Friday, 8 April 2016

The End of Season Bash (part 2)

I want to make a point (again) about Leicester's participation in the Champions League next season, now that it is almost impossible not to happen.

I'm going to sound like every punter, ever, but with a fourth spot at Europe's top table under threat by resurgent Italians and the failure - en masse - of English teams in European competitions in recent years, there is a risk that inside three years, we could be 'relegated' to having just three Champions League participants (with the third place team having to go the play-off route). To stop this, we simply have to perform better in Europe than the Italians, especially next season, because if we fail again the co-efficients could well tip towards a fourth Italian side by the time the Champions League is revamped.

The Premier League, this season, has been a remarkably level playing field, which is why Leicester, Spurs and even West Ham have excelled way above expectations (and probably why Roberto Martinez will be sacked by Everton, because this talented side missed a big opportunity). It is still feasible, with Man City playing so erratically and Man Utd never guaranteed to turn up, that the Hammers could grab that fourth spot - a win against Arsenal would do lots of teams a favour. If next season England was represented by Leicester, Spurs, Arsenal and West Ham in the Champions League, then I'd bet my house that 99% of pundits would realistically say that only Arsenal stood a good chance of progressing from the group stage, based on European Cup history. You could argue that Spurs should, but the star-studded side under Harry Redknapp was a better bet on a European stage than the current side and Spurs' lack of real depth showed in their two limp defeats to Borussia Dortmund, who never looked like the side they did in the following round against Liverpool.

The Premier League might be the 'best' in the world in terms of excitement and entertainment, but it clearly no longer has club sides that are dominant throughout Europe. When Alex Ferguson retired it seemed to take the heart out of English clubs European dreams. I accept that's a facile generalisation, but there no longer seems to be the urgency about Europe there once was and that might be down to the money being generated, via television, for domestic football. This also might explain why world class footballers are still preferring Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG and Bayern over any of our own rich clubs - because it's easier for these clubs to win big trophies now and there's less demand on them.

The Spanish League is, of the big guns, the most difficult to win outside of the Premier League. There are three teams that could win it every season, two of them are the Galacticos, while the other Madrid side punch above their weight every year. There are others capable of giving these teams 'a game', but you could forecast correctly every season by picking these three teams. Paris St German are the only team in their league; they have a squad to rival the Galacticos and are becoming a dominant force in Europe. Bayern's biggest rival is Dortmund, there are other good teams in the Bundesliga but essentially it's Bayern then the rest. These four teams should continue to dominate the Champions League because there are very few demands outside of it. In England we have schedules that kill competitions and it is obvious that the Europa League simply doesn't work for English clubs because of the over all money at stake, not the prize at the end. Champions League generates far more money and when you're a business, money tends to outweigh glory of a secondary nature.

Would England take the Europa League seriously if next season you had Man City, Man Utd, Southampton and say Everton in it? Would no European involvement help Chelsea and their new manager? Can Leicester do it again? Can they challenge for the title and play at the top table and hold their own? I'd say doubtful, as would others and historically there's evidence to suggest they could end up treating the Champions League like the Nordic clubs - as cash cow rather than a winnable competition - their participation in just six matches would bring considerable riches, even if that was the be all and end all of their European jaunt and it was never repeated.

However, in a world with a level playing field it isn't inconceivable that a team such as Southampton or Everton couldn't do very well in Europe; there is enough money to have bigger squads to combat the fatigue and mental catch up side of the game, but the demands of the domestic game have grown so important that comments made by Laurent Blanc - manager of PSG - ring true; he said that fatigue from a long season could play a major part in whether English clubs can do well in Europe and evidence over the last few years is they don't do well in Europe (unless its to the detriment of their league form). It is obvious that something needs to be done to help club fulfil their potential.

It's all well and good condemning English clubs failure while pointing at the money, the managers and the profile, but when you expect top class athletes to perform match after match to the highest of standards (and they don't) you have to realise that Mo Farrar doesn't run 10,000 metres, in gold winning medal time, every week, while kicking a ball in front of him.

It is also incredibly difficult to mould a squad team - most top clubs have their best sides and a few players who can interchange seamlessly, but start making wholesale changes and form starts to dip. Only Spurs this season have been able to rotate a lot of their players and not look much different; but it has been the rotations that have caused the biggest loss of points (not huge this season, but enough to make a difference). If you asked Mauricio Pochettino what his starting XI for the rest of the season is it wouldn't change (apart from maybe Vertonghen coming back). That's the side that almost won the Premier League and the push on they will need won't be signing star names, but holding onto who they have and signing a few equally as good players to slot in during injuries and suspensions. Most clubs don't really have good B teams - adequate, yes, but unlikely to sustain anything. So, if a club wants to take all competitions seriously, they have to play with teams they think will win and that means some players could end up involved in 60 matches in a season - do the maths, it's just too much to expect.

