The often-lamented continental cup is crucial for Brendan Rodgers to give sidelined players a chance to show what they can do, says James Dutton...
“When the manager told me I could go to Fulham it was a bit of a shock at first. What he said came as a sort of bolt from the blue.
"I worked really hard to come to a club like Liverpool and I didn’t want to leave in a hurry. I want to stay at Liverpool for as long as I can.”
When the manager told me I could go to Fulham it was a bit of a shock at first. What he said came as a sort of bolt from the blue. I worked really hard to come to a club like Liverpool and I didn’t want to leave in a hurry. I want to stay at Liverpool for as long as I can
Speaking ahead of the Reds' trip to face Anzhi Makhachkala in November 2012, Jordan Henderson is still waiting for his first Premier League start under Brendan Rodgers.
He’s made only four substitute appearances in the league, but has been a virtual ever-present in the Europa League. Barely two months earlier he was on the verge of being farmed out to Fulham, a pawn in the club’s efforts to sign Clint Dempsey.
The rags to riches story of Henderson’s Liverpool journey is one well told by now: a big-money signing under Kenny Dalglish, an ever-present in an underwhelming first season played largely out of position before being frozen out by Rodgers. Now the former Sunderland midfielder, 25 and approaching the peak years of his career, has taken the armband from Steven Gerrard and is almost as undroppable as his predecessor.
Without the Europa League it's hard to see how any of this happens. The competition saved Henderson’s Liverpool career. In 2012/13 the Reds played 54 games across four competitions.
The season after – where they came so close to clinching the league title – they played in only 43 games due to a lack of European commitments. Europe’s second-tier club competition attracts its fair share of detractors, certainly in England where fixture congestion is blamed for derailing a league season.
European exploits require a big squad, they demand rotation and flexibility in spreading resources. They present managerial headaches, but more games for the players creates more opportunities to impress.
Without the Europa League Henderson would not have got his games, reduced to the odd 10-minute cameo in the league every few weeks without the responsibility of consistent starts. In Rodgers’ first season at Anfield he had to wait until November 25 for his first league start – a goalless draw at Swansea – by which point he’d started four Europa League games and two Capital One Cup fixtures.
Without the Europa League Jordan Henderson would not have got his game, reduced to the odd 10-minute cameo in the league every few weeks
The extra games kept his match fitness up and integrated him into the way Rodgers wanted to play. By the time of that first start, Henderson wasn't being thrown into the lion’s den and knew what was expected of him. He took his opportunity. Ten days later he scored the winning goal in Udinese to send Liverpool into the last 32 of the Europa League, and he eventually overtook Jonjo Shelvey and Joe Allen in the midfield hierarchy. After a miserable 3-1 defeat to Southampton in mid-March, the Wearsider started every single league game for Rodgers up until his sending off in the dying embers of the 3-2 win over Manchester City some 13 months later.
It wasn’t just Henderson who benefited from the Europa League that season; Suso and Andre Wisdom both forced their way into Rodgers’ league side through encouraging showings in Europe.
This meritocracy is a policy Rodgers has consistently advocated – though how Dejan Lovren continues to profit from the manager’s goodwill remains a mystery. Thursday’s trip to Bordeaux offers a first glimpse at Liverpool’s shadow squad in competitive action and how the likes of Divock Origi, Jordon Ibe, Jordan Rossiter, Alberto Moreno and Mamadou Sakho can force their way up the pecking order.
Until the recent injuries of Henderson and Allen it would have represented a chance for Emre Can to find a defined place in Rodgers’ starting XI; instead it has been forced on him in the league and the German is visibly struggling for consistency. For the younger players – Ibe, Rossiter and Origi in particular – the games against Bordeaux, FC Sion and Rubin Kazan present a chance to learn on the job.
It brings the pressure of playing for the first team without the intense spotlight of the Premier League, and against opposition that are a sizeable step up from Carlisle United, next week’s League Cup opponents. You learn more about a player’s appetite and his aptitude on the European stage than in a routine run-out.
You learn more about a player’s appetite and his aptitude on the European stage than in a routine run-out against lower-league sides
Sakho and Moreno will receive a chance to push their first-team claims, with the former controversially frozen out at the start of the season and the Spaniard relegated to the bench by Joe Gomez. It further calls into question the decisions to loan out Wisdom, Lazar Markovic and Tiago Ilori, players who would so obviously have benefited from the responsibility of a Europa League campaign in the same way Henderson and others did three years ago.
With Liverpool struggling for form and an identity on the pitch, Rodgers should view European competition as an opportunity rather than a distraction; a chance to cultivate a style of play that suits him and his players, rather than the slavish devotion to a passive and pedestrian 4-3-3.
Rodgers has slowly but surely lost confidence in the style of football that served him so well, become haunted by his defeats – most seismically the derailing of Liverpool’s 2013/14 season – and lost sight of his purpose. He has lost the courage of his convictions. This season’s quest for solidity has come at the cost of aggression and intensity, two hallmarks of a fit and firing Rodgers side.
Rodgers has slowly but surely lost confidence in the style of football that served him so well
Setbacks in Europe will not cost him his job, but by reclaiming his attacking zest with a shadow squad that has nothing to lose, Rodgers can begin to claw back an Anfield career on the rocks. Results have become almost secondary to performances for a fanbase at odds with a manager who has become lost in a web of compromises. He need only look at his captain to see what can be gained from using the Europa League as a dress rehearsal for the bigger challenges ahead.