In previous seasons, finishing 7th in the Premier League would give you a shot at Europa League football. In 2018-19, for example, Wolves finished 7th, qualifying for the second round of Europa League qualifying, the round that Burnley qualified for in 2017-18. Playing Europa League qualification matches in July would inevitably be a strain on teams’ squad depth.
This, however, is no longer the case. UEFA have streamlined the Europa League, and created a third tier of European football, the Europa Conference League, which sounds like a coupon done by three-star hotels. While it is still technically European football, it’s very much an afterthought, competed by teams who won their domestic Cup competitions or weren’t good enough to qualify for the higher quality European competitions, or did, but lost in qualifying. There isn’t even automatic qualification for the group stage—the 7th placed finisher or EFL Cup winner from England, for example, has to play in a two-legged playoff round in August.
The upshot of qualifying for the Conference League is a series of Thursday games, followed by a preliminary knockout-round (if you’re a runner up in the group stage), followed the actual knockout phase. There is, then, the potential for fifteen or seventeen games to win the whole competition, which gets you a spot in the Europa League.
Arsenal, of course, have the potential to qualify for the Europa Conference League, provided Everton and Tottenham drop points on Sunday and Arsenal win. It would mean the record of being in European competitions would continue for a twenty-sixth straight year. But while it’s a nice record and something to sell people on, even as those European competitions have gone from the Champions League to the Europa League, to the Europa Conference League, there has to be some thought if it is actually worthwhile.
Playing the Conference League would mean not having the advantage of a week between Premier League games. People have suggested sending the entirety of the U-23 squad, but that would still mean the manager and coaching staff have to prepare and oversee a midweek game, allowing for less work on the training ground. And, the track record is that Arsenal would still involve senior players—after all, most senior players featured in the Europa League group stage, even after Arsenal had qualified.
Thus, the midweek competition necessitates a large squad. Arsenal actually have quite a large squad, but, as we’ve seen throughout this season, the quality of said squad becomes questionable after the first fourteen or fifteen players. Not being in European competition not only could mean a smaller squad, but could also mean focusing on having seventeen or eighteen good players, who fit and suit the needs of the manager and playing style. While a smaller squad is susceptible to injury crises this is a trade off that is easier to make when you are essentially only playing once a week. Furthermore, playing once a week would keep Arsenal fresher than the competition for the European places.
Indeed, Arsenal’s best run of form in the Premier League has come without there being much distraction from other competitions. Arsenal won three straight in the Premier League in January, and five of six, with only two FA Cup games disrupting the rhythm of the Premier League season, and in one, against Southampton, Mikel Arteta more or less sent out a second choice side. And, Arsenal are currently on a four-match winning streak in the Premier League, with three of those wins coming after the exit of the Europa League against Villarreal.
While European football brings prestige and money to the club, it is not yet apparent if the Europa Conference League does much of either of those things. At best, it offers a route into the Europa League, but that route can have all the consequences of routine midweek matches without much of a reward—after all, even in this dreadful season, Arsenal could end up just 4 points off of a Europa League spot. The Europa League’s reward, a trophy and a place in the Champions League, made it a worthwhile competition. The Europa Conference League lacks that, and Arsenal would be better off out of it.