Premier League concerns on Champions League revamp: “How can you justify rewarding Arsenal’s worst season in a generation with tens of millions of Champions League money?”

16 February 2021

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Photo: PA Images Arsenal's players look on dejected at the final whistle during the Premier League match against Brighton at the Emirates Stadium in London in May 2109.

Concerns about UEFA encroaching on domestic rights deals, player burn out and ‘steady creep’ of elite club control. Eighth placed Arsenal would have qualified for Champions League this year under the proposals.

UEFA proposing a 90 per cent increase in Champions League games under the revamp, with extra match days before Christmas.

Media rights expert: “Big six clubs really need a careful think about whether that's going to benefit them long term or damage the Premier League overall and therefore harm them in the long term.”

“Cast back 40 years…(and) Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest would be part of it. Why should any club have their position enshrined at the top?” says a critical Premier League club executive.

James Corbett corbett@offthepitch.com

In several off the record briefings officials have shared their unease at proposals put forward by UEFA to overhaul the Champions League.

UEFA has put forward an expanded group stage using a so-called ‘Swiss Model’ in which clubs will play matches against ten opponents of different strengths based on seeding. The top 16 would go through to the knockout rounds, with clubs finishing between ninth and 24th in the table progressing via play-offs.

The plans were discussed at last Thursday’s Premier League shareholders meeting and UEFA this week previewed them to national club associations.

Off The Pitch understands that at the shareholders meeting concerns were expressed about the number of games played in the new tournament, with a 90 per cent increase in fixtures planned, including four additional matchdays before Christmas.

Player unions have told that they are monitoring the situation.

Broadcast conundrum

The concerns are understood to be centred not just on player burn out, but the implications for domestic broadcast deals if UEFA effectively doubles its offering whilst taking from a finite pot of TV money.

“It's interesting that it's a concern amongst the clubs because presumably they will have some sort of stake in the new competition,” says Julian Aquilina of Enders Analysis, a media, telecoms and entertainment research agency.

“I suppose it's for the for the big six clubs to really have a careful think about whether that's going to benefit them long term or damage the Premier League overall and therefore harm them in the long term.”

Steady creep

There is surprise, also, that smaller and mid-ranking federations who elected UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin on pledges of equalising inequalities in European football haven’t been more vociferous in challenging the plans. The contention is that international football windows will be diminished, which many federations rely upon for income.

One senior Premier League club official who was party to last week’s discussions at its board meeting spoke of growing unease at the “steady creep” towards a competition controlled by Europe’s elite.

It shows a chronic level of cultural misunderstanding from those who come US-centred ‘closed competitions’ of what makes football thrive, that is risk and unpredictability.

“This notion that you have a static mass of clubs at the elite of football is erroneous,” said another official.

“If you had a European or even Premier League ‘elite’ 20 years ago there’s no way Manchester City or Chelsea would be anywhere near that. Cast back 20 years before that Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest would be part of it. Why should any club have their position enshrined at the top?”

Unjustifiable rewards

Of particular contention is the path to qualification given to two clubs who fail to qualify for the Champions League based on the strength of their UEFA club coefficient.

Had this rule applied last year, Tottenham and Arsenal would have qualified for the Champions League on the strength of sixth and eight-based places.

“How can you qualify for a league of champions having come eighth? How can you justify rewarding Arsenal’s worst season in a generation with tens of millions of Champions League money?”

There also remains a high level of unhappiness among a number of EPL clubs at Liverpool and Manchester United, who are seen as having acted “unilaterally” in pushing for Project Big Picture and in support of a breakaway European Super League. Fear of the latter is said to have played a role in “normalising” the idea that an elite of clubs be allowed to qualify for the Champions League, irrespective of domestic performance.

“It shows a chronic level of cultural misunderstanding from those who come US-centred ‘closed competitions’ of what makes football thrive, that is risk and unpredictability,” continued the official.

Asked why clubs without that background, such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, are also pushing for a more “closed” form of European competition, the source pointed to the catastrophic losses suffered by non-qualifying Champions League former regulars, like Milan and Roma, which have been compounded by the pandemic.

“You just cannot underestimate the impact of this crisis on clubs’ thinking.”

Increase in quality?

Julian Aquilina of Enders Analysis acknowledges that on the one hand the prospect of bigger teams playing more games against each other – UEFA’s stated aim for its competition revamp – is “very very attractive”, but on the other there is a finite appeal to any competition.

“Just because you increase the number of games in the competition doesn't always necessarily mean that you're increasing the quality of the competition overall,” he says.

“I think that sort of feeds into part of the reason why in the UK there's relatively little incentive for the broadcasters to buy up more domestic Premier League rights if they were to go on offer. At the moment they've got 200 of the 380 matches that are played every season and every additional match they get added to that list is on average a lower quality match than what they currently have. And the same sort of principle applies just for any of these other competitions.”