Could Burnley’s success prove to be a poisoned chalice?
Tipped by most to yet again battle relegation, Burnley silenced the doubters and shocked even their backers by claiming the title of ‘Premier League best of the rest’. That is to say, they finished seventh, tops among clubs not in the Big Six. For the first time in Clarets’ history, the side qualified for European football. It’s a watershed moment but could the Europa League have an adverse effect on Burnley’s 2018-19 season?
In 2000, another unfashionable club, Ipswich Town, achieved a feat similar to Burnley. Finishing fifth put the Tractor Boys into the UEFA Cup. The struggles of trying to lead a small squad through the rigours of European competition while trying to maintain league form proved too much for manager George Burley. After two seasons on the continent, the second secured via the Fair Play award, Ipswich ran out of steam and suffered relegation. They haven’t been back.
Dyche finds himself with a similar conundrum. He is not a manager known for rotation and Burnley has one of the smallest squads and budgets in the Premier League. If ginger-haired boss doesn’t strengthen enough he risks burnout late in the season. If he strengthens too much, the club will be overly burdened by its wage bill when the joyride inevitably ends. As romantic as it would be, Burnley is not going to transform into a European giant. It’s a difficult balancing act for Dyche. The consequences of getting it wrong could be disastrous.
This is not the only problem. Even big squads stuck in the Europa League have seen their league form suffer. Liverpool (eighth), Manchester United (fifth and sixth), and Arsenal (sixth) have shown how difficult maintaining league form can be when trying to compete on Thursday nights. Several factors contribute.
First, consider the travelling. If you’ve ever been overseas on holiday you will know how stressful and tiring it can be. We only do it once or twice a year generally. These guys are doing it once or twice a month. Fatigue is heightened because the Europa League involves more travel to Eastern and Southern Europe. The Champions League might demand a trip to Russia, Turkey or Ukraine for some team. The Europa League brings remote destinations like Kazakhstan into play. Every group contains two teams from Eastern and Southern Europe. Top Premier League teams leave players at home; Burnley might not have that luxury.
Then there is recovery time. It’s too simplistic to say there’s no difference between playing Wednesday/Saturday and Thursday/Sunday.” Two days of rest isn’t sufficient when you are racking up the frequent flyer miles. Besides, teams in the Champions League alternate between Tuesday and Wednesday and could play, Saturday, Sunday or even Monday. On average, there is far more time to rest between matches for Champions League participants.
Poor form following Europa League matches could have major consequences. For the bigger clubs, the consequence has been missing out on the Top four. For Burnley, it could be mean dropping into a relegation battle.
And what happens if Burnley make the knockout stages? In the Champions League, elimination rounds are staggered. Half the teams play one week, the other half the next. More rest for the wicked. Due to the Europa League’s bloated nature, with eight extra teams added from the Champions League groups, the matches come thick and fast. No rest for the so-called lucky bastards. Every week there are European games scheduled, every Europa League participant is on the fixture list. Nor is poor form the only danger. Injuries occur more frequently with fatigue. Manchester United lost both Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Marcos Rojo to long-term injuries while fulfilling their Europa League obligations. As already discussed, such a loss could devastate a tiny squad like Burnley’s.
I am not a stick in the mud. My intent isn’t to suggest Burnley should send weak squads to Europe and focus on the Premier League. They fought hard for the privilege to play in a UEFA competition. Dyche’s lads deserve it. Hopefully, the price for success won’t be too steep.