The Europa League always divides fans. Is it a chance for a piece of silverware respected by a lot of continental clubs and players, or are Thursday nights a distraction from what really matters? Liverpool do have depth, but whether Brendan Rodgers should focus on one competition or value them equally remains a fair question.
Brendan Rodgers needs European experience, and so does a very young squad that has very little. Only Lucas and Martin Skrtel were around the last time Liverpool were relevant in the Champions League, and there aren’t too many European veterans—or at least wildly successful ones—in the squad amongst the players who have been brought in. Put simply, it’s time for everyone to acknowledge that whether or not the club itself and many of its supporters think the Europa League especially matters, it does.
You have to practice being consistent across four competitions, in particular with a squad that’s so reliant on youth. That means that for me, my perfect world has Liverpool throwing the kids out there for the Europa League and embracing heavy squad rotation for the cups, making it a platform for guys like Lazar Markovic, Divock Origi, Danny Ings, Joe Gomez, and maybe even a few kids like Harry Wilson and Jordan Rossiter—plus Mario Balotelli if he’s somehow still around—to shine.
By the winter, though, we’ll probably be pinning our hopes on advancement in the Europa as a last shot at silverware and debating starting Lucas and Skrtel for the third time in 10 days in an away leg to some cold and far flung multisyllabic destination that’s sure to end in sour, pint-finishing swigs and statements like, “How about those third kits, though…” or “Is that Argentinean on a third-party ownership deal? I thought FIFA banned those?”
The early stages will feel like a drag to most of us, but at worst it should be a chance for Rodgers to give fringe players more game time and an opportunity to try out new tactical set ups. Winning the whole thing would be a huge accomplishment for the club, but even without that there’s the silver lining of experience to be had.
I know I shouldn’t, but like a lot of people, I put the Europa League in the same category as the League Cup: wake me up when we start smelling silverware. I absolutely cannot bring myself to care about the early stages of the competition, and there’s always a bitter taste in my mouth, knowing it’s an inherently inferior tournament to Champions League. Of course, I hope we do well in the Europa League, as I do think winning begets winning. And that little carrot at the end of the stick—Champions League qualification—can make a deep run into the tournament begin to seem exciting.
Despite all that, though, I’m firmly on the side of hoping Rodgers and Co. don’t treat Europa League as a distraction. We still have a very young, inexperienced squad, and there’s great value to playing quality sides who will always be up for a scrap—especially when they know they’re playing Liverpool.
The Europa League is a wonderful competition from the quarter-finals onwards. Once the competition has only eight teams left, things get exciting. Being able to manage and rotate in Europe is important for clubs like Liverpool—and if he wants to continue to manage clubs at this level, for Brendan Rodgers too. I would put the Europa League as the second-biggest priority after the English Premier League and something worth taking seriously, not just as a chance to give the fringe players and youth some minutes.
It’s European football, and Liverpool have an immense history there that could be added to. There’s also the prospect of Champions League qualification. The League Cup may present an opportunity to win silverware relatively early in the season and the FA Cup only starts in January, but look at the recent winners of the Europa League. Shakhtar Donetsk, Atlético Madrid, Porto, Chelsea, and Sevilla. All have used the competition as a platform to attract players and move on to better things.
It would be a relief, too, to see Liverpool win a knockout game in Europe under Brendan Rodgers. He’s only had two, but still it’d be heartening to see some progress in Europe in the Rodgers era, and he needs to show he’s learning his lessons on the European stage.
As has been pointed out, the Europa League only really gets interesting once it gets past the Round of 32. The trouble is making it that far. The reality, though, is that Liverpool have been truly abysmal in Europe for the past half-dozen years, and they need something to jumpstart them, to give them a confidence boost. So if they can’t handle the Real Madrids at this point, it’s far better to focus on the Villarreals first. It might be a little dull at the start, but in terms of the team’s development, I think this tournament could be very good for them if they embrace it.
I’m another who’s pushing the the EL is super important as a chance for the players and manager to figure out how to win in Europe line. Traveling to the great Azerbaijani wastes to face different tactics on difficult pitches, getting a result, and staying fresh enough on the journey through rotation and recovery methods to win again on Sunday is something that requires practice. It’s a chance to prepare both manager and players for the Champions League and has to be taken seriously in that light.
The Europa League’s a hard one. It’s something I tell myself I really, really care about. That it’s a prestigious tournament with real history—one Liverpool has real history in. I tell myself the later stages can be exciting and it still has standing across Europe. I even tell myself that with the Premier League teetering on the edge of a European crisis and losing one of their Champions League places, it’s vitally important for Liverpool’s hopes for the future in that competition that they do well in this one.
Then a Thursday night against a side whose name I can’t pronounce rolls around and puts me to sleep and I couldn’t care less—just throw out the kids and be done with it. That, though, doesn’t matter. Because all the things I tell myself about why it’s important are true. More to the point, many sought to absolve Brendan Rodgers following Liverpool’s failures in the Champions League last season by pointing out his youth and inexperience and that he wasn’t properly seasoned in European competition. Well, fine: here’s a European competition. Go and get that experience. Figure out how squad rotation works. Put that newfound depth to good use rather than flirting with player burnout or deploying easily identifiable A and B teams that signal your indifference to one competition or the other.
I’ll be upfront in stating that I don’t particularly care for Europa League, either. The joy I get out of it is limited to fixture lists involving truly obscure teams from Iceland or Moldova with fantastic names, but beyond that it feels like a tournament where if we win it, that’s exciting, but if we flame out in a blaze of glory I’m not exactly going to be broken up about it. (Except for that one time where a near miracle almost changed my mind).
That doesn’t mean I don’t think it’s important, though. Far from it. I’ve said it in the past and I’ll say it again: success in Europe is a habit you have to form, rather than something you are immediately good at. I didn’t think Liverpool would get out of the group stage of Champions League last year because Europe is hard. Liverpool fans might scoff at the Big Vase, but it’s an opportunity to face some of Europe’s big-but-not-too-big teams, get regular experience playing against teams with vastly different continental styles, learn how to cope with having upwards of three matches in a week, and force Brendan Rodgers into learning how to rotate (Okay, maybe that last one won’t actually happen). This might be the training wheels competition, but I don’t doubt that Liverpool’s future success in Champions League will be built on having positive experiences in Europa League, and there’s no better time to start than now.
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