Does European Football Negatively Affect Smaller Teams?
For Premier League clubs, there is almost a ‘catch 22’ when it comes to qualifying for and then playing in European competitions, due to the permutations that this throws up.
Over the last couple of decades, both the Champions League and Europa League (formerly UEFA Cup) competitions, have been considered a highlight by fans and clubs alike, especially the former, with this being regarded as the most elite and attractive.
However, now with a third European club competition having been introduced from the start of the 2021/2022 football season; the Europa Conference League, this brings with it a whole new series of questions and implications, especially on other factors relating to football and specifically clubs themselves.
In the Premier League, compared to other European leagues, this typically has more places available for clubs aiming to qualify for European club competitions and following the introduction of the Europa Conference League, this is set to increase further.
Therefore we decided to look at whether the long held belief that medium to low sized clubs that qualify for European competitions are negatively affected in their league performance the following season. Often smaller teams that do well in the league have smaller squads and simply playing in Europe is believed to be a negative the next season. Is that actually true?
Put simply, the top four clubs in the Premier League automatically qualify for the group stage of the Champions League, though it used to be the case that the fourth-placed club was entered into the third qualifying round, where they were required to compete in a two-leg playoff to gain entry to the group stage.
There was an exception to this in the past when Liverpool won the Champions League in the 2004/05 season and rivals Everton beat the Reds to finish in fourth place, which saw five English clubs qualify for the Champions League, which was unprecedented.
It should be noted, however, that the winners of the Champions League qualify automatically for the group stage of the competition again, the following season, while this is exactly the same scenario if a club wins the Europa League, regardless of league position.
Under normal circumstances, the team that finishes in fifth place secures automatic qualification to the Europa League group stage, while this is also the case for the winners of the FA Cup. However, if the FA Cup winners finish in the top four of the Premier League, this then means that their place will go to the next highest-ranked team.
The winners of the League Cup, will now qualify for the Europa Conference League playoff stages, though should they finish in the top five (or even top six), then their place goes to the next highest-ranked club.
There are though, some permutations that affect this. For example, if two Premier League clubs win the Champions League and the Europa League and neither finish in the top five, or win the FA Cup or League Cup, the club that finishes fourth in the Premier League will drop into the Europa League group stages.
It means that this can obviously affect a club’s ambitions (through no real fault of their own), and could slow down the planned progress and could even cause a rethink in business strategy, though we explore this further down.
Implications of the Europa Conference League
What will have been frustrating for some clubs in the English top-flight over the last couple of decades, is seeing the same clubs, by and large, finishing in the European places (perhaps with the odd difference), so for those that do not typically have the resources to really mount a challenge, the introduction of the Europa Conference League, perhaps gives them an alternative, yet more realistic aim.
The idea behind the ECL is to give clubs an introduction to Europe without going straight into the deep end. The hope is that medium to low sized clubs may qualify for the competition and will then play similarly sized teams around Europe, making a competitive tournament. Saying that, in the first season of the Conference League it was Tottenham that qualified, so that seems to go out of the window at the get go.
In addition, qualification for a European club competition can have a number of other advantages (regardless of where the club is at in its growth plans), such as exposure across the continent and awareness of who they are, so from a branding perspective, this can work well, particularly considering that they will be aired on television in different countries.
However, this can also work unfavourably, especially if the club is not up for the challenge or they come up against stronger opponents, which results in somewhat of a humiliation, which can have further connotations in the transfer window, and their ability to attract players.
From a financial perspective, the additional funds from television rights and gate receipts can be a welcome boost, as we have seen in both the Europa League and Champions League over the years for clubs, though this can sometimes come at a costlier price of fatigue setting in and potential injuries.
Let’s take a look at some of the effects that playing in European club competitions can have, especially on some of the smaller teams.
Timing Is Important
It is sometimes the case, especially for an ambitious club that has been promoted to the Premier League, that they have a plan in place to qualify for a European competition within a certain number of years and will have drawn up a financial model in order to achieve this.
Often, this means that they are happy to achieve incremental progress and solidify their Premier League status first, over the course of two to three years, to make sure that they can compete effectively.
As a result, this often means that the club wants to gradually grow in stature and such things as player development and recruitment in the years that follow will reflect this before they are confident of then being able to push on and progress.
