European competition has returned this week, after another hectic weekend in the Premier League. Chelsea have now opened up a three-point gap at the top of the table. So as teams prepare for the busy December and January playing schedule, it is no surprise that the ‘benefits of not being in Europe’ theories have begun to take shape.
In a recent Guardian article, it was suggested that Liverpool and Chelsea might be as much as six points better off over this season due to their lack of extra games and increased training and recovery time. Research published this year, by Anderson et al, quantifying training load in the Premier League showed that actually, training load and periodisation when teams were playing one or two games a week was very similar - suggesting that teams playing in Europe don’t think it necessary to reduce overall player load during training in order to compensate for the extra physicality of an additional game.
Liverpool’s title challenge in 2013-14, Leicester’s title win last season and Chelsea’s current league position has led many fans to think that finishing outside of the European qualification places can provide a major advantage during the next campaign. But can this really be the case?
In a paper examining the evolution of Premier League performances Bradley et al (2015) argued that the traditional top four would find it harder to maintain their status. This was due to performance levels across key indicators such as high intensity running, quality of passing and possession, improving significantly among the supposed 2nd tier clubs (finishing 5th - 8th in the league). In fact, the rise of the 2nd tier clubs was so pronounced that researchers predicted they would soon catch the traditional top four. Of the current top six, Liverpool and Chelsea are the teams to finish within that second-tier last season. But with the quality and experience of their managers, financial outlay on players and expertise of support staff it shouldn’t be a surprise they are challenging at the top of the league, European competition or not.
In a major 2015 study, which followed a leading European club over a five-year period, including during a title-winning season, Christopher Carling and his team of researchers conclude that although success is obviously multifactorial, player availability related to staying injury free, allowing for regular team selection, combined with an increase in defensive quality rather than attacking performance were the major differentiating factors that lead to a championship-winning season, comparative to others.
These findings are supported by Leicester’s dramatic run to last season’s title. They had the lowest injury rate in the league and rather than blowing teams away (as Liverpool tried in 2014) they managed to rely on strong defensive performances when closing in on the trophy. As it stands Chelsea and Tottenham have the best defensive records in the Premier League, with Liverpool the highest scorers.
The statistics to support either a direct benefit or hindrance of playing European football when pushing to win a league title are inconclusive. Yes, not playing in Europe means more time on the training pitch and more time to prepare for league fixtures, but equally, no evidence exists to suggest a physical performance drop off in subsequent league fixtures. If Carling and his team’s conclusions are taken to the next step regarding a settled team, then additional games could be of major benefit as players improve understanding and match fluency with one another. So, let’s see how the league pans out over the next couple of months. If Chelsea or Liverpool are crowned champions, then not playing in Europe will be seen as a major factor. If one of the teams currently playing in the Champions League or Europa League finishes top, European competition will hardly get a mention.
As Carling et al concludes, no single component of performance can be highlighted as ‘the reason’, but in a complex team sport, at the very top level, across a full season, his view that player availability due to lack of injury and increased defensive efficiency is probably a very good place to start.