England’s Top 4 may soon become Top 3

Sevilla defeated Benfica on penalties after the Europa League Final finished 0-0 after extra-time.

Despite the enormous amounts of money in the English game and its marketability as The Best League In The World™, failings in both UEFA competitions mean that the English Premier League is facing a very real risk of losing its fourth Champions League position and dropping out of the top three domestic competitions in European football. And they’ve only got themselves to blame.

In England, Top 4 status is seen as the be all and end all for the clubs not competing for the title. Ask any Liverpool, Tottenham or Everton fan what their seasonal objectives are and – unless they’re one of the Merseysiders in red trying to convince you “it’s our year” – you’ll most likely be met with the response: “Top 4”. The added riches and prestige of competing in the Champions League help clubs strengthen both financially and on the pitch. There’s also the frustrating cycle of “we need to sign better players to get into the Champions League” but “they won’t sign for us because we’re not in the Champions League”, so breaking in is seen like (or sometimes better than) winning a trophy. The last decade or so of Arsenal would probably be deemed successful by most Gunners fans due to the fact they have not once finished lower than fourth, despite only winning two FA Cup trophies in that time and not finishing higher than third.

You would think that clubs that miss out on the Champions League would be happy to compete in the second-tier European competition, to help them blood youngsters and give both players and coaches experience on the European stage while getting used to the workload of consistently playing mid-week games – and also adding some European pedigree – to prepare themselves for the step up if/when they do qualify for the Champions League.

You could also argue it’s an enjoyable experience for fans, traveling around the continent following their side. Fulham supporters will no doubt look back fondly on their run to the final in 2010 where they lost in extra-time to Atletico Madrid, coming so close to winning the club’s first genuine trophy (with their lone honour outside of lower division titles and the 1910 London Challenge Cup plus a shared Intertoto Cup in 2002) after beating the likes of Wolfsburg, Juventus, Shakhtar Donetsk and FC Basel along the way.

But no. The overwhelming response in England to a season in the Europa League generally ranges from indifference to anger.

The Europa League is seen as a nuisance, rather than an opportunity. A distraction, rather than a stepping stone to bigger things.

You could follow the cases of Atletico Madrid and Sevilla though, who built their way towards the Champions League. The former won two Europa League titles in three years, and soon after were competing in the Champions League final in Lisbon, losing in extra-time to cross-city rivals Real. They are now a bona fide European force.

The latter of the two has won back to back Europa League titles, and with the competition now offering a gateway to the Champions League, will be competing in Europe’s top competition this season.

Despite the evidence that it can be a beneficial experience, ESPN analyst and former Liverpool legend Steve Nicol expressed his views on Liverpool competing in the competition this season on Press Pass recently.

“I’m disappointed because I can’t see any way that they don’t get through [and] that means more games.” he said. “For me, this is a waste of time for Liverpool. It’s just going to affect them trying to get into the Top 4 in the Premier League.”

I wouldn’t have Nicol in my top echelon of analysts, but his view is certainly not one shared by the minority.

(As an aside, I find it hard to fathom that supporters of football clubs complain about more games. Like, isn’t football support about watching your team play? So them playing more games is a good thing? Modern football, eh?)

Is it really a waste of time though? Last season Liverpool – and Brendan Rodgers – showed they weren’t up to the standard of the Champions League. And though they’ve added a few new players, the core of the squad that remains were the players who failed to get them through a group that contained FC Basel and Ludogorets. Wouldn’t they be better off competing on their own level and building from there, like Atleti and Sevilla have, rather than dismissing the competition as a chore?

Fulham were unlikely Europa League runners-up in 2010.
Fulham were unlikely Europa League runners-up in 2010.

More pertinently, and ironically, the idea of tossing the Europa League aside in order to achieve Champions League football could very well make achieving Champions League football even harder.

Regardless of whether they do so willingly or not, losing in the Europa League can have a massive effect on their chances of qualifying for the Champions League in the future.

Last season saw England’s worst ever performance in European competition. Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal were knocked out of the Champions League in the Round of 16, while Liverpool failed to make it out of the group stage. Throw in relatively average performances in the Europa League, and the fact that the last couple of years have failed to produce any sort of inspiring European runs from any of the English sides (in the last four years only three of the 16 English sides fielded in the Champions League have made it beyond the Round of 16 – Chelsea twice and Manchester United once), and the English coefficient looks like it may be in trouble.

Spain have, far and away, the best coefficient in Europe, which is the scale by which UEFA rank teams based on European performance. To explain quickly, points are awarded to teams in European competitions for winning and drawing games while bonus points are awarded for advancing to further stages of the tournament. All the points earned by clubs from a particular nation are then divided by the number of teams they had in the tournament to get a performance score for that season. That number is then added to the figures of the previous four seasons to generate a coefficient.

