You could hear the cynical sniggering for miles around as BT Sport attempted to create an interest in their recent Saturday lunchtime fare of Southampton Vs. Tottenham Hotspur, billed as a crucial game in the ‘race for the Europa league’. This was not only because BT Sport’s team of reprobates are incapable of holding the attention of any intelligent person. (The latest in their bizarre forms of presentation was circling the Wembley pitch before the FA Cup semi-final; as if instructed to do so by Glenn Hoddle in order to create some positive energy). No, the sniggering was heard because the English game doesn’t think a great deal of Europa League. In fact, it rather looks down its nose at it.
There has for a while, been a strange paradox at work within the Premier League that’s not very difficult to spot. There are a handful of teams who try to win the title and a handful of teams who are aiming for 17th place; while the rest aim to piece together a season that will reward them with ‘European football’. They all invest a lot of time, effort and cash into achieving this.
However, just as the hastily booked holiday can be rather different to what the brochure suggested, many English teams seem underwhelmed when they arrive at this destination. There have been some exceptions; Middlesbrough reaching the final in 2006, Fulham reaching the final in 2010 and Chelsea winning the competition in its current guise in 2013. However in the two seasons since Chelsea’s win over Benfica in Amsterdam, no English team has reached the quarter finals.
Personally, it seems difficult to distinguish whether this is the result of disinterest, incompetence or plain lack of application. There are certainly some valid reservations about the Europa League. Much like it’s more salubrious relative the Champions League, romantics would prefer it restored to a pure knockout format. Given the financial imperatives pursued by broadcasting companies, this is unlikely to happen. The fact that games are played on a Thursday evening, meaning that league games have to be played on a Sunday, seems to be detrimental to clubs’ league performance. It is no different to playing on a Saturday following a Wednesday night, but there a too many complaints and examples of this problem to discount it. Moreover, the Europa League is instantly devalued by the fact that you can enter it having been knocked out of another competition, the Champions League.
Only recently, Mauricio Pochettino implied in his words that Tottenham might benefit next season if they were to miss out on Europa League qualification. Asked whether Spurs might be closer to the top four were it not for the Europa League he stated, ‘Maybe. I think that you spend a lot of energy when you play in the Europa League and it’s not easy’. A glance across the pages of the Liverpool Echo’s website will show that the same discussion is being had on Merseyside.
What seems curious is that such apathy, and at times contempt, towards the competition doesn’t appear to extend to the continent. Let’s take a case study. It hasn’t seemed to have affected Sevilla who are in 5th on 69 points in La Liga, a better League position than Spurs by comparison, and are in the semi-finals of the Europa League having won the tournament last year. Tottenham this season have had 41 senior players on the books, who have cost the club £200,314,000 in transfers. Sevilla are actually well in the green when it comes to net spending over the past few summers following the sales of Kondogbia, Medel, Negredo, Navas, Fazio and Rakitic. So there should be no excuses that our poor squads can’t handle the workload. They have been expensively assembled. I’ve used Spurs as an example, but Liverpool’s transfer spending has been comparable, both funded by the sale on a superstar in the shape of Suarez and Bale.
Now, there have been examples of English teams who have found themselves in European competition when, so to speak, they were in no fit state. One recalls newly promoted Ipswich Town finishing fifth in 2000/01, qualifying for the UEFA cup as it was then known, and then being relegated the following season. Perhaps that precedent lingered in the minds of many. There are the examples of Birmingham City, Wigan Athletic, Swansea City and Stoke City being rewarded with European football due to their excellence in domestic cups, but perhaps before they had sufficiently developed as squads and clubs to deal with it. The likes of Liverpool, Tottenham and Everton to an extent as well, don’t have that excuse. True, their squads may be a touch thinner when compared to the four clubs above them, but are they any thinner than Napoli’s, Fiorentina’s, Dnipro’s or Sevilla’s? No. In fact in every case, they are actually stronger.
One school of thought suggests that the Premier League is unique in terms of competitiveness and therefore takes more out of our sides. The League is indeed competitive, but I find this Anglo-centric approach a bit problematic. The idea that La Liga consists of Barcelona, Real Madrid and more recently Athletico, while the rest of them teams play with their flip flops on and pick up their pay cheques, is rather disparaging. The performance of English teams in the Europa League should be viewed in conjunction with the oft commented upon performance of English teams in the Champions League in recent times. It’s indicative that we do not possess the depth of quality we think we do, or our coaches are not harnessing the talent at their disposal as well as their opponents.
It may well be true moreover, that Champions League qualification is more important than putting up a good showing in the Europa League. Certainly, in terms of finances and the long term prospects of a club, this could well be the case. But given how unlikely it is that Liverpool, Spurs or Everton will win the league in the foreseeable future, and given that the Europa League is a more prestigious trophy and more exacting a test than either of the two domestic cups, the tournament should feature more prominently among their targets. Tottenham fans take pride in being able to say their club was the first English team to win a European trophy. Liverpool fans are never exactly slow in coming forward to speak of their European successes. Both clubs would do well to remember the glory that European competition has brought them.
The Europa League is indeed a lower profile, miserly funded and second tier quality competition when compared to the Champions League. Football also goes in cycles, so one can’t expect English teams to dominate European competitions every year. This issue however seems different, as it seems down to a question of attitude and application or rather a lack of. All the while other countries are taking the tournament seriously; English teams should not think it below them either.