The Europa League has rarely been a competition which has grabbed the attention of the English fans since being rebranded from the UEFA Cup, though this season is rather different, given two English clubs have reached the final. For Chelsea, winning the trophy, when combined with a 3rd place Premier League finish and a run to the final of the League Cup would constitute a relatively successful season, despite a particularly tumultuous first two months of 2019. Relative success would be a term which could be applied to Arsenal’s season too, given that they finished one place higher and picked up 7 more points in the Premier League than they did during the 2017-18 season. However, the stakes going into the final are higher for Arsenal, given that Chelsea have already qualified for the Champions League, whilst Arsenal will have to win in Baku to join them next season.
Two years ago, Manchester United became the first Premier League club to qualify for the Champions League by winning the Europa League (Chelsea also won the competition during the 2012-13 season, though had also secured qualification for the Champions League via their 3rd place Premier League finish). With Arsenal looking to repeat that feat, the question could be asked whether winning the Europa League now represents an easier route into the Champions League for English clubs than securing a top 4 finish in the Premier League? Assessing such a theory comes down to two main factors, margin of error and quality of opposition, the first of which is relatively easy to quantify, the latter of which less so.
In terms of margin for error qualifying for the Premier League, you first need to establish a points threshold which would normally secure a top 4 finish. Over the past 10 years, the highest points total for a 5th placed team was Arsenal in 2016-17 with 75 points. If we therefore say that 76 points should normally be enough to secure a top 4 finish, then theoretically a team could lose 12 games and still reach that total. That would require only drawing one game all season, though a record of 23 wins, 7 draws and 8 defeats would also provide the same 76 point total. Therefore given that the points threshold actually required is normally lower than 76 points, we can see that a team can afford to lose 1 in 5 Premier League games and still make the top 4.
At first glance, the margin for error in the Europa League appears remarkably similar. The current format features groups of 4 teams playing each other home and away, and this season the highest points total from any team not progressing from the group stages was 10 points. Therefore qualifying for the knockout stages is eminently possible even with 2 defeats, and if a team reaches the final, they will have played a total of 11 games/ties from the group stages onwards. The big difference of course is that once the knockout phase begins, any margin for error is gone. Yes, a team can lose a game and still progress in the tie, though given that the result of a single knockout game is irrelevant without the context of the other leg, it makes much more sense to consider the knockout rounds as a 180 minute fixture rather than 2 individual games.
The removal of any margin for error is why a knockout format is always considered a more unpredictable competition than a league, and therefore in a sense a more difficult competition to win. However, the complication in regards to the Premier League and the Europa League is that there are a completely different set of teams competing in the two competitions. The Premier League is currently ranked as the 3rd best league in Europe, though given the league provide 4 Champions League quarter finalists (including both finalists) in addition to both Europa League finalists this season, it would be fair to argue that it has at least surpassed the German league for second place. As the European competitions have illustrated, the relative strength of England’s top 6 is very high, though it is difficult to fully assess the strength of the rest of the league via European competition as typically only 1 club from outside the top 6 will qualify for Europe.
Nevertheless, when you factor in margin for error, we get an indication of the scale of the challenge of achieving a top 4 finish. Reaching that 76 point threshold would require a maximum of 26 wins (which would actually equate to 78 points). Theoretically therefore you could reach 26 wins without beating any of the rest of the top 7 home or away. Whilst such consistency across the rest of the season is something that Manchester City have not even managed over their record breaking last two seasons, it highlights how many points are available against teams supposedly inferior in terms of quality and definitely inferior in terms of budget and the ability to recruit the best players and managers. You don’t have to beat other teams at an equal or superior level in order to secure a top 4 spot, points in those games just provide a greater margin for error when taking on inferior teams.
Making such a proclamation regarding winning the Europa League is problematic due to the random nature of the draw. If we look at Arsenal’s route to the Final, a group against Sporting CP of Portugal (3rd place in Europe’s 7th best league in 2017-18 according to the UEFA coefficients), Vorskla Poltava of Ukraine (3rd place in Europe’s 8th best league) and Qarabag of Azerbaijan (1st place in Europe’s 26th best league) was relatively easy. Knockout ties against Zurich (4th place and cup winners in Europe’s 12th best league) and Rennes (5th place in Europe’s 5th best league) were also ties you would have expected Arsenal to progress from given the relative resources involved. However, for England’s 6th best club during the 2017-18 season to then have to beat Napoli (2nd place in Europe’s 4th best league), Valencia (4th place in Europe’s best league) and Chelsea in order to win the competition would mean beating 3 clubs who at least are Arsenal’s equals consecutively without any margin for error.
All factors considered, I don’t believe we’ve reached the point where winning the Europa League is an easier proposition than a top 4 Premier League finish. It may become that for a team who find themselves off the pace by February or March, as it did for Manchester United in 2016-17, but from the start of the season, the lack of margin for error and the greater requirement to beat other top clubs makes the Europa League a trickier challenge.