MANCHESTER UNITED and Arsenal made it through to the semi-finals of the UEFA Europa League, very comfortably. This came just after Manchester City and Chelsea reached the last four of the UEFA Champions League. There is a reasonable chance that for the second time in three seasons, UEFA’s big two competitions will be all-English affairs.
While UEFA will surely not be happy about two domestic squabbles, preferring finals that represent the broad reach of the confederation, the possibility of a Premier clean-sweep will underline the financial advantages English clubs have over their continental European counterparts.
United and Arsenal should be competing at the business end of the Europa, so should Tottenham and Leicester City – how they must be kicking themselves that they were eliminated by Dinamo Zagreb and Slavia Prague so cheaply.
The Premier not only has more money, but it also has greater strength in depth than the likes of France, Germany and Italy. There was a precedent in the late 1960s/early 1970s when English clubs won the Inter-Cities Fairs’ Cup and its successor the UEFA Cup, every season between 1967-68 and 1972-73.
Spain appears to have developed a specialisation in Europa League professionalism, but for too long, English clubs under-performed in the Europa, although this has clearly changed.
The bonus of Champions League qualification has awakened a healthier appetite in English clubs. Given the overall might of the Premier, the top four – which provides Champions League places – is beyond some clubs and therefore, a back-door route to the lucrative world of Real, Barca and Bayern now has serious value.
In the last five years, the Premier has provided four Europa finalists (Liverpool 2016, United 2017, Chelsea and Arsenal 2019) while Spain has provided three. The two countries have contributed 15 quarter-finalists in the same period. Over the past nine years, the winners have come from England or Spain, the last club from outside those two was Porto in 2011. Furthermore, since the competition became a single-game decider, 22 finals ago, Spain have won 10 and England 4.
Tottenham and Leicester, with the greatest respect to Slavia and Dinamo, exited clumsily. One look at the clubs that Manchester United and Arsenal have faced highlights the gap between the Premier and many Europa participants. The average European ranking of Arsenal’s group rivals was 135 compared to their own ranking of 28. Their knockout stage rivals have been stronger, but the average is 28. United went in at the round of 32 after failing in a Champions League group that included Paris Saint-Germain, RB Leipzig and Istanbul. Their Europa rivals have an average ranking of 46 (source: Football Database).
While United and Arsenal are – in theory – stronger than many of the Europa competitors, they are certainly wealthier clubs. Slavia Prague, for example, generate the equivalent of US$ 10 million in revenues annually versus Arsenal’s £ 340 million, while Granada, United’s opponents in the quarter-finals, reported income of € 13 million in 2019 compared to the € 600 million-plus received by the red half of Manchester football. It’s hardly an even playing field.
English clubs seem to have refocused and their underlying power is now showing through, in both UEFA competitions. Between 2011 and 2015, English clubs secured three final places across the Champions and Europa leagues. Between 2016 and 2020, the figure doubled.
So don’t be surprised if the Champions League is Chelsea versus Manchester City and the Europa turns out to be Arsenal versus Manchester United. However, PSG, Real, Villareal and Roma will have something to say about that.