The question is does English football want to be champions of Europe again or is it happy living off its domestic laurels? It would seem the amount of money about to wash about has made the competitive edge wane. The league is still the important one and for six or seven teams now it will remain that way. Leicester will want to continue being a great side. Spurs won't be looking at a top four finish but a title challenge. West Ham will see the Olympic Stadium move as a bonus to continue the massive improvement under Slaven Bilic. Chelsea will expect their new manager to have instant impact and success. Guardiola's arrival at Man City throws open the possibility that some of the world class players who baulk at our league might be tempted. Arsenal and Man Utd will expect something extra and there's Liverpool to take into account; they have to improve at some point. It all adds up to a forthcoming season where winning the league again becomes the most important thing and with seven or eight clubs in the mix the cup competitions are going to be viewed as a hindrance rather than a bonus.

English domestic cups are utterly devalued, despite what pundits are paid to say; no one takes them too seriously until you get to the business end and even then, depending on what else your team is involved with, there is an element of lack of urgency about them. The League Cup causes problems even now, adding to a fixture list that many managers think is already too busy. One solution would be to revamp that competition but any major changes would be opposed because it carries a European place and without it the competition would be even more devalued. I'm sure that the managers of mid-table Premier League sides would argue it is one of their few ways of realistically winning a trophy, while teams always chasing bigger things will use the competition to keep fringe players happy - with the added bonus of extra game time and the chance to impress. If that fails, then no big loss, the players get a few midweek breaks. The fans would be more than happy with some silverware and they don't care how its got. I'm sure Wigan or Portsmouth fans would struggle to give back their FA Cup wins for a place struggling in the Premier League every season?

The problem is in the post-mortem; this season will have some fans of some clubs wondering if their commitments to cups was the reason they fell short. I'm talking, specifically Spurs and their one big chance of glory in 55 years and how it might not happen because of the club's earlier commitment to the cup competitions. Could some of those draws been wins? So next season, if Spurs are challenging again, could we see them treat the domestic cups with less respect? Part of me actually wants the answer to be yes. If Leicester get through to both cup quarter finals but end up in 7th because of the amount of games they played, will they be happy if the eight points they dropped meant 3rd rather than 7th? Cup quarter finalists are never remembered. If any club can win the league why risk the rewards of a top ten finish with a ultimately pointless cup run? I know it's all to do with pride and glory but some clubs know that will elude them so its really all about money.

The upshot is if England start to treat Europe like a purse rather than a winnable competition it devalues European football. Europe is unattractive without English participation - TV deals become insignificant when a big part of your desired audience isn't in it. So it ultimately isn't in UEFA's interests for England to drift out of European reckoning. The status quo might be restored next season - Arsenal, Chelsea, Man City and Man Utd might dominate with the pretenders back to scratching around for scraps, but if it isn't (and why should it?) then the draw of the Premier League's participation in Europe continues to be eroded because the fan bases of the new breed aren't in the league of the big money clubs and progression isn't assured.

It's a little like solving a conundrum within a puzzle within an enigma and one which every time I try and think of a workable solution I'm stymied by some different wrinkle. Whether it's about glory, money or progression, there is something or someone that will have to give to ensure that it has a fair chance of working and football chairmen are notorious for not giving an inch.

Way back when the Premier League was formed and it went from 22 teams to 20, some people were saying it should be just 16 teams, with one team relegated and one team involved in a play-off with the side finishing second in the lower league. The knock on effect is you'd now have a Premier League 2 with 20 teams, a Championship (League 1) with 24 teams and two regional League 1s (League 2) with 24 (or 20) teams each (the top six from the National league would automatically join the following season. This would immediately solve a fixture congestion for Premier League clubs, with eight games less. Can you imagine the opposition to it now if someone suggested that?

Cups will remain important to the fans of teams still in it at the arse end of the season, that will never change, but it could end up remaining a very fallow period for all of the wannabe league and European champions because there is a bigger prize now up for grabs.

It brings us back to Leicester in next season's Champions League. They will be a fourth ranked team, regardless of their champion status because they have no European form; getting out of a group with at least two top ranked sides is going to be a big ask for them and to be able to maintain the momentum from this season. It will be worse if they're drawn in a group with an Italian side. England will be lucky to get a good return in co-efficient points from the Champions League next season, so ultimately the euphoria of something different finally happening in the Premier League might end up devaluing our place in Europe.

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