3 Improvements Liverpool FC Must Make to Win the Europa League
The Europa League, formally the UEFA Cup, is a tournament that Liverpool are very familiar with. They are one of three teams, along with Juventus and Inter Milan, to have won the tournament a record three times.
The Reds were victorious in the competition in 1973, 1976 and again in 2001, when they turned a domestic cup double into a historic cup treble by beating Alaves 5-4 in a pulsating contest at Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion.
In 2012-13 Liverpool are taking part in the Europa League as a result of their triumph in the Carling Cup in 2011-12 and have already played six matches in the competition.
They began their campaign by beating FC Gomel of Belarus 4-0 and followed that up by knocking out Scottish club Hearts after a 2-1 aggregate victory which advanced them through to the group stages.
When the draw for the group stages was made, it wasn't very kind to the Reds. They were paired with top Italian club Udinese, BSC Young Boys from Switzerland and mega-rich Russian club Anzhi Makhachkala.
With Liverpool having a small squad this season following a disastrous final day of the 2012 summer transfer window, when owners FSG let manager Brendan Rodgers down badly, the Reds have had to prioritize this season. This has led to them fielding weakened teams in their opening group-stage matches.
A 5-3 victory away against Young Boys marked a good start, but that was followed up by a 3-2 home defeat at the hands of Udinese. In truth, Liverpool thoroughly dominated the match and should have come away victorious, but they were undone by some sloppy defensive errors.
With four group-stage games left, Brendan Rodgers will be looking to take seven more points, as a total of 10 should see his men advance to the next stage. While it is certainly a manageable haul, Liverpool will need to improve in certain areas if they want to achieve it.
Here are three key areas Liverpool must improve in.
Lapses in concentration have affected Liverpool in both English Premier League and European games this season; that was their major failing in their home match against Udinese.
Having dominated the first half, at times making Udinese look amateurish, and gone into the dressing room 1-0 up, Liverpool came out for the second half and appeared to have forgotten what they were doing. They seemed to have taken a nap at halftime and forgotten to wake up.
Udinese, being the quality team they ultimately are, punished Liverpool. Before the Reds could realize what was happening, the Italians were 3-1 up, and Liverpool were in disarray. They regained their composure and spent the rest of the match dominating, pulling one point back through a stunning goal from Luis Suarez.
While there were plenty of positives to take from the game, the lapse in concentration and sloppy defending are a worrying trend for Liverpool and something Brendan Rodgers will certainly be looking to improve upon.
Limit Individual Errors
The lapses of concentration that Liverpool have been prone to this season have led to many individual errors that have cost the team goals.
Prime culprits have been Pepe Reina, Glen Johnson, Martin Skrtel and Steven Gerrard, all of whom have been directly to blame for the multiple goals Liverpool have conceded. It is something that needs to be addressed.
It's somewhat surprising that it is four of Liverpool's most senior players who have been the ones to blame, but two of those situations have been understandable in some ways.
Reina is experiencing an 18-month slump, and it may be that Brendan Rodgers will look to replace him if he can not regain his best form by summer 2013. Liverpool have already been linked with German sensation Marc-Andre ter Stegen as a potential replacement (per the Daily Mirror).
As an attacking fullback, Johnson is always liable to cost the team goals. In his defence, he has been excellent going forward this season and can be forgiven for mistakes, especially if he continues to turn in performances like he did against Manchester City and Manchester United.
Martin Skrtel is coming off the best season of his career, but that season may well have been more to do with the Daniel Agger effect rather than Skrtel himself. While he unquestionably improved, he still made a number of costly errors during this season. In 2012-13 he has already been at least partially to blame for five goals, as well as Daniel Agger's red card against West Brom in the August 18 EPL game.
That's a very disappointing start, and Seb Coates must be expecting a call-up in the near future unless Skrtel's form improves massively.
Gerrard's errors have simply been put down to trying to rush passes and force the play as he struggles to adapt to the new Liverpool style of play. He seems to have eradicated those errors over the last few matches, and when Lucas Leiva returns, Gerrard may find himself moved into the front three, which would make it extremely unlikely that he would cost Liverpool any further goals.
Reina and Skrtel are the two most worrisome individuals for Liverpool so far this season. While Coates could easily replace Skrtel, Liverpool have no in-house replacement for Reina; they are going to need him to regain his form and stop being a liability if the Reds are to progress beyond the group stage of this competition.
Improve Attacking Cohesion
Liverpool are struggling to score goals this season the way they did in 2011-12. With Luis Suarez the only player on the club's books capable of scoring 20-plus goals in a season at present, the Reds need to spread points out between the rest of the team.
Liverpool play a 4-3-3 under Brendan Rodgers, with Luis Suarez as the centre forward and Raheem Sterling and Suso currently filling the wide forward roles in the first-choice XI.
So far in 2012-13 they have played an alternative lineup with Dani Pacheco or Fabio Borini as the centre forward and with Stewart Downing and Oussama Assaidi as wide forwards in the Europa League group matches. While the Reds have scored seven goals in the group so far, things haven't quite clicked for the front three yet.
With Borini now injured, youngster Samed Yesil might be called on to lead the line in the remaining Europa League games. It's a big thing to ask of such a young player, but Downing and Assaidi can make it easier if they can find a cohesive understanding with him where he's not asked to do everything himself.
If the front three, as well the two more attack-minded midfielders, can gel quickly into a unit that grasps what each player is going to do, they will be able to create a higher calibre of chances which should lead to more goals for entire team.
Yesil is a natural finisher, and, given a chances in front of the goal, he should be able to score for Liverpool. He will need his teammates to create clear-cut chances for him. That was a problem for the Reds over the last 14 months, but there has recently been an improvement in that area.
If Liverpool can focus on the quality of chances they created, rather than the quantity, it should lead to more goals for the team.
Perhaps if Yesil can find his goalscoring form in the Europa League, he will save Liverpool some money in January.
It Might Not Be Enough, But...
Obviously, improving in these three areas may not be enough to help Liverpool win the Europa League, but they could help the Reds get through the group stages.
In January, the transfer window will re-open, and Brendan Rodgers will have the chance to strengthen his squad by adding much-needed depth in attack.
It's also likely to Rodgers will be more inclined to play a stronger team in the group stages than he has thus far picked in the group matches against Young Boys and Udinese. A full-strength Liverpool team with a couple of additions would definitely have an outside shot at winning this competition once it gets into the knockout phases. Anything can happen over two legs.
With that being said, Rodgers is likely to continue to blood the young players and rest the key starters for the remainder of the group games.
The Anzhi matchup comes just days before games against Everton and Chelsea. Liverpool should beat Young Boys at Anfield, and the tricky game is away against Udinese. A full-strength Liverpool team could go there and win, which would leave them in a good position to qualify for the next round. A weakened Liverpool team might struggle to get a result.
Whatever happens, Liverpool still have a minimum of four games left in this competition, and Rodgers is using them in the correct way. He is treating these games as competitive practice matches to bring young players through and give fringe players some playing time. His decision will stand Liverpool in good stead in years to come.
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