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Could there only be 3 Champions League spots for England in 2016/17?

2014-15 was a disastrous campaign for English clubs in European competition. No Premier League side reached the quarterfinals of either the Champions League or the Europa League, which had a serious impact on England’s coefficient score. By this measure, England endured their worst European campaign in a decade.

UEFA’s coefficient scores aren’t the most romantic way to view European football, but they offer a fascinating insight into the strength of respective leagues, not to mention their role in determining the allocation of European places for upcoming seasons. Currently they don’t make good reading for the Premier League.

As recently as 2012, the Premier League was considered the strongest division in Europe. Next season, the fight will be on to retain a top-three place — and therefore the league’s fourth Champions League slot. If the worst happens, and that place is lost, there will be serious questions about the genuine quality of a league that markets itself as the best around.

The intricacies of the coefficient scores aren’t fascinating, though it’s simpler than often described. Individual teams are awarded two points for a victory and one for a draw (with half-points at the qualification stage) and then receive bonus points for reaching various knockout stages of either European competition.

Each team receives a score, used for seeding purposes, and the league coefficient for each season is an average of every team from that league’s score. England had seven teams in European competition this season, for example, so the coefficient ranking takes into account all seven — from Chelsea to Hull.

Determining the league’s overall score, meanwhile, is taken over a period of five years. This is why England should be fearful ahead of next season. It’s not simply that 2014-15 was a bad campaign; it’s that 2010-11 will no longer count, and that was England’s strongest season over the past five years.

Meanwhile, Serie A is enjoying an unexpected resurgence. Having lost its position as the third-best league to the Bundesliga at the end of 2010-11, Serie A is keen to regain its fourth Champions League spot. They’re essentially in the opposite situation as England is — 2014-15 was its best performance in a decade, and they’ll be delighted to see a poor 2010-11 campaign wiped from the records.

Once 2010-11 no longer counts, England will start next season on 62.0 points, with Italy on 58.9. This 3.1-point gap is relatively minimal. For context, Italy finished 5.4 points ahead of England this season alone, so a repeat performance from both countries next season will see the Premier League lose its fourth Champions League slot for 2017-18. The Bundesliga can’t sit tight either, starting only 4.8 points ahead of Serie A, though it would take an alarming collapse for that margin to be overturned.

It’s worth considering, though, that Italy outperforming England hadn’t previously happened since 2005-06, and there’s nothing to suggest 2014-15 is anything other than an anomaly at this stage. Nevertheless, the threat is real.

It’s worth the Premier League considering why Serie A performed so well this season. Italy managed 19.0 points — only 1.2 behind La Liga, which seems strange given Spanish clubs won both European competitions. Juventus’ run to the Champions League final certainly helped, but the crucial thing to remember is that the country coefficient is an average of every team’s performance.

Therefore, Italy’s fine ranking was primarily because no individual team performed badly. Roma was the lowest scorer with 12.0 points, and even that was more than three Premier League sides — Tottenham, Liverpool and Hull, the last of which scored just 2.5 points. Serie A’s fine performance came as something of a surprise, considering Napoli lost in the Champions League qualifiers to Athletic Bilbao, and Roma had a disastrous Champions League group stage, winning just once.

Crucially, however, both clubs took the Europa League seriously when being demoted to Europe’s secondary competition, and this is the major reason Serie A has performed so well. It’s something the Premier League could learn from, considering the attitude toward the Europa League in English football ranges from indifference to hatred.

It’s questionable whether things will be better next season: Tottenham and Liverpool simply seem tired of the Europa League; Southampton might not have the resources to cope; while West Ham’s performance — they’ve qualified through the fair-play table — is anyone’s guess. A couple of early dropouts, and there will be real pressure on the Champions League sides to perform and maintain England’s fourth spot in that competition.

This, of course, is the irony of the situation: Premier League clubs need to take the Europa League seriously to help maintain a Champions League slot. If not, then that Champions League place will instead become a Europa League place, and the consequence of ignoring the competition will be having to spend more time participating in it. The Premier League could, frankly, become a victim of its own arrogance.

Why, though, is there this kind of attitude towards the Europa League in England? Supporters dislike playing matches on Thursdays and then Sundays every other week, because the traditional Saturday kickoff remains sacred, but this shouldn’t cause significant problems for the teams themselves. Matches are now routinely switched to Sundays anyway, and players are accustomed to playing midweek.

There is only one legitimate excuse for Premier League clubs, as the physicality of the division shouldn’t be dismissed as an easy cliché. Combined with poor, boggy pitches and the lack of a winter break, the Premier League is simply a more draining division than other European leagues — Serie A, in particular. Fewer days’ rest before league matches is a significant disadvantage, and this becomes a regular problem if you’re playing Europa League football. Preparation is also hampered by longer travel times compared with those of clubs based in more central European countries.

But these problems must be ignored, and overcome, ahead of next season. England needs a strong performance from each of its eight European performers — for the good of the Premier League as a whole.

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