There was a time when playing in the UEFA cup was something to aspire to for many English clubs. Nowadays they often treat the competition as a hindrance while other European teams reap the benefits that Europe has to offer. What has turned the heads of Premier League clubs away from UEFA’s second tier club competition? Should English teams return to the days of embracing a European footballing campaign?
The topic is rarely delved too deeply into but many of the reasons that are being touted are inherently contradictory. It seems odd to me that clubs are now focussing so much on domestic competitions that they have little or no chance of thriving in as a result of the traditional big four dominance. The latter weeks of the 2014/15 Premier League campaign seemed to descend into a ludicrous race to not qualify for Europe, as teams who were on track for a Europa League place all coincidentally suffered from plummeting form. If the idea behind missing out on European qualification is to focus on league position then it is surely ridiculous to then sacrifice league position to avoid qualification. This largely covers the money argument too. It has been pointed out that a higher league position may award clubs more money than a high Europa league finish but again the previous contradiction is clear. If the club doesn’t push for Europa spots then they don’t finish in the more rewarding positions either. With the announcement that the total prize money will increase by 65% for the next Europa League this excuse should be fully put to rest.
Another justification for English club disdain for continental campaigns is that having a Europa league campaign as well as domestic games is too much of a stretch on squads. This is often accepted at face value but for a number of reasons this excuse also carries little by way of proper logic. By the time English teams tend to be eliminated from european competition this ‘stretch’ will already have occurred. The fact that teams who have qualified don’t consider it a priority is odd. If you are going to have to commit playing time to the tournament upon qualification then to surely it makes sense to try and get to the latter stages instead of supposedly tiring out players in group stages and then giving up, meaning that the tiring was all for nothing. Group games have to be played by teams that qualify and after the group stage it’s a maximum of 9 games to the final. This is obviously an increase in fixtures but for the chance at a trophy it is not excessive, especially if the team in question has not also reached the latter stages on the domestic cups.
Any team that has aspirations to improve domestically will know that having good squad depth is key, but also that extra squad members are pointless if they are not match fit and ready when they are called upon. The only way to keep a full squad at match level preparation is to have them playing regularly. Cup runs are the best way to rotate squads, promote competition within a team, and thus maximise the potential of the team as a whole. Even blooding some youngsters along with more experienced members can only help a team. It’s not unheard of for Premier League teams to be eliminated from domestic cups in relatively early rounds as a result of their knockout nature, whereas the Europa League guarantees a certain amount games upon qualification. Squad maintenance and upkeep is possible only through regular competitive football for entire squads, instead of playing time only for the starting eleven which leads to both complacency and lack of match prepared replacements in case of injury or poor form. Put simply teams who wish to compete on multiple fronts, or at high levels, must have a squad that is fit and able to do so. More games are the only way to keep more players match fit.
Admittedly the newer incarnations of the competition have seen the once knock out tournament lose some of its excitement but there are clear benefits to taking the competition seriously. One needs only to look at such clubs as Spanish side Sevilla to realise these. Sevilla have consistently thrived in the Europa league in recent years, winning the competition twice in the last two years to add to UEFA Cup success in 2006 and 2007. As a result of this Sevilla as a club have profited by winning silverware, prize money and increasing the profile of the club itself. In turn Sevilla have been able both profit off players who impressed for them and recruit new players who are aware of the club’s success. Success in Europe has not been a handicap on league form either. Sevilla’s consecutive Europa League victories also coincided with 5th places finished in La Liga and this demonstrates the lift continental campaign can have on a team’s season and development. Sevilla finished their two previous seasons in 9th. In Sevilla’s previous two wins in 2006 and 2007 Sevilla also had good league campaigns finishing 5th and 3rd. some proper squad planning and management it has the potential to be more of a bonus than a curse. It would be foolish to suggest that a European run will definitely boost league form, or definitely won’t affect it, but with With a Champion’s League place up for now up for grabs with a Europa title the competition can be used as a springboard to Europe’s top competition, and an easier stepping stone than breaking into the top four via the league.
Foreign case studies, squad development, and money aside there is plenty of added reason to grasp the opportunity afforded by the competition in question. First of all is the fans. Fans love a good cup run, domestically or otherwise. Fans are the lifeblood of any football club and the opportunity to follow their beloved clubs abroad to show off their support is something that clubs should offer them. The morale and exposure gained can only benefit feeling within English clubs and their followers, if the chance of silverware alone was not already enough of an incentive. It’s a privilege and an opportunity to compete in Europe and many teams in surrounding leagues do all they can to battle through qualification for a chance to participate and give their fans something else to cheer for.
For their own benefit, and the reputation of the game in England it’s clubs need to take a long hard look at their attitude towards UEFA’s second club competition. The English game has turned its nose up at this European competition for too long, to it’s own detriment. Despite being self labelled ‘the best league in the world’ the Premier League has been on the decline in Europe, with Spanish, German, and Italian opposition dominating european football. Unless something is done then the reputation of English football abroad will continue to wane. A recent trend has been to lament the negative effect that a lack of English players and managers who experience playing in other European leagues is having on the domestic and international game in England. This may well be a factor in English players not reaching their full potential or limiting the English talent pool, and it is an interesting parallel to the lack of English teams who have really pushed for continental success. English players are unlikely to be picked up by foreign clubs or have a desire to play in europe if they are surrounded by a culture of dismissing continental football.
There was some European encouragement last season from the English game with Everton boss Roberto Martinez stating that “One competition shouldn’t get in the way of the other. When we built the squad at the start of the season it was with playing in Europe in mind. That hasn’t changed. We have a strong enough squad to face the two competitions.” Martinez led Everton to the last 16 of the 2014/2015 Europa League. Their league form admittedly dipped last season but with a more rounded squad this is not inevitable, and fans no doubt thrived on a good run of European football, particularly after early exits from the domestic cups. Hopefully with the increased prize money and the cash from new TV deals more Premier League clubs will commit to building squads capable of taking continental competition as seriously as they do domestic cups. If managed correctly this will lead to a huge boost to English football clubs, fans, and the competition itself and will add some more entertainment to our Thursday nights in 2015/2016.