The Europa League: Beware the reductive argument

UEFA europa league logo

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Another season is coming to an end and, for the umpteenth year in a row, writers and commentators are mournfully regretting the regard in which the Europa League is held by English clubs.

Maybe that’s not an unreasonable stance.

Traditionally at this stage of the campaign, derisory quotes start appearing about UEFA’s second-tier competition.  Managers are questioned as to whether it’s best avoided, columns are written about the hardship of playing on a Thursday and a Sunday and then, reliably, statistics are produced to support the theory that, really, the Europa League is nothing more than a points-sapping nuisance.

Then, the counter-argument flairs up.  Think-pieces decry the attitude towards the tournament as being symptomatic of English arrogance and of a financially bloated Premier League culture.  Examples are given of European sides who, having embraced the competition wholeheartedly, have consequently experienced prosperous competitive growth.

The point is this: it’s an unwinnable argument - and it’s an unwinnable argument because all of the points mentioned, both for and against, are all equally valid.

The Europa League does provide a back-door into the Champions League, it does present a worthy challenge and it probably should be taken more seriously by English clubs.  Simultaneously, though, it quite obviously is a burden to participants and it does, given the heightened importance of Premier League success, represent a secondary priority.

Isn’t it time, then, to calm the rage and quell the reductive debate.

Instead of judging clubs on how they approach the competition, maybe now is the time to accept that they are free to prioritise it as they wish.  If a manager chooses, for example, to use it as little more than real-world experience for developing players, fine.  If he opts to throw all his resources at Dnipro, PAOK or Steaua Bucharest, so be it.

The English teams who typically qualify for the Europa League typically exist within a footballing no-man’s land: they are strong enough to compete for top-four places, but never quite strong enough to secure them.  They are, in effect, caught between consolidating that slightly-better-than-the-rest status and improving upon it - and that’s a balance they have to achieve without the squad strength associated with the nation’s elite.

That’s tough and owing to its complexity, it’s a situation which not only has to be judged on a club-by-club basis, but also in a manner which doesn’t rely on simplified explanations based on arrogance or apathy.

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