp had rested Mané, sparing him for Senegal’s World Cup play-off against Egypt. With Mohamed Salah missing a Liverpool game due to injury for the first time since 2019, he could still hold Díaz in reserve.
At the other end, Klopp’s greater interest in the FA Cup was summed up by his choice of goalkeeper. It was not a reserve, but the regular. And as an old rivalry was renewed, this time the man in the green jumper was Alisson, not Clough. There was a throwback to the 1970s, though, as Forest showed their days of resisting Liverpool were not confined to the past.
They were fearless. The urgency of their pressing game suggested imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Liverpool meet with more deferential opposition in the Champions League, let alone the Premier League. When a centre-back wearing the captain’s armband made a superb last-ditch challenge, it was Joe Worrall, not Van Dijk. Many suffer in comparison with the Dutchman but the Forest skipper did not.
Sean Dyche, a fine judge of a central defender, is a long-time fan of Worrall and his band of admirers may be swelling. He was terrific. Thanks to him, Forest almost became just the fifth team to keep a clean sheet against Liverpool this season.
Few have harnessed the power of belief better than Klopp but Forest believed. Djed Spence, the scourge of Arsenal and Leicester, sought to take over that role. Keinan Davis was a formidable presence in attack. Brennan Johnson buzzed around in the manner of a Klopp forward.
Forest could rue the moment Philip Zinckernagel shot wide from Johnson’s inviting cross as Jota popped up a couple of minutes later. It meant Forest’s first quarter-final for 26 years ended in defeat. The Jürgen they encountered in their previous one was Klinsmann, a scorer twice for Bayern Munich in the last eight of the Uefa Cup. Now it was Klopp who advanced. He may yet succeed where Clough famously failed in the FA Cup.