The failure of English clubs in Europe has been one of the more intriguing subplots this past campaign. Given the limp fashion of the Premier League season, where Chelsea controlled proceedings at the summit of the table from week one, the shortcomings of a league which has, over the years, became synonymous with glory on the continental front, has taken priority.
It has fuelled the notion that English football is on the wane, whilst bordering nations continue to prosper. One would have to go back to the 2012/13 season to find an English club involved in a final of one of UEFA’s two premiere club competitions, whereas in the previous eight campaigns – back to 2004/05 – at least one English club was involved in a final.
Both Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, England’s greatest hope in last year’s Europa League campaign, have been excoriated for their apathy shown towards the competition.
Whether the narrative holds much weight is a discussion for a different day, but it is clear that in Spurs’ case in particular, the allure of potential League Cup glory took to the fore as Mauricio Pochettino fielded a weakened side against Fiorentina in their last 32 second-leg tie in Florence.
The Argentine opted for Roberto Soldado over goal-machine Harry Kane and, as his horrific miss midway through the opening half testified, the complexion of tie could have swung had Pochettino shown the valour to start Kane ahead of their date with Chelsea four days later.
It was, of course, understandable. Spurs have been deprived of tangible glory since 2008 and navigating their way through a tricky one-off tie with Chelsea at Wembley was a discernibly easier task that clawing back an away-goal deficit in Italy.
Generally, though, Thursday evening commitments after often viewed as an avoidable distraction to domestic commitments and in Liverpool’s case, dropping out of the Europa League at the hands of Besiktas allowed the club to prioritise supplanting Manchester United in the race for fourth place and the coveted Champions League position.
Premier League coaches, in particular, are often assessed on sustainability of results. Consistency holds more value than audacious attempts to take the club forward at the expense of the status club’s hierarchies have heralded for so long.
Take Everton, for example – the Toffees dropped out of the top-half of the table for the first time since 2006 as the corollary for their onerous campaign in the Europa League. The Everton faithful have, as result, became increasingly restless and there is a sense that Roberto Martinez has undone the work of his predecessor, David Moyes, who brought a continuity of positive league positions during his tenure in the dugout.
It is a proven fact that the Thursday/Sunday schedule is taxing for both coaches and players. Newcastle fell 11 places during the 2012-13 campaign amid a commendable Europa League campaign and, on average, a side’s league position plummets by 2.3 places, according to BBC, if they are attempting to balance both Europa League commitments and intramural commitments.
Comments from Phil Neville seem to back-up the claims that participation in the Europa League hinders a Premier League campaign.
The recovery process is much harder. Normally you get a Sunday off, but your recovery from the Sunday game knocks into the following week and has a cumulative effect.
That builds up. The first couple you’re fine but it’s the third, fourth, fifth game in the group stage that hits you hard.
In spite of Neville’s comments, there is a case to be made that prioritising the Thursday night schedule, especially with the added incentive of automatic entry into the Champions League group-stage as a reward, is more profitable.
Spurs and Liverpool, for instance, regularly hover outside the four coveted Champions League positions, but due to their paltry wage bills – in comparison to the behemoths that regularly occupy the top four – their attempts to squeeze in are futile.
Rarely ever, too, do they drop out of the Europa League spots, largely down to plenitude of funds in relation to those who reside lower in the table.
Liverpool’s pursuit of Alexis Sanchez last summer is the most pertinent illustration of the disparity in pulling power. Both sides were able to offer the lustre of Champions League football, but more importantly, Arsenal were able to afford the Chilean a higher wage packet, hence Liverpool were forced to settle with Adam Lallana.
It is the reason why those peripheral sides must act shrewd in the transfer market. Spurs failed to capitalise on the £85 million fruits of Gareth Bale’s departure and while the club scurried around throwing £26 million at Valencia, before throwing £30 million at Roma, Arsenal were able to secure the signature of Real Madrid pariah, Mesut Özil.
The appeal of participating in Europe’s most prized competition – which, admittedly, Özil had been a regular feature in – is one thing, but the guarantee of extended participating in the competition is another.
Sides such as Spurs and Liverpool must acknowledge the fact that they are operating under a glass ceiling. Chelsea and Manchester City wield the financial muscle, and facilities, to solidifying their position at the stratosphere of English football; Arsenal, meanwhile, are never likely to jettison out of the top four under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage and Manchester United, who boast the highest wage bill in the land and an enviable trophy collection, are the most vulnerable but, paradoxically, will be most able to supersede the aforementioned billionaires before too long.
Hence, the more straightforward approach of achieving Champions League football would be via the Europa League. English sides are seeded high and are therefore able to breeze through the group-stages with minimal endeavour. But the knockout stages is where the real obstacle lies.
It necessitates the need to become more tactically astute – as Vincenzo Montella’s side attested against Spurs – and less predicated on player expression.
Both Rodgers and Pochettino are, fortunately, adept tacticians, so progression becomes dependent on the mental fortitude of the side who must come to terms with the fact that they also have a Premier League campaign to balance. Chelsea did, after all, reign victorious in 2013 without overly harming their Premier League standing.
Unfortunately, the most prudent path will always lie within the Premier League. The sheer volume of financial rewards in the league has made owners reevaluate their exploits outwith the English borders.
Southampton, who qualified for Europe for the first time in 30 years, have already started to bring in a plethora of new faces. Squad depth is key, but so too is audacity.