Is Playing in Europe a Burden? - Sporting Index
Is Playing European Football a Burden?
Last season, Liverpool's journey to the Champions League final was the perfect example of a Premier League side coping with the physical and psychological demands of European football.
There was no point at all during which Liverpool looked tired or jaded in last season's European odyssey, and if anything, Jurgen Klopp's men seemed to thrive on any sense of fatigue. Liverpool's collective sense of familiarity and team harmony was their fuel, and even right up to the semi finals, the `Reds' were effortlessly scoring multiple goals in high-pressure matches against formidable opposition.
In addition to Liverpool reaching the Champions League final, Arsenal also reached the semi finals of the 2017/18 Europa League, losing out only narrowly to hot favourites Atletico Madrid. The arguments against European football having a negative impact on a team's form are yet further backed, by the resilience of teams playing league football after midweek duties this season.
`Fear factor' flattens fatigue
After four Champions League and Europa League matchdays in 2018/19, the six English teams playing group stage European football this season have created a combined win rate of 58.3%, together losing just two games of a possible 24. Furthermore, those two defeats are accounted for by current Champions League Outright Index favourite Manchester City, with Pep Guardiola's men beating Manchester United and Tottenham after a midweek round of European fixtures.
In practice, this means that no European participant has yet lost a Premier League match to a non-participant after a midweek game. This undeniably speaks volumes as to how much more powerful a team's `fear factor' can be in these days of tactical verbosity, compared to any inherent distraction factor European football may have.
Last season's Champions League group stage also saw every English team survive, and with at least a 75% survival rate forecast by bookmakers this time around, it can be safely argued that European football is not as much of a distraction as many believe.
Early starts & lack of experience spells danger
Over the past three seasons, 84.6% of English teams in the Champions League group stage have made it to the knockout round, with none finishing last in their group. Only one (Leicester) has gone on to finish in the bottom half of the Premier League - and that was after winning the group.
However, the Europa League qualifiers paint a different picture. Over the same three-season timespan, Premier League teams that have qualified for Europe via 7th place, and entered the competition at the second or third qualifying round, have gone on to struggle on both fronts.
The common denominator for those 7th placed teams was an unseasonably early start to the season, in late July, at a time when true `match sharpness' is still at a premium.
First there was a West Ham side that entered the 2016/17 Europa League at the third qualifying round after a strong 2015/16. For the second year in succession, the Hammers were dumped out by Astra Giurgiu, and went on to spend much of that autumn in the relegation zone.
This season, Burnley have also struggled, with the Clarets of East Lancashire having had the privilege of playing their first competitive match of the season on 26 July - just eleven days after the end of the World Cup.
Between those ill-fated campaigns was a team that actually managed to qualify for the group stage, with Everton doing so in 2017/18 in laboured fashion. Then managed by Ronald Koeman, Everton underperformed expectations when negotiating qualifying ties with Ruzomberok and Hajduk Split.
It was clear then that they were faring badly for not having a proper pre-season, in which the influx of summer signings could have gelled, and become better familiarised, with Koeman's tactics. The ripple effect saw Koeman lose his job, with Everton occupying the relegation zone in late October, and only hitting double figures in the Premier League points column in early November.
`Haves' and `have-nots'
The Everton of 2017 is not the first team to have suffered through this situation, and nor will it be the last. As of the November 2018 international break, Burnley remain just one point clear of the drop zone, and look nothing like the resilient team they were this time last year.
If anything, Everton's third-place finish at the 2017/18 group stage is one of the better performances by a 7th placed team. Tellingly, it has been nearly a decade since an `unlikely' team has done well in the Europa League after negotiating multiple qualifiers. Under Roy Hodgson, Fulham reached the 2009/10 Europa League final, after winning the Premier League's fair play award of 2008/09 and starting the campaign in the third qualifying round.
Since then, no English side entering the Europa League before the final qualification playoff round has ever got any further than the round of 16. Ultimately, given the recent contrast between the performances of Champions League group regulars and 7th-placed early starters, it seems as though a club is only as strong as its UEFA coefficient.
This leaves infrequent European participants (like Everton and West Ham) in something of a catch-22 situation, as the experience needed to succeed in the Europa League is only going to come from regular qualifications.
In that respect, there is some reserve of ammunition for those who think of European football as a necessary evil of the modern game. However, there is no weapon like preparation when it comes to success in football, and with the English top flight getting richer by the minute, the excuses for Europe's English underachievers are running out fast.
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