“This is why England should be fearful ahead of next season,” wrote Michael Cox in his piece, Premier League could be a victim of Europa League arrogance. “It’s not simply that 2014-15 was a bad campaign; it’s that 2010-11 will no longer count, and that was England’s strongest season over the past five years.”

Before the start of this season, Germany were ranked second with a coefficient of 63.749 while England sat in third on 62.034 and Italy, who outperformed England last season, are fourth with a coefficient of 58.939. But with England’s strongest season (2010-11) dropping off – while Italy will have no qualms with saying goodbye to their disastrous 2010-11 – the gap will likely become thinner, and with Serie A scoring 5.4 more points than the Premier League last season, a switch in positions and England losing its fourth spot for the 2017-18 season could certainly be a possibility.

The early exits of West Ham and Southampton are already bad news, as they’re two sides who won’t be accumulating points but will still be recognised as competing in the tournament when the coefficient is generated.

“This, of course, is the irony of the situation: Premier League clubs need to take the Europa League seriously to help maintain a Champions League slot. If not, then that Champions League place will instead become a Europa League place, and the consequence of ignoring the competition will be having to spend more time participating in it. The Premier League could, frankly, become a victim of its own arrogance.”

– Michael Cox

While there’s no doubt the Premier League doesn’t contain the very best players in the world – as none of the English clubs boast the amount of top-tier talent that Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or Barcelona can – there is really no excuse for such collective failure.

The English league is comfortably the most lucrative league in the world, and their already astronomical television deal is only going up in the immediate future. Clubs in England have money that others around the continent can only dream of. Spain have only recently begun negotiating collective television rights after the monopoly the big two have had for years, which saw Real and Barca rake in over €150m each per season while the next closest earned roughly €100m less. The bottom of the pack would pull in a paltry €2.5m. Meanwhile, the television rights to other European leagues are nowhere the likes of the EPL, while FFP has more or less destroyed the possibility of another nouveau riche club like Manchester City or PSG popping up any time soon.

To highlight the spending power of the EPL, you need look no further than the most recent transfer window which slammed shut closed at the beginning of this month.

The Premier League spent over €1.1b (we’ll put everything in Euros for the sake of comparison accuracy) on players in the summer window, while they recouped nearly €600m giving them a net spend of €580m. La Liga had the second highest net-spend at €186m while Italy’s Serie A was the third highest spending league with a net spend of €72m. The Bundesliga made a €66m profit – shout out to the English paying inflated prices – and Ligue 1 came out with a €97m profit thanks in part to the Anthony Martial deal which saw him leave Monaco for Manchester United.

It’s not just the big teams spending large amounts propping that collective spend up – though they do spend more than their fair share with City in particularly splashing the cash this summer – as the last year or so has seen the rise of the Premier League middle class, with teams like Swansea, West Ham and Stoke City pulling off transfers that seemed unthinkable only a few years ago. Ligue 1 star Andre Ayew moving to Wales on a free? Alex Song joining the Hammers? An attacking trio of Xherdan Shaqiri, Bojan and Ibrahim Afellay on a wet and windy Wednesday night in Stoke actually playing for the Potters?

There have been some major coups in the Premier League mid-table recently, but if you look at football’s rich lists, it’s actually not that surprising.

The Premier League boasts half of the top 10 richest clubs in the world, while there are 13 in the top 30, according to a study by Deloitte based on income received in 2013-14. Manchester United is second overall behind Real Madrid, while City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool follow one another from sixth to ninth respectively. Tottenham, Newcastle and Everton also crack the top 20, ahead of the likes of Roma, Marseille and Benfica, while only narrowly trailing Atletico Madrid, Napoli, Inter Milan and Galatasaray – teams they may move ahead of when the new TV deal kicks in – and West Ham, Aston Villa, Sunderland, Southampton, Swansea and Stoke round out the top 30.

But with so much money, why are they performing so poorly on the continent?

Why is there such a massive gap in quality between the likes of Atleti and Tottenham when their bank balances are similar?

Why are clubs that aren’t even in the top 30 like Sevilla, Wolfsburg and Athletic Bilbao (who can only sign Basque players for Christ’s sake!) outperforming their English counterparts?

There are a number of reasons, and that English arrogance towards the Europa League is one of them – as is the huge gap in terms of coaching numbers in England compared to the larger European nations – but they also mustn’t be spending that extra money they have very well at all.

The latest Deloitte Money League standings.
The latest Deloitte Money League standings.

