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7th April 2021

Champions League format change: How will English football be affected?

UEFA has proposed a revamped format of the Champions League which, if agreed, could see radical changes to the competition as we know it from 2024.

Under the potential changes, the number of teams competing in Europe’s elite football tournament would increase from 32 to 36, with the extra slots being allocated to ‘wildcard’ entries. These wildcards would be given to teams with the highest UEFA coefficient score – which the body uses to determine the ranking of teams and leagues – who haven’t qualified via the normal domestic routes, such as finishing in the top four of the Premier League.

This would see the group stages we know today replaced with a ‘Swiss-style’ league system consisting of all 36 teams. Each team would play 10 matches, with their opponents determined by seeding. It is believed the top eight in the league would qualify automatically for the knockout phase, with the next 16 teams competing for the remaining eight places via play-off matches.

UEFA’s plans have been met with strong opposition, with many footballing figures believing that the wildcard entries will further help to create a ‘closed shop’ of the heavyweight clubs. If this format were in place this season, for example, it would give Liverpool the opportunity to qualify for next season’s tournament, despite potentially finishing a couple of league places lower than what is needed to qualify. This would be frustrating for the likes of Rangers, who will still have to progress through the qualifying rounds to enter the tournament despite finishing top of the Scottish Premiership.

While I can sympathise with these frustrations, I’d be content with it so long as these ‘wildcard’ teams don’t take the place of teams who would currently qualify, which the increase in number seems to account for. After all, it appears these proposed changes to the competition are the result of the ‘European Super League’, a breakaway competition mooted by heavyweight clubs across that would be a completely closed shop, in the style of the NFL. If that were to be implemented, it would have more far-reaching implications for the so-called smaller clubs across the continent.

It could also potentially bring some added benefit to these smaller clubs by adding value to Europa League matches. If coefficient ranking provides an extra route for teams to qualify for the Champions League, the bigger teams are likely to place increased value on winning matches in Europe’s second-tier competition.

Another significant concern is how teams throughout the English football pyramid will be affected financially. If given the green light, the Champions League would consist of 225 matches per season, a significant increase on the 125 we have today. As such, the value of broadcast rights for the competition would also rise, while potentially devaluing the value of domestic broadcast rights. It’s largely thanks to TV money that money in football has inflated so much in recent years, and reducing that would place many clubs in difficulties, particularly in the wake of the financial strain caused by Covid-19.

This increase in matches would mean that 19 match rounds would be required across the season. This is six more than we currently have, although given that the last-16 ties are currently played across four game weeks, it may be the case that the authorities only have to account for a further four midweek slots.

While this may seem like a relatively small increase, the congested nature of the English football calendar – even without being affected by coronavirus – makes it hard to facilitate them.

In a normal calendar, the only way to do this would be to reschedule the Premier League midweek slot which usually takes place around late November/early December, in addition to using the dates currently allocated for the third, fourth and fifth rounds of the EFL cup.

The League Cup had to do similar for these rounds this season, which would suggest it is doable. However, they coincide with qualifying rounds for Europe in which at least one English team will be taking part. That resulted in Tottenham having to play a weekend game with two midweek matches back in August, which their manager, José Mourinho, was furious about.

Another option, albeit radical, would be to scrap the EFL Cup altogether. Some fans of the bigger clubs have called for this for some time, but this would rob football league clubs of their biggest source of income, with revenue generated from the tournament distributed between teams from the Championship down to League Two.

Another alternative, again to the detriment of the EFL Cup, is for teams involved in European competition to put out under-23 sides in the clashing domestic matches. While this would preserve the tournament, it would be significantly devalued and leave smaller clubs worse off. This option could also be met with opposition from UEFA, as their TV rights claim privacy over these midweek slots and they would likely not want any overlap.

The final option, which is my preferred scenario, would be to change the EFL Cup semi-finals to only take place over one match, rather than the current two-legged fixture, as well as scrapping FA Cup replays. As the only match in the tournament over two legs, I think it would make sense to reduce them, and this might also increase the spectacle of the match. The removal of replays in the FA Cup is something many in the football world have backed for a long time, and something I can absolutely get behind. They have been removed this season to accommodate fixture congestion and there has been little in the way of complaints with that – so why not carry this forward?

While that final option limits the impact, it seems that the EFL Cup is going to suffer in some way regardless, so there is likely to be opposition from certain clubs irrespective of what action is taken.

When it comes to the changes to the Champions League itself, I’m very much of the view that we shouldn’t fix what isn’t broken, and the Champions League in its current format has provided unrivalled football action and excitement for many years. The reality is, though, that it is a massive money-maker for elite clubs, therefore making some kind of change inevitable. If it means avoiding more drastic alterations, such as a European Super League, then you can consider me on-board with it.

What do you think of the changes? Make sure to let us know in the comments!