What to make of the English dominance of this year’s
European club competitions?
Two English clubs will contest the final of the Champions
League, and two more meet in the Europa League final. It’s an unprecedented
clean sweep – and not a Manchester team in sight!
But any talk of dominance would be premature. Although the tide may be turning, it’s clear where the dominant European football culture can be found, at least until the evidence of one or two more seasons is available.
In the past 10 years, only six countries have had teams in
the last four of the Champions League:
There has been more variety in the Europa League, but when you strip out the one-offs the picture is similar:
Spain provided the winner of the Champions League for the past five seasons before this one, and both finalists twice since 2014. Spanish clubs also won the Europa League six times in the nine seasons from 2010.
Before them, German clubs were notably successful in the Champions League, 2009-2013, and at least one of the last four has been German in all but two of the past 10 years. Portugal has a similar record in the Europa League.
“The table doesn’t lie in the end,” Ole Gunnar Solksjaer
said after Manchester United failed to beat Huddersfield and thereby missed out
on European Champions League qualification.
But some tables tell half-truths. The United manager has
inadvertently highlighted another case in which it’s one law for the Premier
League and a quite different law for the rest.
The table may not lie about the elite but everywhere else it is not completely reliable. In the Championship and League 1, the table can identify the best two teams and in League 2 the best three. But to find the next best, four teams have to prove themselves all over again.
The play-offs, the argument goes, keep the season alive
longer for more clubs. That’s undoubtedly true but so what? Surely the whole
point of the way football is structured is to allow teams to find their level. If
a fairer way exists to rank 20 or 24 teams other than by having each one play
all the others, home and away, why in 131 years has it not been implemented?
After a full programme of fixtures, Leeds United (third in
the Championship) will have to beat teams they have already surpassed by up to
nine points to gain promotion. The possibility of injustice is even greater in
League 1 where Charlton Athletic, third behind Luton and Barnsley, are a full
15 points in front of Doncaster Rovers but have to overcome them again to
remain in with a chance of promotion.
Since the play-offs were introduced in 1986-87, the most
deserving club – according to the league table – has been promoted less than
40% of the time (36.5%). The least deserving, scraping into the last of the
play-off places, has been the next most successful with 24% of the promotions.
By division, League 2 has produced the fairest reflection of
the final table. The team in the first play-off position has survived the
play-offs in almost 44% of cases. In League 1 it has been the next team down,
34.5% of the time. The Championship has come closest to mirroring the league
table in its play-off success rate – 37.5%, 18.8%, 25% and 18.8% respectively
for the teams gaining promotion from various finishes in the table.