Premier League wastage has been well documented, particularly at the big clubs. Chelsea and City are notorious for spending big money on players and failing to get the best out of them, though Chelsea have recently managed to get decent fees in return for the likes of Kevin De Bruyne and Andre Schurrle (though not Fernando Torres or Andriy Shevchenko), while City recorded substantial losses on the likes of Edin Dzeko, Stevan Jovetic and Alvaro Negredo. Manchester United took a hefty hit on Angel Di Maria, and Liverpool’s Andy Carroll transfer didn’t quite work out for them, to put it mildly.

The – no disrespect intended – smaller sides have a habit of doing it as well, often paying premiums for Premier League “proven” players because selling clubs have a lot of money too, unlike European sides that are forced to sell to maintain a cash flow. They’ll often hand out inflated wages and then struggle to move players on when they realise they aren’t worth their salary – Liverpool, we’re again looking at you with the likes of Joe Cole, and you too QPR, who managed to get relegated with a higher wage budget than European Cup runners-up Borussia Dortmund. Tottenham nearly paid Emmanuel Adebayor £5m just to get him off the books.

You wonder how efficient English scouts are when they spend £12m on Shane Long, £20m on Stewart Downing and £16m on Calum Chambers when clubs like Borussia Dortmund and Sevilla continue to unearth stars from all over Europe for fractions of those prices – think of Ilkay Gundogan, Robert Lewandowski, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Ivan Rakitic, Grzegorz Krychowiak. Or maybe they do recommend these players but those above them decline?

Perhaps part of the issue is in the amount of money available, and the cult of the transfer that Rory Smith refers to: a school of thought that views exciting transfers as some kind of panacea, negating the need for coaching and other non-headlining-grabbing parts of football. Spending more equals better results, because if they cost more they must be better, right?

It’s hard to truly gauge the standard of English sides in the Europa League though, as they never seem as committed as their opposition. Not necessarily in the players on the pitch, but the competition is rarely viewed as a priority – except for perhaps Everton’s efforts last season – and while in no way am I implying that clubs would intentionally lose games, they may not have the same sort of motivation for an away tie in Ukraine in November as they would the trip to Old Trafford the following weekend.

Part of that attitude lends itself to the argument that a long European run impacts on league form (though in the season Fulham went to the final they finished comfortably in mid-table in 12th position in the Premier League, which was probably about par considering their resources and playing squad) but if English sides were more effective with the money they spend then they should be able to handle workload. That extra money, if spent wisely with good scouting, could add two or three solid squad players to add the necessary depth to rotate the squad. It could also go into the academy to improve the standard of coaching to aid the development of their own players, offering them a better route to the senior team.

Isn’t that the goal anyway though? To get into the Champions League and actually be playing two games per week?

And is there really much difference between a Saturday-to-Tuesday turnaround compared to a Thursday-to-Sunday one?

Complaining about and bemoaning the workload instead of embracing it and using it for experience seems counter-productive.

As we saw with Liverpool and Tottenham, an entry ticket to the top competition doesn’t necessarily mean the best players want to sign for you either. There’s a good chance the players who got you there will form most of the squad that will be competing in it, so you may as well acclimatise them to the conditions.

The Europa League is starting to look a little more attractive, with the automatic Champions League berth obviously a big carrot and a recent announcement revealing a 63% increase in prize-money for clubs involved (because that’s what football is about; trophy cabinets are a thing of the past, it’s all about the bank balance now innit?), so it appears UEFA have recognised they should do something to bridge the gap between its second competition and the Champions League. The simple fact is it shouldn’t take these kinds of incentives to motivate English sides, particularly when their lackadaisical approach may cost them a Champions League position that they’re supposedly trying so hard to attain.

The Premier League is often heralded as the best league in the world. I guess it depends on how you define best, though the concept of one league being “the best” is itself an exercise in futility. You could argue it’s the most competitive as long as you’re not misinterpreting competitiveness for quality, but La Liga probably had it covered on both counts last season. Whatever your thoughts are, the evidence suggests England is certainly not the best performing. The Top 4 clubs certainly take the Champions League seriously and often make it through to the knockout stages, but the consistent failure to perform in the Europa League means there is no margin for error for those top sides if the English league is going to hold onto its fourth Champions League spot.

While it seems to be down to a combination of quality, depth and the attitude towards European football on a Thursday night, regardless, their poor performances could very well have consequences.

About Mark Houston 86 Articles
Mark is an editor of The Blog FC and has also contributed to other sport and music sites. He predominantly writes about La Liga but also follows Europe's other top leagues and the local A-League. There's a special place in his heart for bearded deep-lying playmakers and he's a proud member of the Goalkeepers Union.