For so many years, the narrative in English soccer has been “finish fourth, finish fourth”. The Premier League’s fourth and final Champions League spot is awarded to the team that finished in fourth, and has been for years. It always seemed as if England’s position atop this chain would be safe, but that position is becoming more and more perilous. And the situation next season could be dire.
European spots are decided by UEFA coefficient points and the complicated formula that comes along with them. The upshot is that Italy has gained 5.095 points on England this season due to Italian success in European competition and English failure. If Juventus wins the Champions League on June sixth against Barcelona, England’s coefficient lead on Italy will be 3.096 points. If Juve lose, it will be 3.426 points. A good year for Italian teams in Europe and a bad one for English teams could see England lose its fourth Champions League, proving disastrous for so many teams in English football.
Therefore, the 2015-16 season in European competition for the English teams involved is more important than ever. It seems perverse to root on Arsenal to be successful as a Spurs supporter, but now it may be necessary. Serie A teams had their first better season than English teams in Europe for the first time in five years this season, but the gap has closed dramatically. Italy has had only three Champions League berths since 2012-13, and getting the fourth bid back that they lost to Germany has proven to be incredibly difficult. English teams will face the same uphill battle if they lose their fourth Champions League berth to Italy.
The fourth Champions League berth in some ways is a crutch for English football, but in other ways is an amazing incentive for teams such as Liverpool, Tottenham and others who punch above their weight. It gives them a grounded and reasonable target to aim for. Finishing third adds another team into the mix and makes the challenge even more difficult. Combine that with the even smaller desire to play in the Europa League when finishing fifth, let alone fourth, the spiral could be a never-ending one.
Unless Aston Villa upset Arsenal and win the FA Cup, the current top seven will all be in European competition next season in some form or fashion. All of those teams have incentives to compete and do well in Europe, even the teams that are destined for the Europa League. And, it is quite conceivable that the failure of English teams this year in Europe and Juve’s rampant Champions League are both outliers, not the norm. England will have eight teams in Europe thanks to the Fair Play rules, which should be enough to cement England’s current status. But in order to be sure, English teams need to have success in Europe more than ever.
Yes, it may mean rooting for Chelsea or Arsenal against Europe’s other giants, or pushing Liverpool and Spurs to give their all in Europe’s favorite poisoned chalice competition, but it’s now more important than ever for English teams to be good when it matters most on the European stage.
Or else fourth place is not a crutch anymore.
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