Performance Following European Qualification
|Club||Qualifying Method||Europa League finish||Champions League finish||Premier League finish||Difference (League Places)|
|Middlesbrough||7th (04/05)||Runners-up||N/A||14th (05/06)||-7|
|West Ham United||FA Cup Runners-up (05/06)||1st Round||N/A||15th (06/07)||-6|
|Portsmouth||FA Cup winners (07/08)||Group Stage||N/A||14th (08/09)||-6|
|Aston Villa||6th (08/09)||Play-off Round||N/A||6th (09/10)||0|
|Fulham||7th (08/09)||Runners-up||N/A||12th (09/10)||-5|
|Stoke City||FA Cup Runners-Up (10/11)||Round of 32||N/A||14th (11/12)||-1|
|Southampton||6th (15/16)||Group Stage||N/A||8th (16/17)||-2|
|Leicester City||1st (15/16)||N/A||Quarter-finals||12th (16/17)||-12|
|Everton||7th (16/17)||Group Stage||N/A||8th (17/18)||-1|
|Burnley||7th (17/18)||3rd Qualifying Round||N/A||15th (18/19)||-8|
|Wolves||7th (18/19)||Quarter-Final||N/A||7th (19/20)||0|
|Leicester City||5th (19/20)||Round of 32||N/A||5th (20/21)||0|
Generally small and mid-sized teams (at least at the time in question) perform worse the season following qualification for European Competition, with an average drop of 4 places in the teams looked at here. The clubs in the table above managed an average 11th place league finish the season in which they play in Europe.
Of course, it is not all about league finish, playing in Europe can bring a lot to clubs to make them stronger in the future. The balance using Europe as platform while not ending up being relegated. That is something that all of the teams above managed in the season they actually played in Europe, although many were subsequently relegated in later seasons. Portsmouth were relegated the season after playing European football, for example, and Middlesbrough, Stoke City, Fulham, Aston Villa and West Ham were all relegated in later years.
Indeed, when Wigan won the FA Cup in 2013, in the biggest shock in years against Manchester City, they were also relegated in that season. The following season Wigan played in the Europa League thanks to their FA Cup win but now with being in the Championship they had eight extra league games to deal with alongside playing in Europe and defending their FA Cup title (they actually managed to get to the semi-finals in 2014 too, only losing to Arsenal on penalties).
Wigan finished 5th in the Championship and were not promoted in 2013/14, how much of an impact Europe had on this is unknown. They finished last in their group but ultimately had to deal with 6 Europa League games that included a 5,000 mile round trip to Kazan in Russia. In total they played 59 games in the season, far more than other Championship sides.
The table above is all taken from pre-Europa Conference League days and obviously this means may affect a number of teams more so in future years.
European qualification can backfire for a team, as it has previously with Burnley who were promoted to the English top-flight in the 2015/2016 season. During the 2017/2018 season though, they exceeded expectations to finish in seventh place which earned them a Europa League place for the following season.
Despite this though, the club was still operating on an extremely tight budget, which limited their spending prowess and capabilities to be able to recruit adequately to both compete in Europe effectively and to also maintain a strong Premier League challenge.
This showed throughout the season because the club did not necessarily expect to be competing in Europe this early and due to this, they did not have a plan in place to do so. As a result, the club’s endeavours to put up a good and respectable fight in Europe meant that this had an effect on their Premier League campaign. Tough away exertions in southern and eastern Europe, when factoring in travel times, then playing on a Thursday and Sunday (and in some cases Saturday), had a knock-on effect, despite only contesting three qualifying rounds.
Because of this, they at times struggled in the Premier League and were perhaps fortunate to finish in 15th that season in the top flight. With such a small squad, it was always going to be a task to equal or better their previous domestic season, as well as putting up a strong showing in the Europa League.
In their first season back in the Premier League, during the 2018/2019 season, an attractive Wolves side, who had recruited impressively achieved a Europa League finish, ending their campaign in 7th place.
Wolves were a club, that for all intents and purposes had been able to plan for this eventuality and also recruited well during that summer transfer window, in order to make sure that they had a big enough squad to compete.
However, what must be taken into account here, is the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic, which interrupted the world of sport, gave players a three-month break, which for a club such as Wolves, perhaps played into their hands.
The club, as a result, reached the Europa League quarter-final where they were eliminated by a strong and proven Sevilla team, though also over one leg (due to the disruption caused by COVID-19). In addition to this, the club achieved a consecutive 7th placed finish in the Premier League. Under normal Premier League permutations, the club would have qualified for the Europa League, for the following season, had it not been for Arsenal winning the FA Cup.
One club that perhaps broke the mould in terms of European qualification, was Leicester City when in their second season back in the English top-flight, they caused one of the biggest upsets in modern football history to win the Premier League.
