In four Premier League games in the month between 4th March to 4th April, Manchester United drew three times, all at home. The three clubs they drew with were Bournemouth, West Brom and Everton. They managed one league victory in that time, too: a 3-1 win over Middlesbrough, which wasn’t exactly the most comfortable of victories either.
It’s a pretty dismal run, all told. Especially for a team managed by Jose Mourinho and possessing the now-cliched millions of pounds worth of talent.
Some time in that month came the realisation that United, who had floated around sixth place in the Premier League table for months since being beaten 4-0 by Chelsea at the end of October, would probably have a better chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League by winning the Europa League rather than attempting to finish in the top four.
It seemed like the reasonable choice. With Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Tottenham still to play, and with United’s record against the top sides less than stellar, beating teams like Anderlecht, Lyon and Ajax in Europe probably seemed easier.
Even after victory over Chelsea and a new vein of good form, it still seems like a sound decision. The only downside is the danger that comes with putting all your eggs in one basket.
But although United’s quest to enter next season’s Champions League is perhaps easier to fulfil by winning the only competition that the club has never won in its entire history, finishing in the top four might help the club’s longer-term ambitions more than another piece of second-grade silverware this season.
In the end, it’s likely that United will only think about themselves. Some fans would undoubtedly relish the opportunity to knock rivals Manchester City or Liverpool out of the top four just to watch them squirm, and perhaps even take pride in the fact that their club came from behind to take the coveted spot off a rival. But that’s unlikely to be the manager’s thinking. Jose Mourinho has bigger worries than petty turf wars.
And yet, nabbing fourth spot – regardless of whether or not United win the Europa League – should be seen as a strategic long-term aim beyond just qualification for next season’s elite competition.
As of this season, we have entered into a new era of the Premier League. The new TV rights deal has brought untold riches to all the clubs, and the quality of managers in the top end of the league is now unprecedented. As a result, the ‘top four’ of old seems to have become a ‘top six’ – perhaps even seven if Everton are to kick on a little further.
That means there are now at least six clubs with designs on winning the Premier League title next season, though only five at most can be in the Champions League. But United should want to make that four.
If they win the Europa League and finish fifth, four other teams will be in the Champions League along with them. If they finish fourth, then regardless of their performance in Europe, there will only be three English sides in the Champions League along with them.
Why is that important?
Common wisdom – not to mention everything that Jose Mourinho himself has said about having to play in the Europa League this season – would tell you that it is harder to play in the second tier competition than the top one. For one thing, morale is lower, and there are a higher number of long trips to Eastern Europe and other tough destinations. More importantly, perhaps, you will play on Thursdays and Sundays most weeks, allowing for less recovery time than the more relaxed Champions League rotation which can see your side play on a Tuesday before resting until the next Sunday.
United know all about the hassle this causes, and they have treated it this season like a pox on their house at times. But perhaps they should start to think of the Europa League as an infection they can fling at their rivals, who they may have to challenge not just for the minor placings, but the actual Premier League title next season.
If Pep Guardiola or Jurgen Klopp find themselves in the Europa League next season, it’s not just the outcry from their fans or the glee from United fans we can expect: finishing inside the top four has been hard enough for Liverpool over the past few seasons, especially with Thursday night football to contend with. The last time Liverpool did play in that competition, reaching last season’s final, Klopp’s side finished in 8th place. You have to go all the way back to 2004 for the last time that Liverpool finished in the top four in the same season as they played UEFA Cup football before Christmas. Ironically, City were also in the competition that season: they finished 16 in the Premier League.
Guardiola’s side, too, would have to think very carefully about what they would do in such a situation: a European trophy is not to be sniffed at by a club whose only continental triumph came at the hands of Polish club Gornik Zabrze in the 1970 Cup Winners’ Cup final. And especially not one whose aim is to break into Europe’s elite by winning a Champions League at some point in the future. Taking the competition seriously would require greater strength in depth and would involve playing potentially weakened sides in the following Premier League fixtures.
That leaves the tantalising prospect of United not only qualifying for the Champions League without having to bet everything on a potential one-off Europa League final, but also weakening potential title rivals next season right from the very outset.
Perhaps Jose Mourinho should rethink the strategy of putting all his eggs into the Europa League basket in order to look to next season and weaken a few title rivals before the season has even begun.