I’m all for a five-year plan when the need to start from scratch arises. Liverpool have been put into that position and have entrusted Brendan Rodgers with overseeing a return to success. But a consistent lack of Champions League football could throw a spanner into the works time and again with players wanting to leave. And that, more than any internal disagreements, will be the manager’s toughest challenge.
But here’s the thing: I don’t believe Champions League football is as important as it’s made out to be. Sure, everyone would like to win it. But how many clubs make a genuine drive to become champions of Europe rather than just viewing the revenue as the ultimate prize?
The problem is, it doesn’t matter what anyone else’s perception is of the Champions League, or even if Liverpool what to think of it as a necessity from their own point of view in building. But you’ve always got to ask questions of teams like Liverpool or Arsenal and Tottenham if they’re capable of managing European football of that scale while trying to build towards something domestically.
You look at Juventus as an example who needed to re-establish themselves at the top of Serie A and did so without Champions League football getting in the way. Now that’s not to say Antonio Conte’s side wouldn’t have been able to juggle both competitions, as well as the Copa Italia, a competition in which they progressed to the final, but UEFA’s elite tournament should be seen as battle ground for those who are prepared. Yet once again, the prize money has turned it into something else, as well as the fact it’s not really about the champions of each country.
So what kind of advantage does that put Liverpool in? For starters, the Champions League is a benefit because of the attraction and the wider market it offers the club in the transfer window, not to mention the willingness for the team’s top stars to remain at Anfield. However, what is the bigger prize? The Premier League title, or a cup competition which is dominated by teams with vastly better squads and financial means?
Liverpool don’t have the backing of clubs like Manchester City or Chelsea, so they have to go down this route of planning for the long term but in smaller blocks. Isn’t that how sports should be played? There isn’t anything wrong with Liverpool’s approach and they should be commended if they achieve success come the end of the cycle.
But as always, you’ll have the argument for the need to be pushed along by the windfall of Champions League revenue. And once again that highlights the problem with football. If it isn’t owners backed by billions disrupting the patient building of other clubs, it’s the clamour for Europe’s top competition. And that isn’t just limited to the media or fans; players also want to be at the top of the tree and fighting, in their mind, for the greatest prize in club football.
I don’t think Liverpool should have to worry about reaching the Champions League for next season, and maybe Monday night’s loss to West Brom proved that perhaps everything isn’t quite settled yet. The top tier of European football will come, but it will come much more naturally when the club find themselves in the top four based on merit rather than the shortcomings of others or panic buying.
You can’t fight the desire from players wanting to leave, but it isn’t just central to the Champions League. Players like Cristiano Ronaldo had the world and more at Manchester United but wanted the move to Real Madrid. Luis Suarez could be enticed away by the draw of wages which could be doubled elsewhere, in spite of whether or not Liverpool are an established top four team.