WOLVERHAMPTON Wanderers have been playing competitive football since the last week in July. Before they kicked off their Premier League programme on August 11, they had played three UEFA Europa League games and in total, they have now completed seven ties in addition to their five Premier fixtures.
Their latest game, a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Portugal’s Braga, has raised concerns that Wolves may be jaded in the first few weeks of the season. Understandably, Wolves were excited about the prospect of European football – it used to be considered a prize for performance and the club has experienced success when they reached the first UEFA Cup final in 1971-72. Today, the Europa is considered slightly irritating for some English clubs and there is an element of truth when critics claim the currency has been devalued.
The Europa is so big now – well over 200 teams will play in the competition in 2019-20 – that it has to start in late June. Given most domestic campaigns end in May, that means some clubs had precious little rest between shifts. Those with relatively small squads or lack of strength in depth will be severely stretched if they embark on a lengthy journey. Wolves, who have a decent squad but cannot currently compete with the numbers employed by the very top clubs, have performed well in their European games, beating Crusaders, Pyunik and Torino, but in the Premier, they have yet to win a game. Scratch the surface and it’s the last three games that should concern Molineux regulars. In particular, the way Chelsea scored five against them and Braga snatched a win in the Europa, both games possibly a sign that Wolves are in need of a break.
Of course, Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo has denied Wolves are in burn-out mode, a combination of footballing machismo and belief in his own methods, perhaps. He refuses to use the Europa League’s qualifying stage as an excuse for their disappointing league form.
Some of the other teams that went into the Europa at the same stage are faring better than Wolves. Ludogorets of Bulgaria are top and unbeaten in nine, while Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia are second with six wins from eight. The Premier is considerably stronger than these leagues, however, so it is unlikely they are experiencing the same pressures that are piling up on Wolves.
UEFA’s strategy of “European football for all”, is laudable on one hand, but the current structure is so over-engineered and so invasive that the competitions are unwieldy and continue to place excessive demands on clubs. Some might say the financial rewards are so lucrative that they should just carry on regardless, but the most logical thing to do would be a complete rationalisation of the two competitions.
The Europa does not have the financial appeal of the Champions League – the winners get € 8.5 million in prize money and for every group stage win, clubs receive € 570,000. When you line that up against, for example, the Premier, Wolves could lose quite a bit of cash if their run in Europe really does influence their final placing in the league.
Burnley, in 2018-19, also found the going tough as they attempted to manage a Europa League campaign alongside a gruelling Premier programme. Each time Burnley appeared in the competition, they failed to win their next Premier game. Playing so many games before the domestic programmes clicks into gear can create a very uneven playing field. The competition is already seeded, but it hands even more advantages to the seeds in cramming the fixture list with qualifying rounds at such an early stage of the new season.
A return to a knockout competition is surely worth considering for the Europa. Interest in the competition grows substantially once the tedious groups are over, as it does for the Champions League. The problem is, nobody will vote for such a change as the incremental income that can be secured from progress in a European competition would be difficult to give up or reduce. And while the Europa, if you commit to it, can be a long and winding road, crowds are rising, with the average almost touching 25,000 last season. The Champions League also went up to 49,000 in 2018-19.
The bottom line is that by making European football all-inclusive, the exclusivity of appearing in pan-European is significantly diluted. The current format has become so inflated that it has lost some of its value. The concept is still fundamentally special, but if UEFA want their competitions to be a touch of glamour, that rich icing on the cake, it should remember they were never intended to be an everyday event. Unwittingly (one hopes) UEFA have not killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but they have certainly damaged its wings by pursuing economic gain and opting for quantity over quality.
When clubs’ domestic programmes suffer because of drawn-out qualifying stages, which could hit hard at revenues, then they will really start to see a competition like the Europa as a hindrance rather than a reward for the previous season’s endeavours.