Last weekend, Liverpool lost in sorry fashion to Manchester United, their hated foe and rival for one of the Premier League’s all-important top four spots. That result, plus the draw with Arsenal a couple weeks prior, likely shut the door on what in the best of cases would’ve been an unlikely run to Champions League qualification next season. Instead of accepting this reality and pursuing their best path back to Europe’s prestigious competition, it looks like they’ve decided to fight for the nigh-impossible.
Reports from today state that regular Liverpool starters Christian Benteke, James Milner, Nathaniel Clyne, Martin Škrtel, and Dejan Lovren won’t make the trip to France for the club’s Europa League match against Bordeaux. Along with Lucas Leiva, who’s also staying home, that’s six of last weekend’s starters that won’t be in the team. So pardon me if I don’t buy Liverpool assistant coach Gary McAllister’s insistence that they all “want to do well in” the competition.
I understand the thinking. The common trope in England is that Europa League play distracts clubs from more important Premier League matches, what with the far-flung games at odd times that offer little recovery time between the vicious Thursday night-to-Saturday afternoon schedule. So rather than attempting to fight on both fronts, most likely falling short in both, the theory goes that it’s better to throw the Europa League games to try and ensure the highest possible EPL finish.
The thing is that Liverpool are highly, highly unlikely to achieve their ultimate goal of Champions League play by way of a top four finish. As results on the pitch would indicate, Liverpool at the very least are not as good as Manchester City, Arsenal, and Manchester United, and while Chelsea haven’t shown it thus far, as defending champions with at worst the second-best roster in the Premier League, they also have to be included in the group better than the Reds.
Bolstering what appears to be Liverpool’s position just outside the true top four contenders is the league’s economic reality. As Michael Caley pointed out at ESPNFC, it’s very difficult for EPL teams to outperform their wage bill ranking in the points table. The vast majority of the time, the teams with the top four salary expenditures wind up in the top four spots:
As has been the case for years now, Liverpool have the fifth-highest wage bill in England.
The cycle that leads to wage bills correlating so strongly with results is exactly why Liverpool are so desperate to claw their way back into the Champions League: by and large, higher salaries go to better players, which leads to higher league finishes and Champions League play, which attracts more great and expensive players, which leads to more success. Liverpool have tried to keep up with their rivals by spending and spending and spending, but it’s incredibly hard to convince a world-class player to join, or even stay with, a team that at best has only an outside chance at the Champions League.
Liverpool are left to amass players just outside that designation, hoping that the younger or less renowned ones grow into something better and can bring them to the promised land. This can work, as the club itself proved a couple years ago when the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, and, most importantly, Luis Suárez all hit peaks at the right time and created a team that was but a slippery patch of grass away from winning the league. But that takes time and luck, and requires those emergent world-class talents not to leave town for more regularly world-class clubs.
Which is all the more reason why the club should throw everything into the Europa League. Last season was the first one under the new rule that automatically grants the Europa winner a spot in the follow season’s UCL group stage. Liverpool can’t compete financially with the richest clubs in England, but they have one of highest paid, deepest, and most talented rosters in Europe’s second competition. And as teams across the continent—especially Spanish ones—have shown, a deep, well-managed club absolutely can compete both domestically and in Europa League. Liverpool, of all clubs, can’t complain about lacking resources to field a team capable of fighting on multiple fronts.
Taking European play seriously would also give the squad more minutes and opportunities to learn and grow together, which would help accelerate the development of players like Jordan Ibe, Benteke, Emre Can, and Roberto Firmino, who could one day be the next Suárez or Sterling or Steven Gerrard and drive the club where they want to go. And if they did win the whole thing and qualified for the Champions League, maybe they wouldn’t miss out on the next Diego Costa or Willian or Memphis Depay.
Liverpool are correct in setting Champions League qualification as their target. But judging this season on whether they finish in the top four or not was always going to be a mistake. Punting on their most realistic chance of reaching that goal is misguided at best, and delusional at worst.
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