Steve takes a look at why Liverpool not being in Europe for the 2013/14 season might not be such a bad thing after all.
As a club with five European Cups and 18 league titles in our cabinet, other trophies have always been something of a consolation prize for Liverpool. In this era of TV-financed football when only Champions League qualification bestows the wealth necessary for success, it’s understandable that many fans feel the Europa League and domestic cups have been significantly devalued.
UEFA seem to agree, and from the 2014-15 season the Europa League winners will recieve a place in the Champions League. Rewarding the winners of the FA Cup with a Champions League place (or perhaps a play-off match with the fourth placed team) could similarly restore prestige to Englands premier cup competition, but for now, the Premier League and Champions League remain the ones the big clubs value most.
While some fans believe the priority should be getting back into the top four places yielding Champions League football and the financial rewards that come with them, others argue that silverware, above all else, is Liverpool Football Club is all about. Yet these are not mutually exclusive values. Since the European Cup became the Champions League in 1992, few teams outside the top four have won the FA Cup, suggesting it is hard to compete in any competition without the resources that come with being among Europe’s elite.
The last season that Liverpool didn’t compete in Europe, the club reached two finals, winning one, but it was also our worst league performance in decades. Had it not been for the two cup runs perhaps the team would have racked up more than 52 points in the league, but that logic also dictates that a European campaign would have taken a similar toll on league results. Had it not been for an ultimately fruitless run in Europe, it might be Tottenham rather than Arsenal currently preparing for Champions League football; four out of the five games Spurs lost after November 3rd came in fixtures following midweek Europa League matches.
Of course there are upsides to playing in the Europa League, too. One of the bonuses for Liverpool last season was the vital experience some of our younger players gained from taking part. Andre Wisdom, Jonjo Shelvey, Suso and several other emerging prospects did well in games against Young Boys, Anzhi and Udinese, but giving them further exposure to first-team football in the domestic cups can perform the same function this time around. Indeed, Rodgers has indicated he wants a better showing in the FA and League cups this season, saying, “This time, we’ll certainly give the Carling Cup and the FA Cup a proper go – we have a much better squad to do that,”.
“We had a paper-thin squad last year, we had kids all the way through. Obviously those players who have come in have added quality and it’s no coincidence that we have kicked on when we’ve had quality in the group.”
With a bigger squad and no Europa League football, the manager will be able to put out a strong side in the cups featuring some of the younger squad members as well as more senior players on the fringes of the first-team. The likes of Wisdom, Suso, Sterling and Ibe – as well as prospects yet to make first-team debuts like Ryan McLaughlin and Joao Teixeira – will be able to further their development in competitive games while ensuring our established players stay fresh and ready for the Premier League battle. With increased competition for places, they can be joined by more senior players keen to cement a spot in the starting line-up, allowing us to field a youthful but quality side capable of putting together a run. So being out of Europe needn’t mean a lack of chances for players with something to prove.
In an ideal world we would compete flat-out on all fronts, but with limited resources to work with, prioritisation is key. Liverpool sides of old were successful using the same line-ups week-in week-out, but that was in a time before squad rotation when all teams were using the same small group of players. Today we compete against clubs with two full eleven’s of top-class internationals, and to beat them we have to join them in keeping our players fresh.
That means prioritising the league first. Of course every fan wants to see Liverpool competing for and winning trophies, but to win the big ones you have to be in them first. Focussing on the league free from the distraction of Europa League football next season will give us a real chance of breaking back into that top four, and from there on anything is possible.
As the great Bill Shankly put it, “Never mind Europe. It’s been a great thing for Liverpool and a great thing for the country, but this is our bread and butter, and this is the one we want.”
Who are we to disagree?