This week, the 12-game unbeaten run will be tested by a visit from José Mourinho’s Chelsea, less than 72 hours after Spurs complete a 4,968 mile round-trip to Baku.
This grand voyage to the far reaches of Europe has been something of an asterix amid the sea of positivity after Tottenham’s dismantling of West Ham on Sunday. You can understand why Mauricio Pochettino and his players were cautious post-match, talking instead about taking it a game at a time. A defeat next Sunday would be deflating, even if far from terminal with a relatively easy slate of games through until January.
Plenty has been written previously about the “Curse of the Europa League” — Raphael Honigstein, for example, recently took a detailed look at its potentially draining impact across major leagues. I got rather het up about the trip to Baku in a recent post, bemoaning the inflexible Europa League scheduling and the lucky break it represents for Mourinho.
But it got me thinking. How much of a problem has the Europa League travel been for Spurs, specifically? In particular, how big an impact does it have on our performances in the following league game?
Or in other words, how screwed are we by the trip to Baku? And should I go out and do my Christmas shopping rather than risk watching The Special One and the Captain, Leader, Legend celebrating at White Hart Lane?
I’ve spent a little time researching our Europa League travels, and the result the following game. I’ve put it into a spreadsheet below.
We’re now into the fourth year of our current Europa League run, during which time we’ve played Thursday and the following weekend 37 times* — almost an entire Premier League season of extra games.
I doubt that 37 games is nearly enough to draw any deep conclusions, but it throws up a couple of interesting numbers.
- In the past three seasons, Spurs averaged fewer points in league matches immediately following Europa League commitments. In these three seasons, we averaged 1.50 points per game (ppg) in matches after the Europa League, while we averaged 1.91 ppg when we had no Thursday night match.
- So far this season, we are doing better after European games — but we are at most halfway through our campaign and made a slow start in the league, so let’s hold judgement for now.
- In the previous three seasons, we averaged 1.89 ppg in matches after Europa League away games, and 1.07 ppg after home Europa League matches.
- Our median round-trip distance is 2,280 miles — just a bit further than flying to Belgrade and back. When we’ve had a trip further than the 2,280 miles, our record is W 3, L 3, D 1. On trips below the median, our record is W 7, L 3, D 1.
- In London derbies after Europa League matches, our record is W 5, L 5, D 2.
Other key points: We’ve never been as far as Baku. Our previous longest trip was to Tblisi in 2013/14 — 4,454 miles there and back. We beat Swansea at home the following Sunday.
Looking at the distances, you can see what a brutal campaign we had in 2013/14. We travelled a total of 18,332 miles, averaging 3,056 miles per Europa League away trip. We had some very heavy defeats that season — we lost 0-3 to West Ham after a trip to Moscow to play Anzi, and the 5-0 home defeat to Liverpool that led to AVB’s sacking was after a Thursday night fixture. We also lost 4-0 at Anfield, without any midweek distraction. We were thumped 6-0 and 5-1 by Man City, and Chelsea put four past us at the Bridge.
Spurs had all sorts of problems that season — we ended up being managed by Tim Sherwood, for example — but we couldn’t have had a more draining Europa League draw if we’d tried. We still picked up more points than in 2014/15, but it was utter misery.
Last season wasn’t much better — in the group stages our round trips were 2,140 miles, 2,936 miles and 3,090 miles. Yes, we’ve got a nasty trip coming up, but Monaco and particularly Anderlecht were nice, short journeys.
I also scraped together the performances of fellow Premier League travellers from the previous three seasons: Everton, Swansea and Liverpool.
Everton last season struggled to 11th, and Europa League fatigue was widely cited as a reason. However, Everton averaged more points in matches immediately after Thursday night fixtures (1.40 ppg) than they did without (1.18 ppg). I bet it didn’t feel that way for Everton fans. Everton scored seven points after both home and away European fixtures. Fatigue may well have been a factor in the poor league performance, but if it was, it was a problem that played out across a number of games, rather than striking immediately on a Thursday-Sunday back-to-back.
Swansea and Liverpool had a similar record as Spurs — points per game dipping after Thursday night matches, but picking up more points after Europa road trips than home matches. Liverpool went at 1.22 ppg after their European matches, and 1.72 ppg without. But their schedule was particularly brutal — facing Man City, Arsenal, Man Utd, Everton and Chelsea after Europa matches. I’d almost feel sorry for Brendan, if he wasn’t such a plonker.
An obvious truth lies here though — the result on Sunday after a match on Thursday is more likely to be affected by the quality of your opposition than tired legs, tired minds or spending long periods on a plane. The opposition will always have had longer to prepare than the team playing Thursday. It’s up to them to make the extra preparation count — like Chelsea did in the Capital One Cup final, for example, and West Ham absolutely did when Big Sam’s team rolled us over at White Hart Lane and set in motion the failure of the Bale money strategy.
I don’t think it is just the players who may suffer from fatigue, it’s the fans too. Sunday games, especially the 4pm kick-off in a marquee fixture, are fun, in moderation. But Saturday is the day for football — you can drink all day, and travel all day. The atmosphere is never quite the same for an early Sunday kick-off as it is on Saturday. Football is less enjoyable as an experience, and when you get defeats like we had against West Brom, Newcastle and Stoke, they feel even more deflating.
Pochettino, unusually, allowed himself a little moan about the scheduling: “I laugh, I only smile.”
With all the unconvincing enthusiasm of a dad before a mammoth car journey with his small kids, Hugo Lloris told Spurs TV that the team would benefit from the time they get to spend together on the long trip to Baku.
Hugo also hinted that a strong squad would travel. Pochettino may yet decide to leave some players at home — I’d love to see Harry Kane and Eric Dier given the night off, for injury avoidance. As I previously stated, we are far more likely to finish in the Top Four than win the Europa League, and even if we lose to Qarabag we’re almost guaranteed to go through if we beat Monaco at home.
It feels like Pochettino is unconvinced by the benefits of weakened teams in Europa League matches. Winning may be a better cure for fatigue than rest, in his view.
The rudimentary data suggests the “curse” of the Europa League may be overstated, at least for Spurs. Our league position hasn’t cratered like in some of the examples Honigstein set out. For Spurs, the Europa League is more of an irritation, no matter the distance travelled.
The problem is the persistent nature of the irritation — in the Champions League, at most half of your games will be Wednesday to Saturday, but it is in reality less as the top teams play more often in marquee Sunday match-ups. Spurs have had 37 games in recent seasons on minimum rest. That is 37 times the Premier League opposition have had the chance to prepare more than Spurs. You always feel like you are having to catch up — and I wonder if that is the main fatigue, as much as the air miles and the extra yards covered on the pitch. Perhaps this is where that leaking of points — 0.4 ppg for Spurs in the past three seasons — comes in.
As I said, I don’t want to draw too many conclusions from the small amount of data. But I’m less gloomy than I was when I was hypothesizing about playing Chelsea after such a long trip. The Christmas shopping can wait.
I’d note, the last time we played Chelsea, it was also our third match in a six-day period. It went pretty well.
To Azerbaijan, then.
* For Spurs, in all cases bar one it has been Thursday to Sunday. We had one Thursday to Monday — that night at Upton Park when Gareth Bale did this. Everton’s away win against QPR also came on Monday, after a trip to Kiev. There was no match after the home leg of the knock-out tie with Lyon in 2012/13 — I presume we made a nice early exit from the FA Cup that year. Hence 37 rather than 38 games. All distance data is from www.worldatlas.com using London as starting point.
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