By J Hutcherson (Jan 29, 2019) US Soccer Players – In 2017, Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho decided to prioritize the Europa League. With his club battling for a Champions League spot in the Premier League, Mourinho decided he had a better option. Win the Europa League and take the Champions League spot that came with the title. With UEFA adding that particular incentive, it made sense. Well, sort of.
The Premier League table and the Champions League knockout rounds are what matters to the elite in English soccer. That’s so easy to take as a given that it’s not even worth writing. The big prizes are the obvious ones. At last count, that’s still the Premier League and Champions League trophies.
So here was Mourinho’s United going all in on the Europa with next season in mind. In the short term, it worked. United lifted the Europa and took that Champions League spot. It was tough to overlook finishing behind Chelsea, Sputs, Manchester City, Liverpool, and Arsenal in the Premier League. Or that Manchester City, Arsenal, and Leicester City made it to the knockout round of the Champions League. Nice shiny trophy for United, but perhaps the wrong one.
In 2018-19, it’s a different Premier League manager making a different point about the other trophies. Mauricio Pochettino saw his team exit the League Cup and the FA Cup over a few days. His response was to point to the obvious, that what really counts is the Premier League and Champions League titles. In the era of instant opinion, that went over about as well as you’d imagine. Spurs lost, then lost again. The hyper-focus on whatever is happening right now takes over. To suggest exiting those two tournaments isn’t a problem, much less the precipice of a crisis? That’s not how the media plays this game.
“We are going to create a debate that to win a trophy is going to help the club,” Pochettino said. “I don’t agree with that. That only builds your ego. In reality the most important thing is being consistently in the top four and playing in the Champions League. That is going to help the club to achieve the last step. The club is doing fantastically well. It’s so successful. In the last four or five years we’ve been fighting in different ways to achieve what the club needs, to be in the level of Chelsea, United, City, Arsenal or Liverpool. People wish we could win some trophies. But, being realistic, we are a team not built to win titles still.”
It’s a good question whether or not the title should be the focus for a team like Spurs. Coming close to contention is not the same as really contending in this era of the Premier League. The top four finish and the Champions League places that go with them certainly count more than the FA or League Cup and finishing 5th. Saying that in January after losing in both the domestic cups might be problematic optically, but it doesn’t take away from the point.
Fellow trophy pragmatist Jurgen Klopp agreed with him. “I know that people probably didn’t like what Poch said, but it’s so easy from the outside looking in. From a club point of view, the best competition to win is the Premier League because then you are in the top four and you won a big thing,” the Liverpool manager said. “You want to win the other competitions, but that doesn’t guarantee you the money for the next year. That’s why top four is so important. You should ask the owners much more about what they think about that. They would probably say: ‘Yes, it’s really important.'”
Maybe, but it’s just not the kind of thing people are likely to ask in late January. A lot can happen on the way to a club lifting that trophy that they want. Leaning on other trophies not only helps the ego, it helps salvage a season. It’s a big part of the reason they exist. It’s other things to play for over the course of a season. What exactly the League Cup in particular costs a contending club is a fair question. It’s done by the end of February and doesn’t seem to be disrupting 4th-place Chelsea and 2nd-place Manchester City’s seasons.
Should City prove unable to overtake Liverpool in the table is advancing in the League Cup going to end up a convenient alibi? It’s safe to go ahead and say probably not. It’s likely going to be the same for Spurs. Crashing out of the League Cup to Chelsea in the semifinals and Crystal Palace in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup in January probably won’t make or break their season. It’s an equally safe assumption that neither would one extra game in the League Cup with a trophy on the line.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at email@example.com.
More from J Hutcherson:
- European soccer in the US sports marketplace
- David Wagner, Huddersfield Town, and the next level
- Concacaf can’t unlock the Club World Cup
- Atlanta wins the Cup, but what does that mean for MLS?
Logo courtesy of Spurs