In any given year, there are at most three or four teams that have a legitimate chance to win the Premier League.
This year, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal, and to a lesser extent Manchester City, would seem to fall into this category. In American sports, realizing that you won’t be the best over the course of the regular season isn’t necessarily all that bad because of the playoff system; do well enough and hit your stride at the right time and you might end up champions with something less than a top-tier collection of talent.
It’s not that way in the EPL, or in any high-level European league. You play the games, and somewhere around halfway through the year you know roughly which tier you’re going to end up in, and that’s that. There are Cup competitions of course, but in England only two teams can win those and more often than not they’ll be the same teams competing for the Premier League crown.
So what keeps everyone else going? Well, there’s pride of course. Without the playoffs, final table position matters a great deal more. But there’s also Europe. Seven teams every season will earn a spot (or at least a chance to earn a spot) in European competition. And while being the fourth best team in England might not sound all that great, being a Champions League team sounds downright monumental.
And the race for the European places is arguably more interesting than the race for the league title. If you’re sitting fifth, Europa sounds like a curse word. If you’re sitting eighth, it sounds like the promised land. The gap between the top of the table and fifth is fairly large, but the gap between fifth and, say tenth, isn’t nearly that much. And for that matter, third and sixth isn’t generally much of a marathon either.
In any case, for something like 85% of the teams in the Premier League a spot in Europe is the only thing left to play for from the outset. And of it’s not the stated goal, it’s at least something of a tangible consolation prize for a respectable campaign. Whether that’s a positive or a negative isn’t really worth discussing here. In reality, money is the driving force of the league, and the only way to get more of it is to be the benefactor of generous ownership or to enjoy a successful campaign on the continent. And so it makes sense, from both a business and competitive standpoint, that teams would make a push for these competitions. Ownership, boards and supporters want to see their teams do well. The financially involved want to see their bank accounts do well. And so that particular brass ring is one that clubs are going to continue reaching for, whether or not it’s really in their best interests.
I was fairly well convinced last season that Aston Villa would be playing in the Champions League. At least for a fair bit of last season. And I had the time to go a good bit of thinking on the subject. And I realized that while it was certainly something that I wanted to see, I wasn’t sure it was something that would be in the best interests of the club. One of the best things about a Villa supporter is the fact that the club seems to be on fairly stable financial footing.
One of the more unpleasant realizations about Martin O’Neill’s resignation was the realization that the wage bill had reached its limit and that Randy Lerner, for all of his billions, was not in fact an oil baron. Had Villa qualified for the Champions League, further investment in the squad would have been necessary. And had the club crashed out in the early stages (which seems likely) that investment would have been for naught. Without the return on investment, well, the paranoid in me sees Aston Villa and Leeds squaring off in a crucial Championship tie.
And that’s just the long term. In the short term, there’s fixture congestion, the pressure of the Champions League, the lack of available playing time for younger players and the decisions to be made about how much weight should be given to each of the four competitions English clubs in European play compete in over the course of a given season. For established upper-tier teams there’s enough quality in their depth that these issues are minor annoyances than anything but for clubs just breaking in, they can become major, season-altering hurdles to clear.
Fulham’s run in the Europa League last season was a joy to watch, but they slipped five places in the table and were bumped from the League Cup in the first round. They made a strong showing in the FA Cup, losing to Spurs in a replay at White Hart Lane in the quarterfinals, but by that point they were far enough out of the European places to place a greater emphasis on their only remaining chance to win domestic silverware. It’s not that I think Fulham made the wrong choice in emphasizing success in Europe; it’s that they had to make the choice at all.
With that in mind, should the European places be seen as the goal in and of themselves? Of course fans want their teams to finish in as high a position as possible, but when teams are in striking distance of 7th or 4th the resulting qualification becomes of paramount importance. And I’m not certain that’s really the best way to look at things. Yes, the potential incentives in terms of financial reward, prestige and exposure are enormous but things can go horribly wrong as well because so much emphasis is placed on the competitions.
Aston Villa crashing out of the Europa League early on may very well have been beneficial for their domestic play, but despite another sixth place finish and deep runs in the League and FA cups it was seen as a tremendous disappointment to the very end of the year. But I’m not really certain that it shouldn’t be that way, either.
This is more than anything an exercise in thinking out loud. Few question the benefits of Europa and the Champions League, but their drawbacks are less frequently explored. But one thing that I am certain of is that I’d like to see them treated as what they are, at least for the non-elite clubs; a complication. Perspective is something that fans of all sports could do better to have in reserve, and this situation is certainly no different. Playing in an elite European top-flight is already difficult enough; throwing European competition into the mix makes it that much more of a challenge.