Jürgen Klopp actually did it. He went full rotation. No one ever goes full rotation.
11 different starters from Liverpool's last match. Eight kids – three of them recalled from loans just this week – plus Benteke, Bogdan, and the going-through-the-motions ghost of Jose Enrique. Three 22-year-olds, a 21-year-old, a 20-year-old, and three 19-year-olds. Five starters and two substitutes making their first appearances this season, three starters and two substitutes making their debuts for Liverpool.
It was the least experienced line-up I've seen in the last decade or so that I can actually remember, rivaled only by the 2-2 penalty defeat to Northampton, and that side at least had Agger and Lucas. Or the 0-1 loss at Burnley in this competition in 2005, and that side at least had Hyypia, Dudek, and (sigh) Traore.
Christian Benteke had played 1359 minutes this season, right around 50% of all the minutes Liverpool have played so far this season. The other 13 players to appear had played 903. In total. Combined.
Yes, Liverpool were facing a League Two side that had lost their last four matches, but, you know, a League Two side at home that had actually played together before.
Twice Liverpool went behind, twice Liverpool scored an equalizer. The seventh and eighth equalizers of Klopp's tenure, another demonstration that Liverpool still have a frightening propensity to concede first, but that there's also more fight in this squad than we'd usually seen during the previous season and some.
Both of Liverpool's goals were fortunate, with the ball ricocheting off an Exeter player to a Liverpool player in the box: the first after a tackle on Benteke which probably would have been a penalty, the second when Ojo's shot-cross was cleared from the six-yard box. Both of Exeter's goals were familiar: a cross from Liverpool's left and a corner, the latter featuring yet another error by a Liverpool goalkeeper.
Liverpool probably should have lost, but Liverpool also could have won. If not for Bogdan's error. If only Attwell had given a deserved penalty in the 82nd. Liverpool's fitness won out, the stronger side for the last half-an-hour, pushing for both the equalizer and a late winner. But if Noble and Ribiero (twice) converted earlier concrete, if not clear-cut, chances, better than most anything that Liverpool had…
For the most part, it was Liverpool's senior players who disappointed, and it was familiar problems which led to Exeter's goals, Enrique and Bogdan the primary scapegoats respectively. Enrique seemed to think he was playing as a second left-back, consistently leaving Ilori exposed and easily beaten over the top to allow Exeter space to cross for the opener, with Ilori dragged out of position by Enrique being out of position. The less said about Bogdan, and yet another unbelievable error at any level, the better. That's the first Olimpico I can remember Liverpool conceding, as well.
And then there was Liverpool's captain. Christian Benteke – whose summer transfer fee almost certainly cost more than the fees for the other 27 players on the pitch combined – did little of note, unable to assert himself against Exeter's defenders, unable to get on the same page as his 12 outfield teammates. Who, admittedly and in his defense, he'd rarely if ever played with before, and probably didn't know most of their names. He managed just one shot in 90 minutes, a point-blank header straight at Exeter's keeper from Brannagan's outstanding cross. He created just two chances: one for a blocked Kent shot, the other a clever back-heel layoff for Teixeira, a decent 81st-minute opportunity saved by Olejnik. I probably shouldn't put much stock in a match like this, on a ground like this, when used in this squad, but it's still another confusing and disappointing Benteke performance when we've already seen too many of them.
Meanwhile, Brannagan showed a decent range of passing and energy in midfield. Ryan Kent and Teixeira each had moments of threat and guile. Sheyi Ojo was a difference maker off the bench: his direct running responsible for the second equalizer, and his efforts should have been further rewarded by winning a spot kick. Ilori struggled at times, but you try playing center-back when partnered with that headless Jose Enrique performance. Sinclair and Smith – again adventurous, attacking, and dangerous down the left – scored their first goals for the club.
All of them looked like kids. But kids often look like kids, especially when up against a side of lower league veterans with vastly more experience, full of determination and pluck and rude tackles and all those underdog narratives, who needed and got a result that will keep their club afloat for another year or two thanks to the £700,000 a replay at Anfield will bring. And especially when those kids are playing on a pitch about as level and well-maintained as my rain-soaked backyard.
Ah, the magic of the FA Cup.
Credit where due: Exeter did what the good lower-league sides to the under-experienced, underwhelming Premiership sides in this competition – for the most part, they made Liverpool play their game rather than Liverpool's game – and nearly succeeded in one of the two or three giant-killings which happen every season. Wycombe did the same thing to a more-experienced, nearly full-strength Villa side just a few hours ago; Doncaster and Stoke are currently level at half-time as well.
But Liverpool fought back, Liverpool held on.
On first glance, a replay seems the worst possible result, yet another fixture in a month already packed full of them. Had Liverpool lost, it's a manageable four matches over the next 21 days, which would've felt like a vacation given the last few weeks. Had Liverpool won, it's five, with a whole six days between United and Norwich. With a replay, it's now five or six, depending on whether Liverpool win or lose the return fixture. Arsenal (h), United (h), Exeter (h), Norwich (a), Stoke (h), and the potential fourth round of the FA Cup, all before the end of January.
But if it's the kids again – ideally without Enrique, maybe without Bogdan or Benteke – then so be it. They deserve another match, this time at Anfield, in front of their own, on a pitch that might actually aid passing and playing football. Win or lose (win, please!), it'll provide needed experience and an opportunity to earn even more opportunities.
Maybe Liverpool will even have another player or two fit and available.