Another season is over, and there will be no European football at Goodison Park next season.
Despite ending the season strongly – with victory over an increasingly beleaguered Manchester United arguably the high point of the whole campaign – Everton’s eighth place finish means that we missed out by three points, and one position.
It will be Manchester United and Arsenal that automatically go into the competition, with Wolves receiving an opportunity to do the same if they can navigate the sometimes-tricky qualifying phase.
European qualification is sometimes considered to be the be-all and end-all for a club that’s consistently in the top half of the table. As well as providing another trophy to play for, and potentially giving us exciting fixtures against top-class sides from the continent, the received wisdom is that European competition is an attractive proposition when trying to recruit new players to a side. The chance to play in Europe is talked about as if it might be the factor to persuade a player to join when they might otherwise be inclined to stay where they are.
That is, without question, true of the Champions League. It’s the grandest stage of club football, and the very best players wouldn’t dream of signing for a club that can’t offer it – as Manchester United might be about to find out. It’s less clear that the same is true of the Europa League. Much like the League Cup when compared to the FA Cup, it’s viewed as a lesser version of a similar competition, and for some clubs, it’s an outright inconvenience. Jose Mourinho once famously said that it was embarrassing for Chelsea to even be in the competition. Is it possible that instead of missing out by narrowingly failing to secure a place, we’ve actually been lucky?
Not The Glamour You Had In Mind
Back when the Europa League was the UEFA Cup, it wasn’t as intrusive on a club’s season as it is now. It was a head-to-head knockout competition, with teams playing each other home and away, and the losers eliminated immediately. For some clubs, it meant that the extent of their European adventure was two games, and then it was over. Perhaps thinking that was a little harsh, UEFA expanded the competition when they changed its name, and introduced hectic group stages, guaranteeing that qualifying teams would still be playing European fixtures for months even if they had no realistic chance of progressing. While it would be nice to think that they wanted fans to see more exciting games, there’s always been a suspicion that the motive was financial.
As has been the case for years now – and as evidenced by the bizarre decision to host the final of last season’s contest in Baku – money rules when it comes to high-profile football competitions. The more games that are played, the more money clubs make on TV and turnstile revenue. UEFA take a chunk of that money, and that gives them the motive to act a little like the operators of an online casino or it’s sister site. No good casino website would only offer two or three games; the most well-known of them offer literally hundreds of casino games, so players always have something new to spend money on. The more games on offer, the more chances for money to roll in. All the additional fixtures the Europa League provides fulfill the same purpose.
If the games were incredible contests, that wouldn’t be so bad. In practice, though, Europa League games don’t exactly bring the level of glamour we’re told to expect from competitions like this. On their way to winning the competition, Chelsea played fixtures against PAOK Athens, BATE Borisov, MOL Vidi FC from Hungary, and Malmo. Without offense to any of those clubs, they’re not exactly Juventus, Bayern Munich, or Barcelona. It’s hard to get excited about matches like that as a fan. For the players, the lack of excitement is the least of their concerns.
The Point Of Exhaustion
Because many of the clubs playing in the Europa League are from far-flung corners of Europe, it’s a lot of mileage for clubs and players to undertake to get to them. The games also happen on a Thursday as opposed to a Tuesday or Wednesday in the Champions League, so that’s less recovery time before playing your scheduled league games over the weekend. Not only that, it’s a lot of games to play. There are six group stage fixtures, and then two legs in the next four rounds before reaching the final. By the time you’ve got there, you’ve played fourteen games. On top of the Premier League, the FA Cup, and the League Cup, that’s a lot of strain on a squad. It’s too many games to play, and sometimes too high a toll on the body. Playing too many games is how injuries happen. It’s also how players and managers simply burn out.
Both Arsenal and Chelsea drew criticism for their lackluster performances towards the end of the season. Chelsea finished third in the table largely because they were the best of a bad lot when it came to everyone below Manchester City and Liverpool, and Arsenal won only one of their last six games, losing the final three on the bounce. Chelsea, in particular, had been all the way to the final of the League Cup, as well as their 38 league fixtures and 14 European ties. Although bad form played its part, it’s inconceivable to think that by the point May was coming to an end, the players just didn’t have anything else to give.
The Leicester Route
Not having the distraction of a lesser European competition to worry about next year, based on all the above, might turn out to be more of a blessing than it is a curse. Without the distraction, we can focus on the league and the cups, and hopefully build on the positive form we displayed in the final third of the season. While nobody’s expecting us to ‘do a Leicester’ – as incredible as that would be – it should be noted that when they won the league, they did so without having to play multiple additional fixtures on the continent at the same time. They were always better rested than their big-name rivals, and had fewer games to focus on.
With Silva now looking settled in his role, and the promise of substantial transfer funding for what feels like the first time in years, Everton stands a chance of making headway against the rest of the pack next season. Winning the Premier League still feels like an impossible dream, but top four? Maybe it’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.
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