JAMES NALTON assesses the strengths of a team that shines on the European stage
HEART-STOPPER: Liverpool’s Darwin Nunez celebrates scoring their side’s second goal of the game during the Premier
“IT’S really easy to fall in love with this team because there’s so much excitement in it,” said Jurgen Klopp after Liverpool took control of their Europa League group with a 5-1 win at home to Toulouse on Thursday.
The victory marked their seventh in a row at Anfield this season, and not only do they have a perfect record at home this year, but they have won all of those games on Merseyside by two goals or more.
It has led to a feel-good factor around the club following a disappointing 2022/23 season.
Toulouse manager Carles Martinez Novell described Liverpool as a Champions League team despite this being a Europa League match, perhaps an indication of how disappointing it was for Liverpool not to have a place at Europe’s top table.
But they are dining well in Europe regardless.
If a European campaign goes as well as this one has for Liverpool so far, these competitions can be good for team and supporter morale.
They give fringe players the chance to get minutes and feel like they are contributing to the overall effort, which the players, fans, and manager then hope continues into the league.
The three different tournaments Uefa runs mean teams outside of the Premier League’s usual “big six” (or whatever the number of teams deemed “big” is this year) can get a similar benefit from these midweek European jaunts.
We saw this with West Ham last season as they won the Europa Conference League, and we are seeing it this season to some extent with Aston Villa.
Villa’s Conference League exploits are so far complementing their league form. They sit just a point behind Liverpool in the Premier League in fifth and are joint-top of their Euro group alongside Legia Warsaw.
The only teams to defeat Villa in those two competitions this season happen to be Legia Warsaw and Liverpool.
Under manager Unai Emery, Villa have managed to assemble an exciting, attacking team, led by the attacking exploits of Ollie Watkins.
Villa have gone from the Jack Grealish era into a new one spearheaded by Watkins’s goals and built on solid foundations with a mixture of creativity, energy and enterprise.
Holding midfielder Douglas Luiz is one of the outstanding players in his position in the league, while the supporting cast including Moussa Diaby, John McGinn, Ezri Konsa, Emi Martinez, and Leon Bailey all bring something to the table.
It’s something fans can enjoy. Just as West Ham fans savoured their European adventure last season amid a disappointing league campaign, and are doing similarly in the Europa League this time around, despite defeat at Olympiacos last week.
If a team can perform in Europe and take an entertaining style of play into the league on top of that, it is a recipe for football enjoyment.
And the enjoyment of football can be a rare commodity for many teams these days, especially when the Premier League title itself is out of reach for most.
So this added European competition has been a positive for fans of Premier League sides, and their players.
“There were 1,000 fans here helping us,” Emery commented after Villa’s impressive 4-1 win in the Netherlands against AZ Alkmaar on Thursday.
“Adding some of the players as well, and getting from them their best qualities.
“In recent matches, they didn’t start, like Leon Bailey, Youri Tielemans. So it was very important trying to get the performance with every player.”
Klopp is able to do something similar at Liverpool, giving minutes to talented 24-year-old Irish goalkeeper Caoimhin Kelleher who would probably start for many Premier League teams. His problem is that he is currently in the same Liverpool squad as one of the best goalkeepers in the world, Alisson.
Harvey Elliott has also featured heavily for Liverpool in the cups this season, playing the full 90 minutes in each Europa League game despite only starting once in the league.
Young academy products Luke Chambers, Calum Scanlon, and James McConnell all saw minutes in Liverpool’s 5-1 win on Thursday.
And Ryan Gravenberch looks like he could emerge as a real star in this Liverpool side after signing from Bayern Munich in the summer.
His performances in the Europa League have been key to this realisation.
The Dutchman has two goals and an assist in the three games he’s played in the competition so far and was arguably man of the match against Toulouse alongside Japan international Wataru Endo who also impressed.
Win or lose, Liverpool and Villa are often good to watch at the moment, including for less partisan football enjoyers with no attachment to either team.
Teams who are good to watch will generally win more than they lose, so fans have hope each week.
It is easier for clubs with the financial clout of a Premier League team to walk the walk in Europe — Brighton defeating Ajax 2-0 for example, seems extraordinary on paper, though it is not that surprising when comparing each team’s resources.
But Brighton still use those resources better than most, and the same can be said for Liverpool and Villa at the moment.
The result of this type of team building is a good game to watch, with entertaining players and positive results more often than not.
When this transfers onto the continental stage against a variety of teams in countries across Europe, following a team’s fortunes can be an even more enjoyable journey for football fans.