Europa League: Devil in Disguise?

Despite the disappointment of not making the Champions League after a last-day home defeat by Schalke last season, Freiburg’s inclusion in the Europa League was supposed to increase the club’s status and attract better players as the exposure is much bigger and attractive if a team is in Europe. Seven months on, euphoria is almost a forgotten term at the MAGE SOLAR Stadion, as Freiburg’s half-decent form in the European competition is shadowed by their poor domestic one.

There is no doubt that this is due to the loss of key players during the summer, many of which made the difference last year (Max Kruse, Daniel Caligiuri, Jan Rosenthal, Johannes Flum…) has deeply impacted their performances this season. On top of that, rebuilding a squad in such a short space of time is a recipe for disaster and to expect this new team, a squad that is as short as it is inexperienced, to play two matches a week is almost like asking for the moon. Christian Streich was thrown into the deep end with this situation and after the second Europa League match, a 2-0 defeat at Sevilla, Streich stated that their participation in the Europa League was merely testimonial and that the Bundesliga was priority, even starting fringe players in continental matches. However, despite a surprising home draw to Bayern early on in the season, Freiburg have struggled and find themselves in 16th position, two from the bottom. Their only two wins of the season have come against the teams below them (Nürnberg and Braunschweig) and they could not be further from the exciting, young and daring team that we all witnessed last year.

The reasons behind this contrast in form can be many and there is plenty of room for speculation. Is the squad too short? Is their European opposition weaker? (Sevilla aside, Slovan Liberec and Estoril are hardly Bundesliga-level teams). Is it all psychological? Lack of pressure that allows for better performances in Europe? Either way, the outcome is not positive for Streich and Freiburg and three points is all that is separating them from relegation. On the other hand, the position they are in doesn’t guarantee safety as the top teams in the 2. Bundesliga are coming up strong.

If we look at the other example, Eintracht Frankfurt, the contrast is much bigger and the circumstances much easier than their counterparts from Baden-Württemberg. Eintracht’s excellent season last year was met with the summer joy of not losing half of their squad in the summer; on the contrary, Frankfurt’s weaknesses were strengthened with the arrival of Václav Kadlec, Tranquillo Barnetta, Johannes Flum and Jan Rosenthal, and they managed to hold onto all of their prized assets, Sebastian Rode, Sebastian Jung, Bastian Oczipka… It was quite the opposite situation to Freiburg for a team that had an even thinner squad, with manager Armin Veh starting almost the same XI every match last season and only injuries and suspensions stopping him from doing so in every game. So, why are they too in a poor domestic situation? Frankfurt sit one place above Freiburg in the standings but equal on points, also with two victories and one of them against Eintracht Braunschweig.

So, if we analyse both cases, they are completely different ones and yet they are in the same situation, with only one thing in common: the midweek competition. Teams who play in the Champions League have squads that are big enough to rotate and keep the players fresh despite playing 50-60 matches per season; those who don’t, suffer. However, the teams that qualify for the Champions League are almost always the same ones and have the financial power to manage this problem. When smaller teams have a breakthrough season and surprisingly end up in European spots, it can be a hidden problem for them because the likelihood of the bigger teams snapping up their players is high (as in Freiburg’s case) and there’s also a high chance of their inexperienced and most likely thin squad struggling to play two games a week, which will inevitably affect their domestic form sooner rather than later. Unlike in the Champions League, the prize money in the Europa League is spare change for teams, as explained by the excellent Swiss Ramble, so there is no real incentive for teams to play in the #2 European competition when in the situation that Frankfurt and Freiburg are in this season. Furthermore, with all the teams dropping into the Europa League from the Champions League, the likelihood of a team who started the competition to win it is small. This season, teams like Juventus, Napoli, Shakhtar Donetsk, Porto and Ajax among others will be in the Europa League knockout-stage draw, so what real chances of winning do teams like Eintracht have? Next to none.

Now, with Eintracht going through to the knockout phase and Freiburg out, we will be able to see how Freiburg’s form, particularly in the Rückrunde, is affected by playing just the one match per week, especially in comparison to Eintracht’s. Perhaps it would have been more helpful to monitor the change had Eintracht been eliminated because of all the external factors that affect Freiburg which have already been mentioned (new squad, inexperience…) but still, they will be a good indicator to see up to what extent playing in the Europa League affected their performances in the Hinrunde. All that is left to say is to question whether the Europa League is really a competition for the teams or for UEFA to keep everyone pleased but that favours the big names in the end.

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Aleix Gwilliam

Is a 27-year-old living in Barcelona who gets more pleasure from watching German lower-league football than from going to watch his hometown team at the Camp Nou every other week. Passionate about European football, its history and culture, you can follow him on Twitter at @AleixGwilliam

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