The UEFA Champions League and Europa League both return this week, and the British press is once again reminding us of English teams’ awful start to both competitions. As you might have heard, Premier League clubs failed to qualify for the UCL quarterfinals in two of the last three seasons, and Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal each began the current campaign with 2-1 losses.
As one report claims, “the English plight is becoming so desperate that the Premier League is in danger of losing one of its four places in the Champions League.”
Indeed, this is true: the Premier League could lose one of its UCL slots, but that would require that Serie A turns in another European season like last year, when Juventus made it to the UCL final, and Fiorentina and Napoli each made it to the Europa League semis. But let’s step back for a second.
UEFA doles out European slots on the basis of a country’s coefficient ranking, which is essentially an average of every team in that country’s performance in Europe over the last five seasons. For England, the simple fact that 2014-15 was a bad year is exacerbated by the loss of the 2010-11 results in the coefficient average -- as that was England’s strongest season in the last five years.
According to ESPN’s Michael Cox, once 2010-11 no longer factors in, England, currently third in the UEFA coefficient table, will start next season with 62.0 points, compared to Italy’s 58.9 -- a difference of 3.1 points. Last season, Italy finished ahead of England by 5.4 points, so a repeat of last season, when no English teams reached a European quarterfinal, would see England fall to fourth in the rankings, and thus, lose one of its UCL slots.
Of course, Italy is by no means guaranteed of having as good a season in Europe as it did last year, but still, the threat is there.
One of the major problems England has -- aside from poor recent performances in the UCL -- is the fact that its teams don’t tend to take the Europa League seriously. Of its four qualifiers for the competition this season, Southampton and West Ham have already failed to make it to the group stage, while Tottenham and Liverpool have consistently used the Europa League to play young, inexperienced or out of form players.
As Cox notes, therein lies the irony for Premier League clubs: they need to take the Europa League seriously if for no other reason than preserving one of the UCL slots that its teams covet so highly. In other words: “the consequence of ignoring the competition will be having to spend more time participating in it.”
However, the truth is, it would be a remarkable achievement for Italian clubs to match or surpass the kind of season they had in Europe last year.
Meanwhile, EPL managers are being asked why they’ve done so poorly in the UCL over the last several seasons. Man City coach Manuel Pellegrini, for one, points to the fact that English teams play in three, rather than two, domestic cup competitions. He adds that the league’s crippling schedule in December and January is also partially to blame.
Man United coach Louis van Gaal says the league’s teams suffer in Europe because the Premier League is a “rat race” where every single game is a “battle.”
Van Gaal’s view is probably closer to the truth. English teams are suffering in Europe as a result of heavy domestic competition rather than a crowded schedule, as the schedule hasn’t really changed all that much in the last 20 or so seasons. As you’ve no doubt heard many an EPL coach say, ‘There are no easy games in England,’ whereas the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona in Spain, Bayern Munich in Germany and Paris Saint-Germain in France can coast through many of their domestic league games so they are fresh for Europe.
However, that doesn’t mean EPL coaches should be forgiven for European failure. Sure, England may have more domestic competitions and better quality inside these competitions, but the EPL also generates far more revenue than other leagues, so these coaches should be expected to build their squads accordingly. Instead of shelling out hundreds of millions on one proven goal-scorer, why not buy four players and build your squad for a deeper run in each competition?
As you might remember, former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson was able to build a squad capable of challenging for every trophy in England and he was ultimately rewarded with an unprecedented Treble in 1998-99.