Liverpool’s 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Sunday showed once again that competing in the UEFA Europa League has a negative impact on domestic performance. The Reds took to the pitch against Palace less than 70 hours after beating Rubin Kazan 1-0 in the mid-western Russian city. If the physical demands of playing on Thursday night weren’t enough, the Liverpool players had to deal with the 5,000 mile round trip – not arriving back in England until the early hours of Friday morning. Between that and the Palace game Jurgen Klopp would have had to squeeze in a recovery session and then training in preparation of facing their opponents, who had been physically and tactically preparing for the match all week.
The outcome seemed inevitable. Liverpool showed all the signs of fatigue and started the match slowly while Palace were fresh and caused all sorts of problems with their quick, dangerous attacking trio of Wilfried Zaha, Jason Puncheon and Yannick Bolasie. Klopp’s first defeat as Liverpool manager means that Liverpool have now failed to win any of their 4 league games that have followed a Europa League fixture, drawing 3 and losing 1.
While some argue that regularly playing football matches is a good thing, Liverpool’s participation the Europa League may have affected their momentum. For a side who beat Premier League champions Chelsea 3-1 a week earlier, losing at home to Crystal Palace, albeit their impressive results this season under Alan Pardew, would be inexplicable if not for the Europa League distraction.
It is not just Liverpool who have been affected either. In the past five seasons, seven Premier League clubs have participated in the Europe League group stage. Tottenham Hotspur have competed in the competition every season since 2010/2011, when they were last in the Champions League. Other than that, Everton (14/15), Swansea (13/14), Newcastle (12/13), Stoke (11/12), and Fulham (11/12) have also qualified for the group stage. Liverpool also took part during Brendan Rodger’s first season as manager in 2012/2013.
During that time, those English Premier League sides have collectively played in the Europa League on a Thursday before having a league game on the Sunday 108 times. Out of those 108 Premier League games the team who played on the Thursday has only won 43 times. That’s 40%. Out of those 108 games there were also 23 draws (21%) and 42 defeats (39%). This statistically means that if you play a Premier League match after having played in the Europa League match there is a 60% chance that you are not going to win.
Using those 108 Premier League games, the results also prove that, in the majority of cases, teams on average win less points over a season after playing Europa League matches than when they haven’t played a Europa League match. For instance, in 2012/2013 Liverpool played 9 Premier League games immediately after a Europa League tie. In those games, Liverpool picked up 9 points – meaning that, on average, they had collected 1 point per game. Over the rest of the league campaign Liverpool picked up 52 points from 29 games, which equals 1.79 points per game. Their results on weekends which didn’t follow Europa League matches were significantly better. 60% of Premier League teams in the past five years have, like Liverpool, had a lower PPG score for matches which followed the Europa League than when they didn’t.
This is curious because if you have qualified for the Europa League then you have clearly proved that you’re a good team. Spurs qualified for the Europa League in 2013 after finishing the season with 72 points which, in most seasons, is good enough for a 4th place spot. Everton got as many points in 2014 and qualified for the Europa League. Liverpool and Swansea qualified in 2012 and 2013 respectively for winning the League Cup. Stoke City reached the FA Cup final in 2011 and qualified while Fulham reached the Europa League final in 2010 to qualify for the following year. These were all good teams and yet, when it came to playing in the league after playing on a Thursday almost as many of them lost than won.
The past five seasons have also proved that the Europa League does not only affect performances and results on a Sunday but that participation in the competition affects a entire Premier League campaign. The seven teams mentioned in the previous paragraph have completed a total of ten Premier League seasons between them whilst also participating in the Europa League group stage, and the knockout round in some cases, in the past five years. Out of those ten Premier League campaigns, 70% of them were worse than the previous season.
There are two particularly striking examples in the past five years of teams who have had an entire season ruined by the Europa League. Last season Everton, who as mentioned earlier finished 5th in the previous season with 72 points, competed in the Europa League for the first time since 2009/2010. They performed well in the competition as well, beating German side Wolfsburg, who would go on to finish 2nd in the Bundesliga and win the German Cup, home and away in the group stage before exiting to Dinamo Kiev in the round of 16. Their league campaign, however, was horrific. Everton finished the season in 11th on 47 points, 25 points less than the previous season and with pretty much the same squad. The season featured a run of games around December where Everton played eight games and won one, drew one and lost six. That period also coincided with the end of the Europa League group stage.
