Fans of Liverpool, England’s most successful Champions League team, may not be happy but there will be EPL clubs who benefit.
It is easy to dismiss everything that UEFA, and indeed FIFA does as short-sighted, money orientated, and not in the game’s best interests. And as a rule, if you stick with those assumptions you are going to be right more often than you are not. The changes to the world’s greatest club tournament were met with understandable scorn and protests by most of those involved in, or affected by, the changes.
Putting those aside, however, and taking a devil advocate’s stance, the new format will actually be a good thing for the English Premier League. Interest for the neutral over time has extended from what was the race for the title, to the top two, to today’s top four. These changes will extend that to potentially the top seven, eight or nine. Punters will be using their free bets on the race for seventh, a concept that would have seemed absurd not long ago, and to many, perhaps still does.
The Major Changes
The current format sees 32 teams split up into eight groups of four for the first-round proper, with the top two progressing. The new proposals, which are due to be put in place for the start of the 2024/2025 season, sees the number of clubs increasing to 36.
Each team will play 10 games, five at home, five away, with the top eight in the league going through to the round of 16. The clubs who finish in 9th to 24th position will then be seeded before playing off to find the remaining eight teams.
The sixteen teams who qualify will then go through the same format as is in place with the existing competition. The only change will be that the clubs who do not qualify from the initial league, or through the play-offs, will not drop into the Europa League.
So in essence, more teams, and more games, and not just a handful of extra games, but 100 more matches.
Why are people upset?
In a classic case of UEFA being in danger of killing the golden goose by trying to squeeze every last piece of revenue out of it, the new format will see clubs playing more games. Chelsea manager Thomas Tuchel expressed his dismay at the number of games his team will be forced to play.
There is a real danger that many matches will involve teams with little to play for, and the sheer number of games will lessen the impact of each of them. It is also another step away from what the competition was initially designed to be, namely a tournament between the number one teams from each of the major European footballing nations.
It could very well be the case that a team that finished fifth in their domestic league plays a side representing a league that has never had a club progress from the group stages. There is nothing wrong with such teams competing against each other in principle, but is the place for that really the so-called “Champions” League?
The current setup is not perfect, but the knockout stages are generally very good. This year they have delivered incredible drama and as an aside, have shown that occasionally UEFA can make the right decision, in the abolition of the away goals rule.
The criticism of the current format is that the competition does not really get going until the group of 16, with almost everyone being able to pick 14 or so of the teams that will make up the final 16. An issue with the new proposals is that they do not address that at all, and if anything they make the opening rounds even more uncompetitive. Who in their right mind would have watched this year’s tournament and said “what this competition needs is another 100 matches?”
So why this is good for the EPL?
An increase in teams is probably the best way for Manchester United to get into the Champions League
Individual clubs may well complain that their already stacked fixture list will have extra games parachuted in, but for the league as a whole, these changes will be beneficial. The top tier of English football, more than any other, including the Spanish, Italian and German leagues is known for the competitiveness of the matches, involving all teams practically down to the bottom one or two.
The quality of very good teams extends way down the league and this is only going to extend it further. The title race this year went down to the wire, as did the battle for fourth. Manchester United and West Ham were fighting it out for the remaining European place.
The increase in the number of clubs competing in the competition to 36 will more than likely see the EPL – the league with the highest coefficient – increase the number of teams they send to the Champions League from four to five. That will cascade through to the teams qualifying for Europe through the Europa League and Europa Conference.
At the minute there is a group of teams, those in mid-table, who are safe from the drop but are not quite able to push for those European places. These changes will squeeze that group, making it practically non-existent. It could very well be the case that if a team is not fighting to stay in the league then it is battling to win a European place.
Suddenly teams like Brighton, Wolves, Aston Villa and Crystal Palace will have genuine ambitions to get into Europe competition. Whereas the Europa League was previously seen as a distraction for teams trying to make the next step up to the Champions League, West Ham showed that if you go about it with the right attitude (albeit with a thin squad) it is a competition that can be enjoyed by players and fans alike.
With all sport there is always winners and losers, and though these changes look like they will have the opposite impact you have to assume the architects of them were hoping for, the EPL will in all likelihood be an even more competitive place as a result.