Will Wolves' Europa League adventure derail their Premier League campaign?
Nuno Espirito Santo’s Wolves have made a slightly underhwelming and entirely unspectacular start to the new domestic campaign, with three points on the board from four games - and yet to win a game.
It is early days, of course, and Wolves have had three tricky fixtures thrown into the equation too, having already played against all of Leicester City, Manchester United and Everton, though the last-gasp draw against Burnley last weekend was slightly disappointing for a side looking to rival the top 6 this season.
Of course, last season they started slowly too, picking up just 2 points from their opening three games in the 2017-18 campaign, drawing versus both Everton and Manchester City and losing against Leicester City. After four games though, they had 5 points - two points more than this time around.
And there are suggestions that the slight dip in league form could be due to the additional unpredictable factor thrown into the equation, something which could go a long way in explaining why they may not perform to quite the same standard in the league this time around - the Europa League.
Wolves’ outstanding endeavour last season earned them a 7th place finish, giving them a Europa League berth, a tournament which they have been performing brilliantly in, having won every match they’ve played in the continental competition since the season began.
However, there could be legitimate concerns from some fans that the additional fixture list and travel time, added to their relatively small squad, could have a rather detrimental impact on their league campaign long-term.
Indeed, it has long been suggested that the Europa League has a significant impact on a side’s domestic success - but is that really the case, or is it a myth? To assess exactly that question, we take a look at each of the sides outside the ‘Top 6’ in England that have qualified for Europa League football to see how they perform in the following campaign:
Number of points earned in the league take a hit
One obvious way to analyse how the Europa League impacts a club is to see how their point tally changes from playing without the Europa League distraction, to playing with it.
And one thing that is quite clear when looking at this is that the points accumulated generally drop when Europa League football is added to the equation, sometimes considerably.
Points earned in Premier League season before and season during Europa League campaign
Newcastle 2011-12 and Everton 2013-14 are particularly good examples of how a domestic season can be derailed significantly, while each of the last four seasons all show quite clearly how big an impact the Europa League can have on a football club, with the most recent European campaigns of Southampton, West Ham, Everton and Burnley all causing a massive reduction in the number of points accumulated domestically.
However, one thing that is also notable about the graphs is that Europa League qualification does not automatically lead to a disastrous, or even disappointing follow-up campaign - on a couple of occasions, it has had no impact at all, with both Southampton and West Ham from 2014-15 to 2015-16 actually improving their points tally from their season with no European football to their season with European football.
Equally though, on just three of the last 13 occasions has a side’s points tally increased with European football compared to without, the other 10 seeing their point tally drop upon European football being added to the equation.
Overall, therefore, on average a club saw a drop of 8.5 points thanks to the addition of Europa League football; such a drop would see Wolves’ 57 point tally, which they earned last season, drop to about 49 points, moving them from 7th in the standings to 12th, though that’s an extreme example and obviously it goes without saying that it’s not an exact reflection of how Wolves will perform this campaign.
A look at how league position changes
Another similar way to illustrate how the Europa League campaign can disrupt a season is looking at league position change with and without the addition of the continental competition.
This is quite similar to the previous study where we looked at points gained, though is slightly different, as it gives us more context as to how the league season unfolded in a particular year. Take Fulham, for example. In the previous graph, we saw that Fulham obtained more points during the season where they were also playing Europa League football, but in the graph below, you can see that they actually ended up finishing lower in the league table that campaign anyway:
The trend is quite clear, though: generally, a team’s position goes down with Europa League football - though not always.
As you can see, all of the most recent four non-top 6 sides to have represented England in European football have gone on to obtain a lower Premier League position upon the inclusion of the Europa League compared to the season prior. Burnley were the side to take the most significant hit to their league position in the past four seasons, dropping 8 places from 7th to 15th.
Newcastle, however, are the side to have seemingly been hit hardest by the Europa League campaign overall, their 2012-13 showing in the Europa League seeing them drop from Champions League hopefuls to relegation candidates.
Again, though, you can point to both Southampton and West Ham who saw their position in the table rise in 2016-17 upon the addition of their Europa League campaign, showing that your season does not have to suffer just because you play in the Europa League.
Does distance in the Europa League affect your league position?
One important thing to also look at is whether there is a trend between how far you go in the Europa League and how far you drop down the league table as a result, as it could be the case that the teams that don’t suffer as significant a drop in the Premier League rankings did so because their Europa League run was short.
That, however, does not seem to be the case:
The table is not easy to take in, so we’ve also put it into graph form. But as you can see, the table above is sorted by number of games played. When you compare that with the points change, you can see straight away that there seems to be no correlation between distance gone in the competition and how badly it affects your league standing.
You can perhaps see this more clearly in the graph below:
As you can see from the graph, there appears to be absolutely no correlation between the number of Europa League games played and the points change in the Premier League, Newcastle, for example, playing a substantial 14 Europa League matches and losing 23 more points compared to the previous season, while Fulham, who also played 14 Europa League matches, gained 3 points overall.
There is no obvious pattern, meaning that how the Europa League affects a teams performance alters depending on the team themselves and likely other external factors, such as how many players were sold during the summer, a change of manager etc.
Wolves have what teams before them didn’t…
Will Europa League derail Wolves? The fact of the matter is, contrary to common suggestion, not necessarily. There are three examples in the last thirteen years that illustrate that playing Europa League football doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to drop points in the league - and instead, you may even vastly improve on your previous league performance.
Fulham absolutely showed that best; they played a huge 14 Europa League games in 2011-12, and yet they actually improved on their previous league record, picking up 3 more points than the season before.
Wolves, having kept hold of their best players, have every reason to believe that it is entirely possible improve on their early season form and eventually go on to have a good season both on the continental stage and domestically.
At the same time, of course, there are many examples where very good sides have struggled significantly in the league because they have had the introduction of Europa League football.
One thing that works in Wolves’ favour, though, is that they have a huge amount of experience in European competition. The likes of Rui Patricio, Joao Moutinho, Ruben Neves and Diogo Jota possess a great deal of European experience, even in the Champions League, and that will help Wolves succeed where others didn’t.