Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Avoiding The Europa League: The Battle To Finish 7th

There's currently a very close race taking place in the world of basketball as some of the most famous names in the NBA battle to finish the season with a worse win-loss record than each other.

Currently the race is led by the Milwaukee Bucks (okay not exactly a stellar name) with a record of 12 wins and 50 losses but following them up are the famous Los Angeles Lakers (16 times NBA champions), the Boston Celtic (17 times) and the New York Knicks, one of the most famous sporting franchises in the world. These three juggernauts of the sport have all managed to lose over 40 games each this season so far, each with a with a loss record of close to 70%. None of them seem that bothered about it. The Lakers and Celtics in particular put very little effort into assembling their squads for this year with the intention of writing off the season before it began and finishing as low in the standings as possible.

Kobe Byrant's Lakers are 15th and last in the Western Conference

There is method to this madness. The teams with the worst record each NBA season are rewarded in the annual NBA draft where the professional teams choose from the most promising college players to sign. The teams with the worse record will get a better pick and therefore a better young player for next season. The draft class of 2014 looks to be producing something of a golden generation so having a high pick this year may serve to benefit the team greatly over the next several years.

Basketball clubs are doing what is necessary to protect their interests. They are sacrificing this season with the long-term picture in mind. From a sporting point of view, it's terrible to see a team  not give it 100% effort on purpose. The same thing may soon happen in the Premier League as clubs look to avoid finishing 5th or 6th place and being forced to play in the dreaded Europa League next season.

The last ten days have seen significant developments in this area. I'll explain why. The Premier League gets three Europa League spots every season. One for 5th place in the league, one for the League Cup winners and one for the FA Cup winners or runners-up. Manchester City's League Cup victory a  week ago, combined with the certainty that they will qualify for Europe via league position anyway, means the League Cup spot for the Europa League will go instead to the team that finishes 6th in the league. However their elimination from the FA Cup and the semi-final draw which pits Hull against Sheffield United guarantees at least one team from outside the Champions League spots will be in the FA Cup final and therefore rewarded with a Europa League spot, ruling out the possibility of the 7th place team going into the Europa League.

Rodgers said last year he didn't want to be in the Europa League

We've seen with Liverpool this season that not having to play extra games in far-off places on Thursday nights can have a hugely positive affect on a team's domestic form. Judging by this, the team finishing in 7th place this season should theoretically be at a huge advantage when it comes to challenging for the top four next season. Spurs, Manchester United and Everton are currently in the running for Europa spots. Spurs are currently ahead in 5th spot on 53 points from 29 games. United are 5 points back with a game less played. Everton are level with United on 48 points but with a further game more to play.

Spurs are now in the middle of their third consecutive Europa League campaign, one which is taking a toll on their efforts to break into the top four. The Thursday-Sunday effect has seen them lose Sunday games at home to West Ham, Newcastle and Liverpool in the first half of the season following Europa League exploits on the Thursday. As a result, they sit six points behind Champions League favorites Liverpool and Arsenal, with a game more played. The last time Spurs weren't in the Europa League (2009/10), they qualified for the Champions League. A break from this competition might be exactly what they need in order to make that big push to crack the top 4.

Spurs fans are used to Thursday night games in Eastern Europe

Manchester United are not familiar with this sort of predicament. Having finished in the top 3 of the Premier League every year since it's inception in 1992, battling for 5th and 6th place is completely alien to the champions. No one will publicly say it of course but given the choice I think just about everyone at the club would rather sit Europe out altogether next season and focus on breaking back into the Champions League, rather than playing on Thursday nights somewhere in Eastern Bulgaria before facing an away game with Chelsea on Sunday morning.

Everton, like their Merseyside rivals Liverpool, have benefited from having midweeks off this season and are exceeding everyone's expectations in terms of performance this campaign. Given that they haven't had European football at Goodison since 2010, Everton probably wouldn't mind qualifying for the Europa League. The extra fixtures would bring in cash that Martinez could use to boost the squad in the long-term but a Champions League challenge whilst navigating the travails of the Europa League would be extremely difficult, save for the very deepest of squads.

Spurs aren't the only side to see their domestic form suffer as a result of Europa League games midweek:

  • This season both Swansea and Wigan, as cup winners, have played in the Europa League. Swansea's league form took a nose-dive compared to the previous two seasons and Michael Laudrup lost his job. Newly relegated Wigan struggled in the Championship but their form has taken a notable upturn since being eliminated from Europe in December.
  • Last year Newcastle, off the back of a 5th place finish in 2012, narrowly missing out on the Champions League on the final day, sunk to a 16th place finish with essentially the same squad of players. The only difference? Europa League football.
  • Fulham finished 7th in the Premier League in 2008/09 and qualified for the Europa League the following season where they did brilliantly to reach the final. Their league form suffered however as they slumped to a 12th place finish (finished 8th the following season with no Europa League).
  • Stoke City's worst Premier League finish to date (14th) came during their sole season in the Europa League, 2011/12.

Newcastle were among the biggest Europa victims recently

More in depth study has been done on the results of individual Sunday afternoon games following a Thursday night escapade. All evidence points to the Europa League having a detrimental effect on a team's fortunes. It does not seem that the competition will be revamped anytime soon and will retain its status as UEFA's unloved child, living in the shadow of the illustrious Champions League. The competition's status has sunk so low that it even the likes of Swansea, who rotated their side for some group games, now see it as beneath them, preferring instead to focus on their own domestic campaign.

As for this season, I don't think we will see Premier League club's losing games 'on purpose' but the focus and desire at Manchester United and Tottenham at least will certainly not be the same as it was if they were competing for 1st and 2nd or even 3rd and 4th places. Two will qualify for the Europa League because someone has to. I'm sure they would both give it a miss if participation was optional. There can be no denying it, playing in the Europa League next season will hinder their chances of challenging for the title.

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