Nathan Steenson looks at why Liverpool not being in Europe during the 2013/14 campaign is not all doom and gloom.
There are some things in this life which are quite simply made for each other.
Salt and Pepper are both good in and of themselves, but when they are united as one, they make a magical combination. Ben and Jerry are two bog-standard names, but when they appear together on the side of an ice-cream carton, the salivary glands of every food lover start to water. Batman and Robin are taken totally for granted, but the people of Gotham could not imagine life beyond the pair.
If you were to ask a Liverpool fan what their ‘perfect combination’, in football terms may be, there would be a whole host of responses-
“Paisley and the Bootroom…Dalglish and Rush…Toshack and Keegan… Carragher and Hyppia…Gerrard and Torres..Rafa and the Facts”.
Just as these words would tumble out of the mouth of that Liverpool fan, their eyes would become glazed over- their mind wandering through those times gone by, with a realisation of what a lucky bunch we’ve been- what wonderful combinations we’ve enjoyed down the years, all things which will always make us smile.
But there is one thing, perhaps more special than the rest, which would probably not be mentioned by that fan simply because it is taken so much for granted. It’s a given.
The fact is, everyone around the whole world, whether a Liverpool fan or not, amalgamates Liverpool Football Club and European football.
One is not the same without the other- they are both good in and of themselves, but when they are united as one, they make a magical combination. When they appear together, football fan’s salivary glands start to water. By us, it is taken for granted, but when it comes down to it we could not imagine life beyond the pair.
Now, if I was in charge and I was writing this story, I would of course finish the tale of this wonderful couple with a “and they lived happily ever after..” and you would all put the book down with a broad smile on your face, a spring in your step and a warm feeling inside you pondered upon this delightful account.
But unfortunately we’re all aware that real life is not such a walk-in-the-park.
Seemingly perfect partnerships don’t always last forever. Things can let us down and sometimes if it seems too-good-to-be-true, it may well be.
Paisley’s reign ended. Daglish, Rush, Toshack, Keegan, Carragher and Hyppia all left us and retired. Torres broke our hearts. Rafa’s facts were the beginning of the end for him, and unfortunately Liverpool Football Club is facing the reality of a year without European football of any kind.
“What a lovely article you’ve dragged me through, Nathan”, I hear you declare sarcastically. “You’ve surely painted a real optimistic picture for the future..”
Ok, I’ll apologise. I may not have made you feel warm and fuzzy inside whilst thinking about your beloved club, Liverpool, but regrettably it is in a situation which is not desirable.
But here’s the thing- although Liverpool is famous for many things, one of the things we all know is true, is how it has a special ability to rise out of the ashes. Liverpool excels when it is between a rock and a hard place and as I’ve mentioned in a previous article, Liverpool’s back against the wall mentality is second to none. For goodness sake, we sing about it every week:
“Walk on through the wind,
Walk on through the rain.
Though your dreams be tossed and blown..
Walk oooooon, walk ooooon, with hoooooope in your heart!
And you’ll never walk alone…
You’ll never walk alone!”
What is our response to these famous words which we love so much? Do we stand true to them? Do we walk through this storm together with “hope in our hearts”?
Of course we find ourselves in a situation which on the surface looks terrible, yes.
But we have a choice- there are two ways which we can look at our predicament. We can feel sorry for ourselves and blame those at the top for everything that’s ever went wrong, or we can look deeper and see the long list of positive things we can gain from this.
So instead of being swept up along with the first option and finishing this article right now, I will expand on my bold claim that there is a long list of “positive things we can gain” from this year of European exclusion.
Number of Games
It is a well-known fact these days that if you are entered into a European Competition there are a lot of games, especially in the Europa League. You can play up to 21 games in the Europa League if you win it, including playoffs, group stages and the road to the final. An extra 21 games can push your fixture schedule towards 60 before domestic cups are even taken into consideration. This is an extremely big workload to put on any squad, and one which Liverpool will greatly benefit from not having as they push for consistency in the league.
