Liverpool's Europa League love-hate relationship
Most of the top clubs in England have a particular, if sometimes hidden, disdain for Europe’s second tier competition, the Europa League. Even in its previous disguise as the UEFA Cup, only clubs that would never realistically achieve Champions League football would take such the competition more seriously, like Middlesborough and Fulham’s respective runs to the 2006 and 2010 final – with both now sitting in English football’s second tier.
Even clubs like Everton, with no record and only deluded hope of consistent Champions League qualification, find the Europa League troublesome, as seen in their decline during their new manager Roberto Martinez’s second campaign at the club. In more recent times, Tottenham Hotspur regularly miss out on the top four only to be awarded with a Europa League berth, one that seems to derail them at the start of the season with the Thursday-Sunday schedules. However, this season would not have seen the emergence of Harry Kane had he not get his first-team opportunities in Europe’s second tier.
What then for Liverpool? A club with a proud history in Europe’s premier, as the only English side to triumph on five occasions to keep the real Champions League trophy. However, having only qualified for the competition once in the past five seasons, the Reds are no longer a given in the current era of a competition dominated by the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. Their lack of ability to compete with the very best was apparent in their much-celebrated but ultimately dismal return, having been twice dispatched comfortably home and away by last season’s holders.
One key reason for this is probably the lack of European knowhow among a young squad and relatively inexperienced manager. And this is where competing in next season’s Europa League can help. Even with all its troubles and Thursday-Sunday schedule, the Europa League should be seen as a platform for Rodgers to test and shape his tactical awareness among Europe’s second-tier tacticians. The added bonus of a place in the following year’s Champions League would be a welcome incentive for those who are serious about winning it.
For the playing squad though, competing in the Europa League would help improve them as footballers. They can better get used to the rigours of playing two games a week, a demand that would be even more strenuous against Europe’s premier sides in the Champions League itself, and yet able to hopefully retain their top four spot and maybe seriously challenge for honours year-on-year.
As much as the Europa League would help Brendan Rodgers be more tactically aware, It would also help make the players more tactically-astute. Of the current squad likely to remain at the club for the next campaign, almost half of the squad would have little to no experience playing in Europe. Young players like Jon Flanagan, Andre Wisdom and Jordon Ibe have only just emerged in the first team in recent years, while Rodgers’ recruits Simon Mignolet, Joe Allen and Adam Lallana’s only experiences of European football were last season’s poor Champions League run.
Fellow recruits under Rodgers that do have minimal European experience before joining the club, include Alberto Moreno’s sole but successful Europa League campaign with Sevilla, Mamadou Sakho’s fleeting Champions League outings for Paris St. Germain, Lazar Markovic’s three Europa League campaigns split with Partisan Belgrade and Benfica, and then there’s Divock Origi and his only Europa League experience on-loan at previous club Lille last season.
With Steven Gerrard gone, the only ones remaining since the arrival of Rodgers are Martin Skrtel and Lucas Leiva, both who started playing Champions League football for Liverpool from 2007 till 2010. The only ones of Rodgers’ era with any extensive experience in the Champions League are likely free transfer James Milner, who joined Manchester City and was part of their seasonal European collapses, Dejan Lovren’s three seasons at Lyon when the French club were the dominant force pre-PSG, Daniel Sturridge’s three seasons of cameo appearances for Chelsea and Kolo Toure, who enjoyed Champions League football with Arsenal and City, both seeming like ions ago.
This overall lack of European knowhow among the squad could be addressed with next season’s Europa League campaign, which is why it would be best to draw as tough a group as possible, in terms of the quality of opponents and not necessarily the distance of travel. With a likely spot in pot two, fans should hope the Reds draw either Europa League losing semifinalists Napoli and Fiorentina from Italy, or German side Schalke. The Reds might even hope to draw Jurgen Klopp’s previous club Borussia Dortmund, should they enter pot one.
Avoiding the long travels to Ukraine to face Dnipro would be preferred, and probably Russia (Lokomotiv Moscow) and Turkey (Fenerbache) would do their Premier League campaign a world of good, even as the Reds are competitive and serious in Europe’s second tier. Should the Reds get their desired draw of top quality opponents and as little travel as required, Rodgers and his young squad should look forward and be motivated for a season that they hope will be a trial run to sustaining years of competitiveness in Europe’s top tier competition and in top four, or three, of England’s top flight.