By Callum Noad, MSc International Sport Management student at UCFB Wembley

For the first time in the history of European football, English clubs hold all four spots in the finals of the two major European tournaments. Arsenal and Chelsea will contest the Europa League final in Baku, Azerbaijan on Wednesday while Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool will fight for the chance to be crowned Europe’s elite club in the Champions League final held in Madrid on Saturday.

Manchester United are the last English side to lift the Europa League, winning the trophy in 2017, and 2012 marked the last occasion in which an English side got their hands on the Champions League, with Chelsea defeating Bayern Munich on penalties in the Germans’ own backyard.

So how is it that this week, English sides will win not one, but two European titles in the same season?

Week in, weak out

One reason suggested is the highly competitive domestic league. In the Premier League, those English sides competing in Europe face challenging fixtures every week. Petr Cech, the former Champions League winner and the man most likely wearing the gloves for Arsenal in Baku, believes the competitiveness of the Premier League can be attributed to English side’s European success. Speaking to The Telegraph following Manchester United’s defeat of PSG in the last 16, he said “[PSG’s] problem is they don’t have enough big games during the year. Their squad and their quality is so far different from everybody else in their league that they are not tested week in, week out.”

Premier League riches

It is impossible to talk about English dominance without mentioning the financial strength of the Premier League. As the richest league in the world, participating in the Premier League brings serious financial reward. Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield, all relegated from the Premier League this season, will take home more money in TV rights income than all La Liga clubs, excluding Barcelona and Real Madrid, and significantly more than all 18 Bundesliga clubs. Of the top 20 clubs in Europe by TV revenue, 17 are English. With this financial might, Premier League clubs are able to spend more on transfers and wages and by doing so, attract the world’s best players to the league. In the 2017-18 season, Premier League clubs as a whole spent €2.1 billion on players, over double that of the next nearest league expenditure, Serie A.

However, Tottenham Hotspur notably haven’t spent a penny on transfers in the last 12 months. While the Premier League income will go some way towards their new £1 billion stadium, Tottenham’s success this season can’t be linked to transfer expenditure.

Star managers

Not even Real Madrid would turn down the chance to have Pep Guardiola at the helm. Winning a trophy every 21 games of his managerial career, the former Barcelona player-turned-manager is one of the most sought after coaches in world football. He is just one of the many world-class managers that currently work in the Premier League. Champions League finalists Jurgen Klopp, contesting his third Champions League final, and Mauricio Pochettino, the man who transformed Spursy Tottenham into European finalists on a relative shoestring budget, possess equally impressive managerial pedigree.
In the Europa League, either Unai Emery or Maurizio Sarri, will cap their maiden campaigns in English football with a trophy. For Sarri, it would be the first title in a successful if barren career while Europa League specialist Emery will be looking for his 4th European title as a manager.

Europa League resurgence

In 2009, the UEFA Cup took its last bow and the newly launched Europa League took its place. A bigger competition featuring 48 teams in 12 groups of four, with increased TV income, was a welcome addition to the footballing calendar. Yet until 5 years ago, the competition struggled with a lack of prestige, competitiveness and interest. For Europe’s top clubs, a 4-hour flight to the fourth best team in Ukraine was an unwelcome distraction to the rigours of competitive domestic football.

In 2014/15, UEFA announced a change to the competition which has increased the interest significantly. The winner of the tournament secures a place in the group stage of the UEFA Champions League. For countries where seats around Europe’s elite table are limited, this bonus place saw clubs target the trophy more so than ever.

None more so than English clubs. In the Premier League, the top three teams qualify for the Champions League, with the fourth-placed team going into a (usually very winnable) play-off tie. Simple maths dictate that the so-called ‘Top Six’ cannot all take four spots. As such, it is no surprise to see two English teams in the final of the Europa League. Chelsea, with a Champions League spot for next season already secured, will be battling Champions League-less Arsenal for the trophy. Unai Emery’s men have faced Sporting CP, Vorskla Poltava, Qarabag, BATE Borisov, Rennes, Napoli and Valencia en route to the final. European matches are never easy yet the Gunners strolled through with relative ease. Is it any wonder that Premier League clubs are seeing this route to Champions League football more favourably?

“Are they taking the Mkhi?”

Thousands of tickets were returned to UEFA by both Arsenal and Chelsea as fans of the London clubs stay away from Azerbaijan for their club’s biggest game in years. One notable passenger missing from Arsenal’s six-hour flight to the capital further East than Baghdad was Armenian midfielder, Henrikh Mkhitaryan. Neighbours Armenia and Azerbaijan have been locked in conflict since the early 1990s and relations between the two countries are highly fraught. Mkhitaryan’s safety couldn’t be guaranteed and as such the player, together with the club, made the decision not to travel with the rest of the squad. The reaction from not just Arsenal fans, but from the wider footballing world has been damning for UEFA. How can a footballer miss out on one of the biggest matches of his career because of politics? Would the scenario be different if it concerned Eden Hazard or Alexandre Lacazette? What if it wasn’t a squad player? And the big question that most fans are asking: why is the final being held in a country which potentially doesn’t have the infrastructure to support such a game.

UEFA makes a proactive effort to spread football’s showpiece events across the continent. These events give people from across Europe the chance to witness the world’s best players where they often would seldom be seen. However, thousands of fans have refused to travel to Baku, citing logistical difficulties and inflated pricing as reasons against making the trip. Even for fans who manage to make the trip out east, they will be left with a less than ideal matchday experience. A game that finishes with extra time and penalties would mean the victorious team lift the trophy at 2am local time.