Liverpool does not have a big squad- and this is one of the things which caused problems last season. Whenever the summer transfer window of 2012 closed the squad was paper thin, and although Sturridge and Coutinho have been added and work is underway to further increase the size of the squad, it still won’t be big enough to efficiently cope with the rigorous demands the sheer number of games puts on a squad.
Because Liverpool’s small squad now has a far easier work load placed upon it, this means a lot of very good things.
Firstly, it takes some pressure off the youngsters. It is always great to see a team promote and give their young players a chance, but when the team is relying on its teenagers to get a result against another professional team, with the eyes of the world watching, it’s a bad sign. Bleeding in youngsters should be a luxury- not a necessity. So players like Raheem Sterling, Suso, Coady, Lloyd Jones, and Jordan Ibe can enjoy their development and strive to take the chances they get next term without the pressure which can break a lot more young players than it can make.
Liverpool’s current squad is very talented- it’s smaller than previous years, but also, and importantly, more concentrated with quality than previous years. However, it is dotted with injury prone players- Sturridge, Agger, Lucas and Gerrard to name the most serious cases. These players are the core of our squad right now and to lose one of them would be a real problem. Each one needs to be handled with care and whilst playing in Europe, that is not always possible. A Thursday/Sunday schedule can be very strenuous and add to that all those long journeys to Russia and then to London in the space of a fewdays, and you’ve suddenly got a far higher risk of your players becoming injured or not recovering to their fullest.
You saw it in practise last year- there were times whenever Liverpool’s performance at the weekend looked slower and more lethargic, and there were games in which the intensity died too early in order to fully see the game out. That is not what we want- just think about how much more of a fresh and fit squad Liverpool will have next year- it’s an exciting thought!
Getting back to the Champions League
Admittedly, it’s been a long while since Liverpool have been in the European competition they would like to be. The Champions League is la crème de la crème of football and when I said earlier about Liverpool and Europe going hand-in-hand, I think we all knew I meant Liverpool and the Champions League. The Europa League is a trophy, and a tough one to win at that, but Liverpool belongs in the top tier of European football, not the second.
“What a hiiiiiit soooon..!!” is a familiar line to Liverpool fans and the way Andy Gray screamed those words will forever live in our memory. This is of course a referral to that Steven Gerrard goal vs Olympiakos, and later in Gerrard’s autobiography, he said how even the thought of Liverpool dropping out of the Champions League made him conjure up every last piece of strength, composure and passion so that he could single handedly drag Liverpool through that tricky fixture. He described his relief has he woke up the next morning and he realised Liverpool were still in it.
This is how much the Champions League means to players, and to Liverpool, and unfortunately there is a cycle you can be dragged into- of finishing 7th/6th/5th, sacrificing some premier league form and consistency in order to compete in the Europa League, and as a result finishing 7th/6th/5th again the following season.
This is Liverpool’s chance to get out of this cycle.
Undoubtedly, everything I have just outlined points to one thing- progression in the Barclay’s Premier League. This is where my optimism for this coming season originates- this really is a season wholly devoted to domestic football. There are going to be no more excuses. Liverpool’s squad will be used efficiently; players not stretched to their limits and allowed to recover properly; youth will be used appropriately, and the focus will restored to one goal- finish as high as possible in the League.
Look what has happened at all the teams in and around Liverpool. There’s unsettlement everywhere. Manager’s coming, manager’s going. All of the clubs around Liverpool have their focus scattered on a million things- and this is where Liverpool will have the edge this year.
The foundation was laid last season, and this is the time when the building blocks are securely placed on top. Brendan Rodgers will get a few more of his “type” of players in this summer, and the philosophy will be improved upon as the weeks go on.
The club are getting ready for a monumental and concentrated push towards the top 4 and beyond this year- a push which I am convinced would not carry the same conviction or weight behind it if Liverpool had to widen their efforts onto Europe as well.
Liverpool Football Club without European football. Not the fairy-tale ending we all wanted?
Don’t panic! Just turn over the page- there’s many more chapters waiting to unfold..