Europa League fatigue has often been the concern of fans of smaller Premier League clubs qualifying for the competition. This intriguing storyline returns along with Premier League Football on Wednesday when Sheffield United take on Aston Villa. Sheffield United, a team to watch, is in the race for the Europa League in seventh place. It qualifies them for the Europa League since Manchester City won this year’s League Cup. Big teams, like City, claim these English domestic cups are now commonplace, thus allowing smaller clubs to finish seventh and qualify for the Europa League. However, as has been the case with supporters of Wolves, who finished seventh last year, fans decry the second-tier European competition as a drain on their club.
Why is seventh worse than sixth?
The big difference between sixth and seventh, besides bigger clubs finishing sixth, is that the sixth-place finishing teams automatically enter the group stage. Seventh-place teams must enter into a pre-group stage competition of qualifying rounds. The qualifying stages start as early as late-June when the smallest European league qualifiers enter. Four more rounds continue throughout the summer and conclude with twenty-one teams qualifying for the group stage. Premier League teams finishing in seventh enter the competition during either the second or third qualifying round. Which round depends on how other English teams finish in European and domestic competitions. This means they must survive a pair or trio of two-legged rounds to make it into the group stage.
How Seventh-Placed Teams Have Fared
These European nights, stacked on top of Premier League weekends, are taxing on typically smaller English squads. The bigger clubs, such as Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester United, usually don’t feel the same impact because of bigger squads and higher caliber players. However, fans of all clubs, and pundits, perceive the Europa League system as bloated and encouraging burnout. Teams and managers often wave away concerns of Europa League fatigue.
The best place to start in establishing reality or myth is to look at results. Below is how each seventh-place team has fared in August and September in the Premier League since the Europa League made qualifying changes in 2015:
Southampton (2015) – Finished seventh in 2014-15 season
West Ham United (2016) – Finished seventh in 2015-16 season
Everton (2017) – Finished seventh in 2016-17 season
Burnley (2018) – Finished seventh in 2017-18 season
Wolverhampton Wanderers (2019) – Finished seventh in 2018-19 season
Several items to note. First, you can see supporter’s concerns and pundit’s opinions have validity. Every team, at one point during August or September, occupied a spot in the relegation zone—18th through 20th place. The evidence seems clear. These typically non-big money clubs struggle to maintain form and fitness while playing in both competitions. Without a large pool of high-caliber talent to draw from, playing in two simultaneous elite competitions leads to fatigue. It is no wonder these teams endure bad early season form and supporters begin to bemoan the fixture pileup.
Second, the run of games proved taxing on their domestic campaigns and also their European ones. Only two teams have qualified for the group stage since 2015. Both of those teams boast bigger budgets and bigger squads. Everton qualified in 2017 and is, historically, one of the most successful and biggest clubs in England. Wolverhampton cannot boast the same but does boast a recent new owner who splashed big cash and took big losses to achieve their ascent. Their Europa League dream is still on-going and will continue, hopefully, in August.
Lastly, despite the dreadful early season form and congested schedules, these teams all turned it around. Even from the first eight match days above, every team entered the second quarter of the season mid-table. Only West Ham and Everton remained somewhat close to the dreaded Relegation Zone and October results dispelled any lingering threats.
The Long-Term Effects
In fact, further exploration of these teams’ seasons yields a surprising counter-narrative to the early portion of the season. Here is how each team’s full-season completed:
Southhampton (2015) – Finished 6th – Qualified for Europa League Group Stage
West Ham United (2016) – Finished 11th
Everton (2017) – Finished 8th
Burnley (2018) – Finished 15th
Wolverhampton Wanderers (2019) – Currently 6th with 9 games to play
Of the five teams above, only Burnley significantly struggled for the rest of the season and trifled with relegation. In fact, Southampton’s talented 2015-16 squad, featuring Sadio Mané, Virgil Van Dijk, and Dušan Tadić, qualified for the Europa League group stage. This year’s Wolves team is in the same position or possibly a better one.
Europa League Fatigue: Reality or Myth?
It’s difficult to completely write off the concerns. The evidence clearly shows some dip in form for seventh-place teams while playing in both competitions. Either because of a smaller, stretched-thin squad or a success hangover, teams took a while to hit the ground running. The idea of European competition causing burnout cannot be as casually discarded as most managers and players are want to do.
The reality of Europa League football leading to fatigue holds up but only in the short-term. As much as supporters want to use it to paint a broad brush on a team’s season, it’s not the big picture issue. And as tempting as the story may be to the media to use as a storyline, the narrative runs out of intrigue. Regardless of how low seventh-place teams might sink at the beginning of the season, they eventually right the ship. In fact, the evidence bears out similarly for bigger English clubs.
Europa League Remains Huge for Smaller Clubs
Ultimately, the truth is much more complicated than a simple dichotomy. Teams struggle early but recover later on. The Europa League for smaller English teams can ultimately be a huge boost. It increases their visibility and global fans’ interest. It’s also an influx of money and gives managers the possibility of finding the next big player and bringing them to their team. Sheffield United has already used their success and possible high finish to their advantage by landing Sander Berge, a highly sought-after young midfielder.
It can also lead to a massive uptick in the fortunes of the club’s individual players. It certainly helped Sadio Mané and Virgil Van Dijk make big-money moves to Liverpool and has Real Madrid eyeing Ruben Neves from Wolves. The merits of gigantic clubs buying up teams’ best players might be the real threat to European attention, but that’s another article for another time.
Will Sheffield United finish seventh? This writer, a Blades fan, hopes they finish in a higher spot and avoid short-term fatigue. However, regardless of where they finish, if United play European football next season, you can bet it will increase my interest in watching two games a week. The evidence bears out I will survive the extra commitment and so will United.