Why Arsenal, United and Spurs must avoid Europa League play-in

Coach Erik ten Hag of Manchester United (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Coach Erik ten Hag of Manchester United (Photo by David S. Bustamante/Soccrates/Getty Images) /

The three could end up in the Europa League knockout round playoffs in February/March

The last round of group stage football in UEFA’s club competitions takes place this week. Due to the FIFA World Cup taking place in November and December instead of during the summer, the season looks very different than usual.

With the increasingly busier fixture schedule for clubs all around Europe’s top leagues, the aim is to avoid playing more games than necessary. So, if a team can make the round of 16 in the Europa (Conference) League without playing the two-game knockout round playoffs, that is less energy spent. That makes this week all the more important for Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, and Arsenal as they look to avoid such fate.

Where the European representatives from the Premier League stand before the last round of play

All seven of the Premier League sides will get past the group stages of UEFA’s club competitions. There will be 3-4 of them in the Champions League, 2-3 in the Europa League, and one in the Europa Conference League.

Manchester City, Liverpool, and Chelsea have all qualified for the Champions League last 16 ahead of their matches this week. While City and Chelsea have topped their section, Liverpool needs to defeat Napoli by at least four goals to also win their group. The Italian side is unbeaten on the season, making the task even more difficult.

West Ham won their group in the Europa Conference League, winning against Silkeborg, Anderlecht and FCSB. The Irons are the only team in this season’s competition to have won all of their games in the tournament so far. More importantly, they enter the round of 16, avoiding the knockout playoffs.

Spurs currently leads an enticing Champions League group, facing the last placed side Marseille away on Tuesday. Remarkably, the French side can still top the group despite currently sitting bottom. The good news for Antonio Conte’s men is that they just need a point to join City, Liverpool and Chelsea in the last 16 of the Champions League. Lose, and they drop to the Europa League.

There they would join Manchester United and Arsenal. The Red Devils have already assured themselves a top two finish in their Europa League section, but will need to defeat Real Sociedad by at least two goals in order to pip the Spanish team to top spot. Otherwise, it will be second spot for Erik ten Hag’s men.

As for Arsenal, they missed their chance to top the section at PSV last week, going down 2-0 to the Dutch club. The good news for the Gunners is that they are still in control of their own destiny. A win at home to bottom club Zürich will see them win the group at PSV’s expense. However, should they falter versus the Swiss side combined with a PSV victory at Norway’s Bodø/Glimt and it will mean second place in Group A for Arsenal. Mikel Arteta has already highlighted the importance of finishing atop their group, and will start his strongest players on Thursday.

For Spurs, United and Arsenal, the worst case scenarios mentioned above would mean they would play in the Europa League’s knockout playoffs. For the uninitiated, the knockout playoffs replaced the old round of 32, where it pits the runners-up of each Europa League group against a team that finished third in the Champions League group stage. With the likes of Barcelona and Sevilla already assured to drop from the UCL to the UEL along with potential names like Juventus, Ajax, Atletico Madrid, AC Milan, and Leipzig taking part, that would pose a serious challenge to United and Arsenal.

West Ham avoided such fate in the Conference League, which also has this play-in round. The same idea occurs there, where the runners-up faces the third place sides from the Europa League groups. In both the Europa League and Conference League, the group winners get a bye from the knockout playoffs, entering at the round of 16. A note that this will all change in 2024, where all three tournaments will have this round of football preceding the round of 16.

Concerns over fixture congestion

In a season like no other, the Europa League knockout playoffs is something that clubs will want to avoid if possible. That equates to two more games in a tight schedule. Both United and Arsenal have a game in hand to most of their other Premier League rivals. Winning their respective groups would allow more space for both to play their make-up match.

As reported by ESPN, following last month full Premier League was postponed due to the queen’s death, there is very little space left in the calendar to accommodate these extra games. In fact, should the three Premier League teams previously mentioned partake in the Europa League’s play-in stage, it will be difficult to find space for their extra Premier League game.

Heavy fixture congestion is already a concern expressed by many teams in the league. Even UEFA has touched upon it, wishing that the Premier League, along with LaLiga and Serie A decrease their league size to 18 teams ahead of the new Champions League format in 2024. Ligue 1 will be doing exactly that at season’s end.

It goes to show how difficult this situation is to manage. Now, it is worth noting that had this been a normal season as we know it, there would have been less problems. There would have been space to have the remaining four postponed fixtures without many problems.

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For the sake of Spurs, Arsenal, Man. United and the Premier League calendar managers, it is in the best interest of all parties that the three clubs, particularly the latter two, avoid the potential death trap that is of the Europa League knockout playoffs.