The club was (and still are), well backed, in terms of finances and resources, though their success meant that they almost skipped a step and qualified for Europe’s elite club competition; the Champions League, for the following season.
It was a strong campaign for the Foxes and they reached the quarter-final stage of the 2017/18 competition, being narrowly knocked out by a strong Atletico Madrid side. While the chances of the club repeating their domestic success of the previous season were slim, it was perhaps obvious that their European exertions had an effect as they were only able to finish 9th in the Premier League.
Since then though, the club has been an almost perfect example of one which has sold, reinvested and recruited very well, in order for them to push on. Another year of consolidation during the 2018/19 season saw the club finish 9th again, while the following campaign, they achieved a fifth-place finish.
It appears that the club, have now at this level made good progress and despite being knocked out in the round of 32 after topping their group in the Europa League during the 2020/21 season, they once again finished fifth in the Premier League, having mounted a substantial challenge to secure a top-four place.
One club to watch who may go on a similar curve to Leicester City is recently promoted Leeds United; a club with big ambitions that finished 9th in the first season back in the English top-flight for 16 years, and who are very well run, particularly on the business side.
The Teeside club enjoyed a great period during the mid-2000s when in the 2005/06 season, they rampaged to the UEFA Cup final where they were beaten by a tough Sevilla side. At the time, Middlesbrough boasted a classy squad of proven Premier League players, including a prolific strike partnership of Mark Viduka and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, plus the likes of Ray Parlour, George Boateng and Gaizka Mendieta. The season before, they had reached the Round of 16 in the UEFA Cup, after winning the League Cup.
Who can forget the Cottager’s impressive run to the final in the 2009/10 season when they were agonisingly beaten in the Europa League final in extra time by Atletico Madrid, having finished 7th in the Premier League the season before. With a small, but impressive squad, after their exertions, they were only able to secure a 12th placed finish that season.
Pompey fans were treated to a jubilant couple of seasons when their FA Cup win over Cardiff City earned them a place in the UEFA Cup. With a talented squad that boasted striker Yakubu, as well as Croatian playmaker Niko Krankjar, the club put up a good fight in Europe, though could not progress from their group. It also meant that they could only secure a 14th placed finish in the Premier League that season.
West Ham United
Qualifying for Europe by default, because after losing to Liverpool in the final and the Reds having already secured a Champions League place, it meant that West Ham took a UEFA Cup place. However, the Hammers could not progress past the first round, while they had a disappointing Premier League campaign, finishing 15th.
As shock FA Cup finalists in the 2011/12, runners-up Stoke City qualified for the UEFA Cup and had an impressive campaign, progressing through the group stage and reaching the Round of 32. Despite this, they struggled in the Premier League that season, being able to only secure a 14th placed finish.
While we have touched on this, with a couple of examples, there is definitely a case that can be made for resources (or lack of), for clubs that qualify for European competitions; especially the Europa League, where there are more games.
Burnley is certainly one case, whereby club officials would not have planned to secure Europa League qualification, and perhaps lacked the board-level expertise to be able to strategically plan for this, but also compete on two key fronts.
This showed particularly in terms of their squad depth and also lack of quality to compete effectively in Europe against, arguably much more technical teams. A squad that by nature, are also very physical in the way they play, this counted against them during that campaign and fatigue and injuries began to weigh them down.
Conversely, Leicester was (and are) a club, well-prepared, though also, well-backed financially, though which was not reckless with their spending once they had achieved Champions League status. Very astute dealings in the transfer market (even as a whole), have enabled them to sell players at their peak and reinvest wisely, identifying individuals with the required ability and potential for the club’s level and future ambitions.
Big Clubs Expect European Places
Over the last decade, we have seen the top of the Premier League become even more competitive, especially when you factor in, an almost ‘new order’ because of Manchester City becoming a billionaire-owned club and then of course prior to that, Chelsea. And then, you have Tottenham as well, who over the last decade have shown that they can compete for a top-four place.
A couple of decades ago, you could effectively predict the top four clubs in the Premier League every year, with this being Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Chelsea. However, this has seen, over the last decade, especially, a reshuffle in the top four order, with at least one of the ‘big clubs’ missing out on Champions League football, which has effectively led to the decline of Arsenal.
It means that, because of the protracted running costs of these clubs and their expenditure, they essentially cannot afford to go without two years in a row, missing out on Champions League football, otherwise they cannot compete at the highest level. Again, Arsenal is a prime example of such a club.
