It’s been almost a week since Manchester United lifted the Europa League trophy in Stockholm, the victory proving the difference between a successful and underwhelming season.
Indeed, United’s 2-0 triumph over Ajax ensured not only a second piece of major silverware for the season, but Champions League qualification for the following campaign.
And after a pretty insufferable couple of weeks of Premier League action that saw the Red Devils limp to a sixth-place finish, that confirmation of the team’s participation in Europe’s top tier tournament for next term was vitally important.
Premier League rivals to share United’s fixture congestion woes
It means United are one of five English teams set to feature in the Champions League in 2017/18, qualifying for the tournament via the more difficult, yet more satisfying process of winning the Europa League. What’s more, the experience of such a long campaign could help the team next season.
The final weeks of United’s Premier League season were pretty draining, but José Mourinho’s comments on fixture congestion had become equally predictable by that point as well.
In fairness, the Portuguese had the right to complain about how the Red Devils’ fixture list had been set out. Late Sunday kick-offs, Thursday night Premier League games and unhelpful scheduling either side of lengthy European trips were just some of the problems which displeased Mourinho.
There’s no guarantee that United won’t find themselves in a similar situation next term, and fans will be hopeful of repeating their cup successes of this season when competitive action resumes in August. However, the Old Trafford club will at least have the comfort of knowing that some of their closest rivals will be facing a similarly challenging schedule next year.
No non-Europe advantage next season
That won’t be the case next season, though. The Premier League’s top six, also made up of Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City, were far ahead of the rest of the division last term, and all six will be playing European football next season.
In the last couple of seasons, a lack of European football has been a key factor in allowing teams to break into the top four. It saw United themselves return to the Champions League under Louis van Gaal following David Moyes’ disastrous season, while Liverpool have now twice qualified for the tournament in recent seasons without having European commitments.
Liverpool very nearly won the league without having European football in one of those seasons, while Leicester City famously did just that last season and Chelsea in this. But such teams have often failed to retain their top four spot with the added responsibility of playing in the Champions League, the extra games often stretching tight squads beyond its limits.
United can benefit from Europa League experience
However, United – despite suffering numerous injuries at times last term – showed under Mourinho that they are capable of coping with such demands. The midweek Champions League matches will prove more difficult in terms of the standard of opponent, but the Red Devils will be well equipped to rotate their side for those games, as they already have in this season’s Europa League.
Playing 64 matches in one season was certainly difficult and it’s an experience the players are unlikely to repeat next term, unless there’s a ‘quadruple’ on the cards.
But it’s an experience which managers such as Jurgen Klopp and Antonio Conte, of Liverpool and Chelsea respectively, do not yet have in English football.
It could be that minor detail which allows United to break back into the top four next season, perhaps at those sides’ expense, and hopefully even higher.