‘Brexit’ gives Blues & Reds EPL advantage
BREXIT is the word of the year – ahead of even Trumpism, according to people who call themselves lexicographers – and is about to spread to football: just look at who is occupying the top two places in the Premier League table.
Chelsea and Liverpool have been inextricably linked in recent times. They went toe to toe in the Champions League, both won it in epic style and both have endured turbulence off the field. Now both can laud the advantages of being out of Europe.
While rivals are hanging about at airports, checking into hotels and enduring the mindnumbing delays of modern travel, the Blues and the Reds are on the training ground, benefitting from the tactical tutorials given by two of the finest brains in the game.
Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp are also among the more ‘hands-on’ managers who, besides honing their players’ fitness to commando standard, make it enjoyable and have them gagging for more. In short, both are making the most of playing fewer games and having fewer distractions.
The Champions League is the holy grail of European football, but it is also comes with a health warning: all those boring air miles, security searches, disruptions to diet and routine from which even designer shades and dangling headphones afford scant insulation.
The Europa League may be the low tar version but it can be even more irksome – more games, more distance to the colder, nether regions of Europe and the graveyard Thursday/Sunday shifts. All factors to affect the fine margins.
We knew this Premier League season would be tight, but not this tight. Just four points separate Chelsea in first and Spurs in fifth, a bunching not seen at the top for almost 20 years. You do not need to be a jet-setter to appreciate the advantages of spending most of the week at home.
In these days of huge squads and axiswobbling rotation, it is worth noting that Chelsea have used just 16 players and Liverpool 17 in the Premier League so far this season. These are the lowest in the league and extol the virtues of playing your best team. Mirror The
The days when such numbers could clinch the title may be over – Liverpool were champions with 14 first-teamers under Bill Shankly and Forest used 16 to win it under Brian Clough – but they do suggest that familiarity may be an overlooked component in a successful team.
Conversely, over-rotation can bring instability as Forest graphically illustrate: not even shadows of their former selves, they have made a manic 64 changes to their side so far this season and languish in the depths of the second tier having kept just one clean sheet.
According to Omar Chaudhuri, who studies these matters for a football intelligence consultancy, the main first-choice players for both domestic and European competitions will play 20% more matches than the rest. He told The Guardian: “It’s not straightforward to turn this into a points value, because it will depend on how far a team goes, how much they rotate in each competition and so on.
“But we estimate the cost of playing in Europe can be as much as six points to a team over a season; and even if the typical effect is smaller for most teams it is certainly non-negligible when the league is so tight.”
Champions Leicester City would certainly vouch for that. Thrilled to have achieved the holy grail, they put all their eggs in the European basket and have all but qualified for the knockout phase. But in the Premier League, it’s a case of “Be careful what you wish for”. They sit a lowly 14th and are not safe from relegation. They won it by 10 points last season.
Further evidence of the advantages of such home stays – however reluctant the big clubs may be to make them - was provided by Liverpool in the 2013-14 season. Blissfully unaffected by European competition, they overcame a slow start (and a late one by Luis Suarez) to take the league by storm. Banging in 101 goals, they were denied the title only by an infamous slip by Steven Gerrard. Of course, big clubs assume it is a birthright to be in Europe and Real Madrid and Barcelona always are. How they deal with it is to buy the best players and use big squads, but there are no guarantees – as Chelsea and Liverpool have discovered. Whatever happens, we can assume that at least one of them will be back on the Euro travelator next season – indeed they’d be pretty upset if they weren’t – while for clubs like Southampton, even the Europa League is a dream come true – they took 7,000 fans to Milan recently. But on those occasions a club doesn’t make Europe at all, it is not the end of the world. In fact, it can be an obvious, if underestimated, advantage not to be there and could even persuade upper mid-table hopefuls to back off from the graveyard shift. It is a conundrum that neither Chelsea nor Liverpool will want to face again, but one both are determined to make the most of this time – and why they are likely to sustain their title challenges all the way to next May.
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