Manchester United were thought to be in danger of slipping down the pecking order, especially after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, when they struggled for a period, at times qualifying by the skin of their teeth.
The season that they failed to qualify, they were under intense pressure, particularly when they looked like doing so again. Only a Europa League win would ensure they realistically qualified for the Champions League and, they achieved this in the 2016/17 season when under Jose Mourinho, they ‘put all of their eggs into one basket’ and pulled this off.
Chelsea was another club that looked in danger of missing out in the 2018/19 season, though a 4-1 victory over rivals Arsenal ensured they qualified. Ironically, this could well have been a turning point for Arsenal, who have failed to compete effectively since. Six years prior to this, the same thing occurred for Chelsea when they again secured Champions League qualification by defeating Benfica 2-1 in a narrowly fought contest.
What About European Leagues?
There has always been somewhat of a point of contention, that European clubs take the Europa League more seriously than some Premier League clubs, which could provide some clue as to how the Europa Conference League might play out over the next couple of years.
This effectively became the case with Spanish clubs, first with Atletico Madrid in 2010 and 2012, and then Sevilla in 2014, 2015 and 2016 when the club won three consecutively.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this is that at least for a few seasons why this happened is because Sevilla, knew they were guaranteed at least a Europa League finish every season due to the fact because there were at least 14 other clubs who would finish below them, because of a major disparity in finances, as a result of an allocation of money from TV rights.
Because of this, they could spend more on player recruitment, which effectively enabled them to mount a challenge to win the Europa League, but also make sure that they finished in at least the top five places in La Liga each season.
It has led to complaints that there is a distinct lack of competition in the Spanish top flight, especially compared to Serie A, which has seen a number of clubs (like the Premier League), mount serious challenges. This has resulted in the emergence of Atalanta as well as the rejuvenation of ‘vogue’ clubs such as Lazio and Fiorentina in recent years.
Benefiting From The Europa Conference League
In the Premier League particularly, there are a number of clubs that might find the introduction of a new European club competition beneficial, especially those who are growing slowly, have the right foundations in place and are ambitious. Let’s take a look at a few examples.
A club that is certainly on the right trajectory in terms of growth, the West Midlands club (despite the sale of their star player Jack Grealish), recruited very well in the summer transfer window, and should definitely be a contender to finish in a Europa Conference League place. What is likely, is that even if they do qualify, that even with the added matches, they will be more than capable of challenging for a top-half finish in the Premier League, once more and even winning the Europa Conference League.
Boasting a very capable manager in the form of Rafa Benitez, who dramatically won the Champions League with Liverpool as well as the Europa League (UEFA Cup), the Toffees certainly have enough in their squad to achieve a Europa League finish, however, a Europa Conference League place is certainly well within their grasp. Should this occur, then in Benitez, they have a manager who knows how to win in Europe, while also solidifying a strong league position.
The Premier League’s conundrum, who, on their day play some of the most attractive football in the competition and can score for fun, but who are also capable of losing by three or four. Without a doubt, the club is in the middle of a growth phase and the board will have intelligent plans in place to cope with each level of progress, regardless of how fast this happens. Whether European football would come too soon for them during the 2022/23 season, remains to be seen.
They certainly demonstrated their mettle in their first season playing European football and were unlucky not to get another crack this in the following campaign. Wolves are an exciting club, who have shown that they certainly have the infrastructure to play football in Europe and they are capable on their day of securing a Europa Conference League finish.
On balance, looking at the examples, a case can be made either way for whether playing European football can negatively affect (smaller) teams. Certainly, this proved to be the case with Burnley, who, it could be argued were right at the end of the scale for small teams and the lack of resources proved this.
Progressive clubs such as Leicester City have been affected in the short term, however, they had the foundations in place, to be able to deal with this and focused on consolidating their status as a solid mid-table side, following their Champions League season, before pushing on again to the next level.
There have been a couple of extraordinary instances over the last couple of decades, as referred to, especially in the case of Fulham who exceeded all expectations to reach the final, then keep Atletico Madrid at bay for 90 minutes. Middlesbrough were an example of a classy UEFA Cup team during the mid-2000s, and after reaching the last 16, they then made it to the final a season later.
What is going to be interesting in the future, is whether we will see certain leagues being dominant in Europe, because of the amount of funding that is available to clubs who play in those particular countries.
It could be argued that certainly, the Premier League is continuing to grow in stature, especially in terms of viewing figures, which could see further, more lucrative television deals, which could provide clubs with the resources that they need to compete in Europe and still achieve respectable Premier League finishes.