How Should Liverpool Play the Cups?
The agenda for Brendan Rodgers in his first season is pretty simple.
First, he has to lead a serious challenge for a top four place. Liverpool is a big club with a long history. Eighth simply is not good enough; domestic results must improve. And the amount of flexibility he gets on that point will largely be determined by his success in the second category.
Namely, the Northern Irishman must engender a renaissance of footballing style. Anfield is famous for its emphasis on attacking football. They are branded for being easy on the eyes. Alternatively, Benitez liked to grind it out. Hodgson had his two banks of four. Dalglish deployed an eleven incapable of scoring more than 47 league goals—one more than a relegated Blackburn Rovers side.
Thus, the new manager’s report card will essentially come down to those facets of his job: results in the league and the manner in which they are accomplished. His predecessor performed poorly in both respects. Rodgers will know that these two items must be his focus.
Then, about 20,000 leagues under those priorities comes tournament play.
In today’s footballing culture, the Premier League and Champions League come first for the major clubs. Last season, Liverpool won the Carling Cup and was a finalist in the F.A. Cup. Nevertheless, most fans will tell you the campaign was a disappointment. That says it all.
The Europa League is no different. While that trophy may have been a crowning achievement for Atletico Madrid, the two Manchester clubs seemed indifferent as to their inclusion.
However, these are still big competitions. Every opportunity to capture a trophy must be treated with a certain degree of seriousness. Further, each non-league game gives Rodgers a chance to deploy new ideas and alternative personnel. Thus, there is an intrinsic value in taking part.
Surely then, each of the three cups should be treated carefully with a clear objective in mind. They have the power to augment league play, help build for the future, and quell fan unrest through distraction.
Here’s how Liverpool might approach each respectively.
Liverpool are the reigning champions. That sound you just heard was England breathing a collective sigh of indifference.
The old “Milk Cup” is not what it used to be. If you disagree, ask yourself this: would you rather have the Reds win a cup double or finish fourth in the Premier League? Exactly. Most fans value just qualifying for the group stages of Europe’s biggest tournament over winning this.
Thus, I think Brendan Rodgers should look at the Carling Cup as a chance to get the youth a run out.
There has already been a mass exodus from Anfield with Fabio Aurelio, Maxi Rodriguez and Dirk Kuyt departing. Andy Carroll is rumored to be following suit. And there is every chance that this will not be the end of it.
Stewart Downing and Charlie Adam have a lot to prove should they wish to stay long term. Time is against Jaime Carragher. Joe Cole and Alberto Aquilani probably have about one season (if that) to prove they are worth the wages.
Thus, there will be spaces to fill. And before management opens the chequebook, they will be keen to see what they already have before buying more.
Can Conor Coady effectively fill in for Lucas Leiva if injured? Is Raheem Sterling a viable option on the left wing? Will Andre Wisdom or Danny Wilson be strong enough to supplant the ageing Carragher? Are Spanish starlets Dani Pacheco or Suso dangerous enough to function as super subs? Will Jay Spearing ever be good enough to start for a big club? Do Jon Flanagan and Jack Robinson need a year on loan to gain confidence? And how regularly should Jonjo Shelvey feature for the first team?
That’s a lot of questions for one youth system to pose, and you better believe that there are even more. The former Swansea coach should not leave it up to his assistants to answer for him.
Why not give them all a shot in the Carling Cup?
It presents just enough pressure to simulate the big stage without the major consequences. Further, should a few individuals perform particularly well, they can help right away with the chase for fourth.
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If the Carling Cup is about youth, the F.A. Cup should focus on second chances.
It is a time to give the older players one last go at glory. It is where last season’s flops seek redemption. It is where the fringe players prove they deserve more minutes.
To that end, the Reds could give Martin Kelly, Carragher, Shelvey, Adam, Downing, Craig Bellamy and Carroll all a shot.
Once again, like with the Carling Cup, the F.A. Cup would serve a clear objective. Rodgers should state it from the beginning. This is who will feature, this is their chance, and I will not veer from that.
Doing so serves a number of purposes. First, it gives Rodgers license to cut those who still are not up to the club standard. Second, it helps those suffering from a lack of confidence find form without risking league results in the process. Finally, it gives the Kop a chance to get a few last glimpses at some of the past greats before they retire.
Naysayers will point out the adverse affect the approach will have on tournament results. Certainly, they are correct. Yet, perhaps the pros still outweigh the cons.
Had Chelsea lost the Champions League Final their supporters would have labelled their season a failure. Their other trophy was an afterthought.
The F.A. Cup is a great chance for smaller clubs to gather silverware. For the big teams it is just window dressing.
UEFA Europa League
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In 2010, Fulham went all the way to the final. That run was viewed as a tremendous result for the Cottagers. After all, they were a mid-table club achieving extraordinary results against mid-table competition.
For the big-name clubs, it is a whole different proposition. On the one hand, the Europa League is a chance to test your mettle against solid clubs from all over the continent. On the other, it is a constant reminder of past failures. The Champions League casts a long shadow on those who should be there but are not.
In the end, however, possibly Liverpool should make a serious run at this. Here’s a list of some of the competition: Napoli, Atletico Madrid, Bayer Leverkusen, Tottenham, Lyon, Newcastle United, Inter Milan and Athletic Bilbao.
Europe’s best competition it is not. Yet, the opposition is still mighty strong. Rodgers may not go down in history for taking this trophy, but it will be a statement of intent. Further, with both domestic tournaments being taken so lightly, he should have the depth to pull it off.
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2012/13 is not about winning the league and achieving a treble. That would be nice, but Liverpool is a club in transition under new management. It is not realistic.
If Liverpool gives fourth place a good run and starts playing the kind of football that brings the electricity back to Anfield—that is success.
That would mean more than an insignificant trophy in a cabinet full of larger hardware.
Thus, the cups should be clearly delineated from day one as what they are: a lesser priority. The players and fans should both be put on notice as to the collective strategy.
This way no one walks alone as we build towards a new era on Merseyside.