Newcastle United also endured an atrocious season in 2012/2013, the season when they last competed in the Europa League. In the previous campaign Newcastle finished 5th, ensuring qualification to the Europa League, with 65 points and their manager Alan Pardew won the Manger of the Season award. Newcastle, like Everton, also gave the Europa League a good go. They reached the quarter finals before being beaten by Benfica, but their run in the competition almost got them relegated. Newcastle finished the 2012/13 season in 16th on 41 points, only five points ahead of relegated Wigan. Again, like Everton, Newcastle endured a horrific run of form around November and December where they lost 10 out of a possible 13 Premier League games. Fulham, also only won one Premier League match during November and December when they last participated in the Europa League.
It seems to be that the Europa League campaign hits teams hardest around November / December / January time, where a possible ‘burnout’ may occur after the completion of the Europa League group phase and during the gruelling English football winter schedule. Although it is possible that this burnout may occur later in a Premier League season. Spurs, for example, during the 2011/12 season were 10 points ahead rivals Arsenal and were sitting handsomely in 3rd by mid February. By mid April, however, they had slipped to 5th and in 9 Premier League matches they had lost five, drawn three and only won one. At the end of the slump Spurs were six points behind Arsenal and it is highly probable that their exertions in the Europa League had caught up with them.
The absence of a winter break perhaps contributes to the problem. In other countries where a winter break exists, such as Spain, Germany, Italy and France, teams tend to deal with the Europa League better than English clubs. Germany’s Bundesliga has a six week winter break, while Italy’s Serie A, Spain’s La Liga and France’s Ligue 1 all have a two week break over Christmas and New Year.
Last season in Germany for example, the two clubs who played in the Europa League, Wolfsburg and Borussia Monchengladbach finished 2nd and 3rd respectively and both improved on the previous seasons league campaign. ‘Gladbach went from finishing 6th with 55 points in 2013/14 to 3rd with 66 points last season while Wolfsburg went from 5th to 2nd, increasing their points tally by 9 points in one season and also winning the German Cup. Domestic performances by La Liga’s Europa League competing teams were equally impressive. Sevilla and Villareal qualified for the competition by finishing 5th and 6th with 63 and 59 points respectively in 2013/14. Both teams, just like the German sides, then improved during last seasons’ campaign. Although they both finished in the same positions, Villareal improved their end of season tally by one point, while Sevilla improved by 13 and finished the season on 76 points. Sevilla also successfully defended their Europa League title by beating Ukrainian side Dnipro 3-2 in the final.
It is hard to imagine an English Premier League balancing their domestic and European campaigns so well. The winter break obviously helps German and Spanish sides to maintain their intensity and consistency throughout an entire season, and it’s hard to argue against that given that all four teams improved on their previous campaign whilst simultaneously competing in the Europa League. The theory hits a wall however when you consider Ligue 1 and Serie A. Last season in Ligue 1, two of the three French teams who were in the Europa League finished lower in the table than they did the previous year. Notably Lille, who went from 3rd in 2013/14 to 8th in 2014/15. In Italy all four Italian teams playing in the Europa League did worse than they did the previous year. Napoli, Fiorentina, Inter and Torino all dropped places and finished on a lower points total. Rafa Benitez’s Napoli finished with 15 less points last season than they did in 2013/14, they had the Europa League to contend with but they also had a two week winter break, so why couldn’t they maintain performance levels like Wolfsburg and Sevilla did?
The answer could lie in the depth of quality in the league. The Premier League is known throughout the world as the ‘best league in the world’ because anyone can beat anyone. This doesn’t mean that every team has an equal chance of winning the league but it means that on any given day a team challenging for the title can be shocked by a team battling against relegation. It means that you can’t afford to take any game lightly. There are no walkovers. In Germany and Spain it is very much the opposite. There is a huge gulf between the teams at the top and bottom of the table not only in quality but in financial resources. It is why Bayern Munich opened this seasons Bundesliga campaign with 10 consecutive wins and it is why the winner of La Liga has finished with over 90 points in each of the last six seasons. Top teams in these leagues can afford to take some games lightly and have the option to rest key players before or after playing mid-week European fixtures, knowing that their reserves should win comfortably.
Winter breaks obviously help and the idea of introducing one in Britain has become a topical issue in recent years. It is also a major factor in why the last three winners of the World Cup, Germany, Spain and Italy, have won the tournament while England have underperformed.
It is difficult to predict what impact playing in the Europa League will have on Spurs and Liverpool’s seasons. Spurs are currently 5th and are only 2 points away from the top 4 having only lost once this season while Liverpool are 10th. Given recent seasons however, it is likely that at some point Spurs and Liverpool will suffer a ‘burnout’ and this will be as a consequence of their Europa League participation and the gruelling Premier League winter schedule. It won’t be a coincidence.
Time will tell.