Youth Likely To Lead the Way for Liverpool in Europe but Is It the Right Move?
Liverpool will aim to get their latest away defeat in the Premiership out of their system this week with their final Europa League group stage match against Utrecht, to take place on Wednesday at Anfield.
Having already qualified top of Group K, Liverpool are set to rest several big names ahead of next weekend's Premier League clash with Roy Hodgson's old side Fulham. Fernando Torres, Martin Skrtel, Pepe Reina and Raul Meireles are all likely to be left on the sidelines to make way for some of the younger members of the squad to try to make an impression, such as Jonjo Shelvey and Martin Kelly.
But with Liverpool having won just once in their last four fixtures (1-2 Spurs, 1-1 Steaua, 3-0 Villa, 1-3 Newcastle) is it the right move to rest so many first-teamers?
Of course the arguments for this move are valid: The younger players need (and in many cases deserve) some first-team football experience; the first-teamers who have played a lot of minutes need a break to stay fresh; and of course, the game itself is effectively a dead rubber as the Reds have already topped their group.
But something else to consider: Winning breeds confidence, and the longer period without a win the team goes the more difficult and pressure-filled the next game becomes to get a win.
Liverpool's young starlets have already shown that they do have the ability to pull a performance out and the creditable draw against Napoli in particular is testament to that, but Liverpool and Roy Hodgson badly need to string together some victories sooner rather than later.
What sort of side should Liverpool be playing against Utrecht?
After four wins in a row between October and November it looked like Liverpool could be putting some form together but only two wins in the seven matches since the victory over Chelsea have seen the team's league position suffer again.
Liverpool now face the following run of Premiership games into the New Year: Fulham (h), Blackpool (a), Wolves (h), Bolton (h) and Blackburn (a).
For a team with aspirations to qualify for next season's Champions League, that is a run of games which should yield a minimum of four victories and, really, should be looked at as a chance to take 15 points from 15.
Bolton are of course no easy match these days under Owen Coyle but the Reds' home form should make them favourites for that game, while any team managed by Sam Allardyce will give Liverpool a hard game. But that's the nature of the beast, and it is Liverpool's job—and specifically Roy Hodgson's job—to make sure that Liverpool beat what is put in front of them.
Should Liverpool be victorious against Utrecht and those five league games, they would head into the Manchester United FA Cup in early January on the back of six consecutive victories for the first time this season, high in confidence and, hopefully, all guns blazing.
Lose or draw on Wednesday, however, and the reunion match with Hodgson's ex-side becomes another high-pressure match for Liverpool having just two wins from eight games—unacceptable for the fans and unrealistic to give entry to a top four—or even top six—place in the league.
Which brings me back nicely to my original point. How many younger players should be risked in this game? And how many players from the first team should be left in to get the result Liverpool require?
And another point to consider: How many players deserve to stay in the team after Saturday's performance? The defence was, all game long, at best rocky and at worst amateur. Kyrgiakos has been in good form this season but clearly was rattled at the weekend. Skrtel has been a liability for most of the season and without wanting to target him unfairly, the less said about Paul Konchesky the better. He is not of the right calibre and constantly makes mistakes which at present are being punished.
Torres is out of form and still looks short of sharpness to me, while for all his neat touches and admittedly a few important goals this season, Maxi Rodriguez still flatters to deceive far too often for my liking, despite Hodgson's recent admiration for a player who he barely played for five minutes before injuries to Kuyt and Cole forced his inclusion.
Regardless of this or any other debate, it is obvious that some young players will be given a run on Wednesday. Martin Kelly above all absolutely deserves the chance to increase his rising stock, while many fans will be pleased that Dani Pacheco and Jonjo Shelvey will also (probably) get another chance to impress. Ryan Babel will also likely start up front after a facial injury to David Ngog this weekend, and again, though not a youngster after his performance vs. Aston Villa is another one who at present deserves his chance.
But beyond those, should Brad Jones, Jack Robinson, David Amoo, Danny Wilson and any others be thrust in together? Presumably (along with 'keeper Jones) a few other more experienced backups will feature—Jovanovic made a five-minute cameo against Newcastle, which is about as much league time as he has been awarded in the past couple of months, while Joe Cole was deemed not even needed against Newcastle despite being a goal, and then two, down—and with one sub still allowed to be made. Fabio Aurelio should also start.
Given that most of these players have featured hardly at all over the past month, is it really the best decision to play them all at once and expect them to play to the best of their abilities in a game that effectively means nothing? Even Utrecht have nothing to play for, as they cannot qualify from the group themselves.
Liverpool need to win this game. Not for points, or even for pride. Winning the group effectively gives us that, what little can be taken from what is now seen as a backup competition. But they need to win to do precisely that—to WIN.
It is not good enough to take three or four victories out of every 10 games at this level. Not remotely good enough.
I have written, and will doubtless again write, about the problems with current boss Roy Hodgson. But as much as his tactics, mentality and methods might not be working at present, the players also disappointed against Newcastle. Of course part of that is because it was away from home, and we have this sign over us at the moment about getting a win away from Anfield.
But it is also because we have not put any sort of decent run together for a long time. I repeat: Winning breeds confidence.
And as the Reds embark on a crucial run of winnable fixtures over the Christmas and New Year period, only winning games is going to rocket our confidence back to where it needs to be, and as we all know any run begins with the first game.
Liverpool's first game of this run is on Wednesday night against Utrecht, and it cannot be looked at as a meaningless fixture.
I have always advocated playing the younger players whenever possible, and I always will. But my first concern is that Liverpool begin winning with regularity again, and perhaps to do that a stronger side is called for to do their job properly.
Let's hope the team—whoever is selected—can give us the start we need.
Follow me on twitter: @karlmatchett
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