Some solid, if unspectacular, performances have rekindled the hopes of some Evertonians that this season “isn’t over”.
Many (myself included) were left with the feeling that Everton essentially had little to play for once they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Liverpool’s kids on 5th January. Even by Everton’s standards, it seemed like a ludicrously early end to any hopes or fears for the campaign.
The Blues were a whopping 11 points shy of fourth, with a sufficient buffer from the threat of relegation, while exits from both domestic cup competitions had ended even the prospect of a trip to Wembley.
But then Manchester City got banned from Europe and King Carlo steadied the ship and got Everton grinding out results. Despite that, the Blues still sit in a pretty disappointing 12th place. However, the mid-table sides are closely bunched, with Tottenham Hotspur just four points ahead of the Blues in seventh place now.
CAnd, with even eighth place potentially be awarded Europa League football this season given FFP punishment, there is now a very real chance that Everton could qualify for the Europa League this season.
The question is, though, should Everton want to qualify for the Europa League right now?
The Europa League Curse
While I love a European night at Goodison as much as the next fan, there should be a great concern about the records of teams that do qualify for the Europa League.
Many sides see it as a natural stepping stone. The chance to compete on the European stage before they then reach the dizzying heights of the Champions League.
Unfortunately, that’s just not what happens.
Below is a list of all the teams from the Premier League (excluding the “Sky 6”) that have qualified for the Europa League, followed by their position the following season. I’ve excluded the Sky 6 from this as they are much more established in European competition and have the budget and squad size to sufficiently deal with the extra competition.
As you can see, of the 16 teams to have qualified for the Europa League, 75% of them have gone on to have worse seasons the next year.
And it’s not just a case of finishing one place lower. Excluding the Sky 6, teams that have qualified for the Europa League in the last 10 seasons have finished on average 2.56 positions lower in the following season.
Indeed, Everton are one of the best (or should that be worst?) examples of this. Every single time we’ve qualified for the Europa League in the last 10 years, we’ve done worse in the following season. The last time this happened, we only dropped one position – but for anyone who thinks back a couple of seasons will remember that this consisted of Koeman completely losing the team and Fireman Sam having to drag us up the table with our eyes struggling to stay open.
A Lack of Ambition
Now, obviously, Everton shouldn’t be aiming to lose games or anything like that. Our ambition is of course to get into Europe and stay there.
But the concern is, would Everton being in the Europa League next season damage our prospects of potentially make a serious push for a top four (or perhaps five) finish that could secure our real goal of reaching the Champions League?
I think it could and the numbers in the table above would suggest so too.
This would be especially true if we finish in eighth place and have to start at the second qualifying round of the Europa League like we did in 2017/18. A route that requires six games before the group stages even start, and in summer too, with players still in pre-season form.
Best of Both: European Development Squad
Now, I’d like to provide an alternative idea that could see us trying to finish in the European places this season, without damaging our league prospects next season. It could even make us a lot better in the long run.
If we are to qualify for the Europa League, then why don’t we split our squad into two: a Premier League squad and a European Development squad?
The Premier League squad would consist of Everton’s best 18 or so players. Then, the European squad will be made up of youthful prospects: players from our under 23s, players that we might have otherwise loaned out and players that are on the fringes of the first team but desperately need minutes.
This is somewhat similar to what we’ve done in European dead-rubber fixtures in the past. My suggestion is that we do this from the offset in order to keep the whole squad fresh.
Our two teams could look something like this, before we even add any new faces this summer:
Obviously we’d be able to move players between the two squads when needed, either due to form or potential injuries. But, on the whole, we should look to keep the sides somewhat separated in order to keep them as fresh as possible. We could even give Duncan Ferguson or David Unsworth the rule over the Development Squad, with Carlo taking a backseat.
In the worst case scenario, maybe the young Blues side doesn’t even make it out of the qualifying stage. In that case, the transfer window will still be open and we can ship many of those lads out on loan to get their experience. But if we manage to get to the group stages, this would provide these lads with an unbelievable experience and the opportunity to develop in a competitive environment in a Blue shirt.
What is clear, is that long-term thinking needs to become the norm at Everton Football Club if we want to get to where we want to be. And, while Europa League football can be a curse for others, it doesn’t mean we can’t think outside the box and use it for our own growth.