The effects of playing Europa League football on domestic performance


Image result for manchester united europa league
Image Credit: standard.co.uk

The Europa League. The annual competition that highlights our underachievement from the previous season. Quite simply, if we are playing Europa League football, we did not meet our targets. However, now that we find ourselves in this situation, we need to utilise the opportunity to secure Champions League football as we did in 2016/17 under Jose Mourinho. With the Premier League top 4 race looking as competitive as ever this season, with the usual 6 battling it out for the Champions League spots and the likes of Leicester City adding another name in the mixer, it would be naive to undermine how important this competition could be for us this season. The problem however is always finding a balance between efforts in the Europa League and Premier League. Reaching the Europa League final adds an extra 15 matches into the diary and if mismanaged this can result in high levels of player fatigue and increase the likelihood of injuries resulting in reduced performance levels. 

A common belief is that playing in the Europa League directly hinders a team's chances of performing very well in the domestic league. Specifically the idea that the league match played a few days after a Thursday night match will not be up to standard due to short turn around times and often significant air miles. But is this true? To find out, I will investigate Man United's 2016/17 Europa League run, assessing the Premier League results directly after Europa League football, specifically whether the result was an underachievement, as expected or better than expected. As a reminder, we won the Europa League but finished 6th in the Premier League.

Europa League Results + Following Premier League Match Results

Feyernoord 1-0 Man United (15th September 2016) - LOSS
Watford 3-1 Man United (18th September 2016) - LOSS

Conclusion: Underachievement


Man United 1-0 Zorya Luhansk (29th September 2016) - WIN
Man United 1-1 Stoke City (2nd October 2016) - DRAW

Conclusion: Underachievement


Man United 4-1 Fenerbache (20th October 2016) - WIN
Chelsea 4-0 Man United (23rd October 2016) - LOSS

Conclusion: Underachievement


Fenerbache 2-1 Man United (3rd November 2016) - LOSS
Swansea City 1-3 Man United (6th November 2016) - WIN

Conclusion: As expected  


Man United 4-0 Feyernoord (24th November 2016) - WIN
Man United 1-1 West Ham (27th November 2016) - DRAW

Conclusion: Underachievement


Zorya Luhansk 0-2 Man United (8th December 2016) - WIN
Man United 1-0 Tottenham Hotspur (11th December 2016) - WIN

Conclusion: Over-achievement


Man United 3-0 Saint-Etienne (16th February 2017) - WIN
Blackburn 1-2 Man United (19th February 2017) - WIN

Conclusion: As expected 


Saint-Etienne 0-1 Man United (22nd February 2017) - WIN
Man United 3-2 Southampton (26th February 2017) - WIN

Conclusion: As expected 


Rostov 1-1 Man United (9th March 2017) - DRAW
Chelsea 1-0 Man United (13th March 2017) - LOSS

Conclusion: Underachievement 


Man United 1-0 Rostov (16th March 2017) - WIN
Middlesbrough 1-3 Man United (19th March 2017) - WIN 

Conclusion: As expected


RSC Anderlecht 1-1 Man United (13th April 2017) - DRAW
Man United 2-0 Chelsea (16th April 2017) - WIN

Conclusion: Better than expected 


Man United 2-1 RSC Anderlecht (20th April 2017) - WIN
Burnley 0-2 Man United (23rd April 2017) - WIN

Conclusion: As expected 


Celta de Vigo 0-1 Man United (4th May 2017) - WIN
Arsenal 2-0 Man United (7th May 2017) - LOSS

Conclusion: Underachievement


Man United 1-1 Celta de Vigo (11th May 2017) - DRAW
Tottenham Hotspur 2-1 Man United (14th May 2017) - LOSS

Conclusion: Underachievement 


Totals + Analysis

In domestic matches following Thursday Europa League match...

Underachievement - 7
As Expected - 5
Better than Expected - 2

Wins - 7
Losses - 5
Draws - 2

5/14 wins in both Europa League match and following domestic match.

If we imagine every single game we played all season (including cups) was worth 3 points for a win, 1 point for a draw and 0 points for a loss, we can compare the points per game average for games played after a Europa League fixture and those without a Europa League fixture before it.

Points per Game (after playing Europa League) = 1.64
Points per Game (without Europa League) = 2.06

Loss Percentage (after playing Europa League) = 35.7% (5/14)
Loss Percentage (without Europa League) = 5.8% (2/34)

Man United lost 7 games in all competitions outside of the Europa League. 5 of these occurred in the match played directly after a Europa League match. The 2 that didn't were an EFL Cup 2nd leg defeat to Hull City in a tie we still progressed through and a 2-1 defeat to Man City.


Conclusions

These findings suggest that Man United's Europa League success in 16/17 did come at the cost of a better domestic season. In my opinion, we underachieved in 7 out of 14 matches following a Europa League match. This doesn't make particularly pretty reading, however, the most striking statistic is the difference in loss percentage between games played with and without a Europa League game before it (35.7% and 5.8% respectively). 

If we want to challenge in the Europa League as well as maximising our Premier League points tally, it is clear that we will have to make the most of our squad. We have a large number of players coming through the academy looking for game time (Greenwood, Gomes, Garner etc.) and alongside some more experienced members of the squad, this is the perfect time to start implementing them into the starting XI.

It is important to find the balance between Europa league and Premier League as throwing all our eggs in one basket can quickly result in disaster. For example, if we focus our best XI to the Europa League every Thursday and let that hinder our Premier League performances and then we got knocked out, we'd have killed both routes to the Champions League with one stone.
Therefore, I think Man United's best move is to assess the fatigue levels of each player individually on a match to match basis an decide on the sharpest XI for each game rather than forcing clearly tired players into the team resulting in an increased likelihood of a lacklustre performance.

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