Yesterday, Tottenham Hotspur manager Andre Villas-Boas announced that he would be taking the Europa League very seriously and would be fielding a strong squad for the competition. This represents a marked departure from how previous manager Harry Redknapp treated the competition. Redknapp used it more as a proving ground for his younger players, particularly in the early stages of the competition. Is this new way of thinking better or worse for Tottenham Hotspur?
First, here's exactly what Villas-Boas had to say about the Europa League:
"This competition is very important. It's a tough competition, you have to play 15 games before you reach the final, so it's hard and strenuous and the best teams out of the Champions League are playing...It gives access to the European Super Cup and, for me, I always thought it was a prestigious competition and it should be promoted like that because after the Cup Winners’ Cup disappeared, it is not only about the Champions League...If we can win a trophy, that represents a lot for Tottenham Hotspur's history as well and would be something really special."
So, I don't disagree about how the competition or a trophy in general should be treated. A trophy is a trophy, isn't that right Arsenal? The thing that's most concerning to me though is that it is such a strenuous competition. And extra 15 games just to reach the final is a lot extra football for your first-team players, especially when you're competing for Champions League places.We really have no idea what sort of team Villas-Boas will throw out on Thursday when Lazio come to White Hart Lane. It could very well the exact same team we saw against Reading. However, it seems more likely that Villas-Boas will rotate in some of the new signings and players that need match fitness. Hugo Lloris, Clint Dempsey, and Emmanuel Adebayor all seem, in my mind at least, likely to get some meaningful minutes. When it comes to the likes of Michael Dawson, Steven Caulker, Jake Livermore, and Andros Townsend, however, I have no idea how likely they are to play.
As I mentioned above, in the past we used the Europa League to blood in the youngsters. It served as a launching point for a successful season for Jake Livermore and brought our attention to Tom Carroll. I've seen many calling for the inclusion of Yago Falque and Souleymane Coulibaly in these Europa League squads, but that seems highly unlikely now. Certainly, if Tottenham perform well in the first few group stage games and are able to secure early qualification we may see some of the youngsters, but I'm inclined to believe we'll be seeing a lot more first-team players than we expected.
The main problem with playing so many first-team players is, that when you don't have a terribly deep squad, you're going to wind up with some tired legs as the season progresses. It seemed to be a universally held opinion that Redknapp's failure to rotate last season resulted in Tottenham's late season slide. Eight players started 34 or more games for Spurs last season. Players like Scott Parker, Kyle Walker, and Gareth Bale all seemed to be noticeably worn down during Spurs' slump.
Perhaps Andre Villas-Boas feels that because his Porto team was able to cope with both the Europa League and the domestic league that Tottenham will also be able to do it. However, Porto played in a domestic league that is not anywhere near as deep or competitive as the English Premier League. First, the Portuguese Liga plays eight less games in a season. Making a drawn out Europa League campaign a bit easier to handle. Second, the Liga just lacks the sheer number of good teams that the EPL has. In Villas-Boas lone season as Porto manager, during which Porto went unbeaten, his side finished 21 points clear of Benfica (2nd) and 36 points clear of Sporting (3rd).
Tottenham Hotspur obviously aren't going to finish this season unbeaten, mostly because we've already lost, so any sort of hope of having that kind of cushion in the league is moot. Spurs have to make mid-week trips to Italy, Greece, and Slovenia for the Europa League group stages. These aren't short trips and with league games coming only a few days later we're likely to see some tired legs over the next few months if Villas-Boas doesn't rotate his squad.
So, the dilemma that faces the manager is what competition is more important to him. Is it more important to win trophies or is more important to finish in the top four and play in the Champions League next season. I think most fans would argue that trophies are great and all, but Tottenham should be aiming for the Champions League and the money and prestige that comes with it. That's certainly what I want. I'd love to win a trophy, but I'm not willing to scuttle our domestic campaign for the Europa League. It would be much less taxing to attempt to lift a domestic cup than it would be to try to bring the Europa League trophy to White Hart Lane.
That said, the fringe players in our team probably have enough quality to beat most of the sides in our group, Lazio being the exception and to qualify for the knockout stages. However, it remains to be seen what Villas-Boas will actually do. I, for one, am extremely interested to see what sort of line-up Villas-Boas puts on the pitch on Thursday.
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