Why Do English Clubs Struggle With The Europa League?

The Europa League isn’t highly regarded in England. If the Europa League is supposed to be the Champions League’s little brother, in England it’s seen more as the distant cousin from that side of the family you have nothing to do with.

For many teams across Europe, qualifying for the Europa League is a good thing. That’s not the case in England, where most people don’t look at qualification for the Europa League as a reward for success in a cup competition or a relatively good league campaign. Instead, it’s more likely to be considered as a punishment, with teams taking part almost under duress.

Despite the fact that the Europa League’s a major club competition, and the winning club now gets a spot in the following season’s Champions League, the view in England is that it’s better not to be in any form of European competition than be in the Europa League.

Opposition fans taunt the fans of clubs in the Europa League about their involvement in it, with ‘Thursday nights, Channel Five’ being used mockingly around grounds in England (despite Channel Five not having shown the Europa League since 2012). Chelsea defender Ashley Cole once nearly started a fight in the tunnel before a game against Manchester City by chanting that at the City team.

Most English clubs approach Europa League games with an attitude of indifference at best. Since the Europa League replaced the UEFA Cup in 2009, only on English club has won it, Chelsea in 2013, and they did so without appearing to give a damn about the competition all the way up to the final.

The reason for English apathy toward the Europa League is the belief that playing in it has a devastating effect on that club’s Premier League campaign.

There seems to be some truth to this. On average, a team participating in the Europa League finishes 2.3 places lower than the previous season. Of the 36 times English clubs have competed in the Europa League, there have only been 8 occasions where one of those team has improved in the league from the previous season. There have only been two occasions where a team playing in the Europa League has finished in the top 4 of the Premier League.

Looking at the Premier League teams involved in last season’s Europa League, in their following Premier League game after a Europa League game, Everton’s record was 2 wins, 2 draws and 4 losses, Spurs’ record was 3 wins, a draw and 3 losses. So this seems to bear this theory out.

Liverpool only played two games in the Europa League after they dropped into the knockout stages following going out of the Champions League, so we can’t really draw any conclusions, but they did beat Arsenal and Manchester City in the games following those Europa League matches.   

Conventional wisdom says the reason why Europa League clubs suffer in the Premier League is because the demands of playing a Europa League game on a Thursday night, coupled with having to travel back, means that a team is at a disadvantage for their next league game, usually on a Sunday.

The Europa League isn’t nearly as lucrative as the Champions League. UEFA have increased the prize money on offer for the Europa League, but it’s still the case that the Europa League winner will get less money than a team that qualifies for the group stages of the Champions League.

Sadly, the nature of the Premier League means most teams are motivated by money over competition. A drop of 2-3 places in the Premier League can mean a club would lose £6-8m in prize money. A team would have to get to the final after wining every Europa League game to make that kind of money, so it’s not hard to see why teams don’t treat the Europa League as a priority.

That trend seems to be continuing this season, West Ham were given a Europa League qualifying spot by virtue of topping the Premier League fair play table last season. Just over a week ago, West Ham travelled to Romanian side Astra Giurgiu for the second leg of their qualifier. Despite the tie being in the balance, West Ham manager Slaven Bilic decided to prioritise their opening league game against Arsenal, and sent over a side with virtually no first-team players, and West Ham were promptly knocked out.

West Ham’s fans weren’t happy, but a few days later they met Arsenal in the Premier League and surprisingly won. If you ask Slaven Bilic or most West Ham fans if they would rather be in the Europa League or have beaten Arsenal at the Emirates, very few would pick Europa League.

For Spurs and Liverpool, winning the Europa League might be their best, and most realistic, chance of making next season’s Champions League. But rather than prioritise the Europa League, both sides will believe that they can make the Premier League top 4, so the Europa League will go on the backburner. Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has hinted that he’ll use the Europa League to give some of Liverpool’s young players an opportunity, and Spurs have generally taken the same approach in the past few seasons.

So, if it’s the case, as English clubs claim, that playing in the Europa League is damaging to your league campaign due to the travel and the Thursday/Sunday schedule, then that pattern has to be repeated all over Europe, right?

Well, no.

Spanish team Sevilla won the Europa League last season, for the second season running, and as a result will play in this season’s Champions League. Their league results in the games following Europa League matches were W4 D2 for the group stage phase and W4 D3 L1 for the knockout stages. Sevilla gained an extra 13 points in the league last season (following an identical 13 point increase in the league when they won the Europa League the previous season). So the Europa League didn’t damage their league season.

Italian sides Fiorentina and Napoli both reached the Europa League semi-finals. Fiorentina finished 2 points worse off in Serie A, but their results after Europa League games were a strong W4 D1 L1 in the group stage and W4 D2 L2 in the knockout stage. Napoli finished 16 points worse off than the season before, but again their results in games after the Europa League, W3 D1 L2 in the group stage and W4 D2 L2, suggest that whatever happened to Napoli that made them worse than the previous season, it wasn’t participating in the Europa League that was the problem.

In Germany, it was Wolfsburg who went furthest in the Europa League, making the quarter-finals. Wolfsburg’s results in the Bundesliga after Europa League games were W5 D1 in the group stage and W3 D2 L1 in the knockout phase. Wolfsburg gained 9 points last season compared to the previous one, so, again, being in the Europa League didn’t have a negative effect.   

So why is it then that English clubs seem to struggle in their domestic league whereas teams in other countries don’t?

There’s no good reason why a team can’t have a good Premier League season and a good run in the Europa League. Premier League squads have great depth and should be able to handle the extra games and travel without any problems.

If a club in the Europa League has a worse league campaign than the season before, it’s usually because that team isn’t as good as they were the season before. If you saw Everton last season, the reason they did significantly worse in the league than the previous season was a combination of a defence that didn’t play well as a unit, injuries to key players and a loss of form for their strikers. None of those were due to the Europa League.

So perhaps the problem is one of mentality. There’s a really damaging mindset in England that if something’s not the absolute pinnacle of whatever field it’s in, then it’s not worth bothering with at all. That’s why many fans of teams in the Europa League don’t want their side to be in it and barely care how their team gets on.

If teams get the message from their fans and the media that the Europa League is an irrelevance to be ridiculed rather than a serious competition, and it doesn’t matter if they progress or go out, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that some of the will to win of that team is reduced, a mentality which can then spill over to their league games.

With Premier League managers being under constant scrutiny and a few bad results away from losing their job, it’s not a surprise that they choose to prioritise the league over the Europa League.

But winning the UEFA Cup/Europa League certainly hasn’t hurt the managerial careers of Jose Mourinho, Diego Simeone and Rafa Benitez. The case for Steve McClaren and Roy Hodgson to become England manager was helped by them reaching the final with Middlesbrough and Fulham respectively. So why shouldn’t Brendan Rodgers, Mauricio Pelligrino or Ronald Koeman try to win it this season?

English clubs, their fans and the media need to stop turning their nose up at the chance to win a European trophy as England’s UEFA coefficient, which determines the number of places in the Champions League and Europa League is under threat. A few years ago England were ranked first by UEFA, now they are 3rd.

 Last season, Italian clubs did far better in European competition than English clubs. Should that be repeated this season, Italy would overtake England in UEFA coefficient terms, which would mean England would lose a Champions League place.

So it could well be soon that the reluctance of some clubs to compete in the Europa League, for fear of jeopardising a chance to challenge for the Champions League, may be what turns the top four into the top three.