Alan Pardew is the latest in a long line of Premier League managers to reveal the difficulties associated with juggling the respective schedules of the Premier League and Europa League.
In the past, clubs like Aston Villa, Liverpool, and Spurs have effectively forfeited the European campaigns they fought so hard to get into in favour of concentrating on a strong domestic season.
Just last year, Alex Ferguson described dropping into the Europa league as a ‘penalty for not qualifying’ (from the group stage of the champions league), and both his side and their cross city rivals dropped out of the competition before the quarter finals.
While the quality of teams in the competition cannot be compared to the Champions League, the Europa League is invariably heralded as difficult to compete in because of its schedule. Why is this? How can playing matches on a Thursday and Sunday affect a team’s league form so differently to teams competing on a Wednesday and Saturday? Is it just an excuse?
Back in the 2002/03 season, Newcastle played 38 games in the Premier League and 14 in the Champions League. United had a squad of 28 players; however 10 of those made 10 starts or less across all competitions. With this in mind, it is fair to conclude that the first team squad consisted of 18 senior players, with only a handful of appearances spread throughout the reserves.
Of the 18 first teamers, Shay Given made the most appearances, turning out 51 times for the black and whites, including all 38 Premier League games and 12 times in Europe. 32-year-old Alan Shearer made 48 appearances along with Aaron Hughes and Kieron Dyer, while Nol Solano, Jermaine Jenas, Andy Griffin, Laurent Robert and Hugo Viana all made 40 appearances or more. Craig Bellamy, Gary Speed, Andy O’Brien, Shola Ameobi, and Olivier Bernard all took to the field more than 30 times that season.
By my reckoning, that’s a group of 14 core players playing week in week out, twice a week from August through to March, with an additional four (Titus Bramble, Nikos Dabizas, Lomana Lua Lua and Steven Caldwell) making up the 18. United ended the season in 3rd and made it through to the last 16 in Europe. Based on these statistics, the argument of players playing too many games appears somewhat invalid.
Pardew has hinted recently that playing on a Thursday interrupts the training schedule, with the early part of the week (Monday-Wednesday) focussed on preparing a team for the Europa league, leaving only Saturday to prepare for a game in the league (assuming a day’s rest on the Friday). If we had qualified for the Champions League, we would have been training Sunday-Tuesday in preparation for Europe, leaving only Friday to prepare for the league game on Saturday. How would this have been any different?
Perhaps the biggest reason for our inability to reproduce consistent form across both competitions is the nature of the changes Pardew makes from week to week, mainly in personnel. Back in 2002/03, United played the same core personnel twice a week for the vast majority of the season. Why can’t we do the same now? Why can’t Alan Pardew prepare a squad of 14 for both the Europa league and Premier League from week to week, rather than having to prepare two separate squads for two separate games? This would allow the squad to develop some rhythm, and allow the players to understand their specific roles on a match day.
United’s current first team consists of Tim Krul, Davide Santon, Fabricio Coloccini, Steven Taylor, Danny Simpson, Cheick Tiote, Yohan Cabaye, Jonas Gutierrez, Hatem Ben Arfa, Papiss Cisse and Demba Ba, with Shola Ameobi, Mike Williamson and Vurnon Anita making up 14 senior players. On the fringes of the first team, we have Sylvain Marveaux, James Perch, Gabriel Obertan, Shane Ferguson and Gael Bigirimana. Surely this tightly knit squad of 19 (excluding long term absentee Ryan Taylor) could be prepared sufficiently from week to week to compete in both Europa League and Premier League games?
Do the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Demba Ba, Chiek Tiote, and Fabricio Coloccini need to be wrapped up in cotton wool each week? If a 32-year-old Alan Shearer and a 34-year-old Gary speed can play 48 and 36 games respectively, then the relatively youthful Coloccini and Tiote would be more than capable of repeating the feat?
If the spine of the team remained relatively intact from week to week, it would be far less likely that the team would be pushing December and still ‘struggling for rhythm’. Granted, injuries and suspensions haven’t helped our cause, but our form this season would suggest that wholesale changes have been less of a help and more of a hindrance – particularly to our bread and butter.
Anyone else agree?