How Arsenal & Man City's Champions League misery will benefit England at Euro 2024

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As Arsenal and Manchester City drop out of the Champions League, England are set to capitalise at Euro 2024.

Wednesday night was rough for Manchester City, as the reigning European champions watched their ‘double treble’ dream crumble under the weight of a succession of poor penalties and countless minutes pressure which never told. It wasn’t a great evening for Arsenal, either, who limped out of continental competition in Bavaria after a match in which it felt as though Mikel Arteta had implored his players to shoot only as a last resort.

Hell, it wasn’t even a good evening for Tottenham Hotspur supporters. Whatever delight they might normally take in the suffering of their rivals down the road in North London, the edge is probably taken off by the fact that, unless West Ham United achieve something extraordinary in the Europa League on Thursday, the extra Champions League qualification places will go to Germany and Italy, with the fifth-placed Premier League team missing out.

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In other words, it was a pretty bad night for ‘The English Game.’ It’s a well-worn phrase that conjures up a sense of unified goodwill between supporters and clubs and the FA which absolutely doesn’t exist in any way shape or form, but it’s also a sort of shorthand for the notion that somehow, other English teams doing well is vaguely beneficial to the sport in our country as a whole.

Perhaps the faintest whiff of truth could be found in, say, the idea that more success in Europe means more money in the sport in England, which is then… filtered directly into the pockets of the same clubs, while lesser teams languish in relative poverty and battle to stay afloat?

Every now and again, somebody or other cheerily suggests that English fans should support other English teams in big competitions. They simply don’t understand that football in this country doesn’t work like that. It’s dog eat dog. It’s a vulturous late-stage capitalism proxy with miniature shin pads and gambling adverts. The English football establishment and its clubs do next to nothing to help each other, and will get nothing but the middle finger in return. It may not be remotely healthy, but it’s how it’s worked for so long that few can remember it any other way. Had Arsenal or Manchester City won the competition, no other side would have benefited in any way, after all.

In any case – was Arsenal and Manchester City being dumped out of the Champions League such a terrible thing for the aforementioned ‘English Game’? Maybe not. After all, there’s a European Championship just around the corner, and one of the very few things that the overwhelming majority of Premier League, EFL and even non-league supporters can all hold hands and agree about is that we want the national team to win something for a change. England’s national team are one of the few things that bring us all together, even if the clothes they wear don’t.

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Had any English teams made the final, it would have seen them playing the biggest match of the domestic season just 13 days before the start of the tournament. We would end up with a smattering of key players who weren’t ‘on the plane’ to Germany at all, but instead falling off a Learjet on their own a few days later, expected to suddenly train with players who have had the rarest thing in the modern football’s life – a week or so off.

Back in 2019, when Liverpool beat Spurs to lift that big-eared hunk of silverware, seven of the players involved had to play in England’s Nationals League Finals campaign just five whole days later, including some extremely important players like Harry Kane. As a result, they weren’t in a fit state to play against the Netherlands, and England lost 3-1 after playing rather pitiably against a team whose players were appreciably fresher. As Jürgen Klopp had said of the teams playing in Madrid just a few days beforehand, they were both “fighting with absolutely no fuel in the tank any more.”

A few days later, Kane and a few others were trotted out for the third-place play-off against Switzerland, looked absolutely exhausted, and played out a turgid 0-0 draw which England won on penalties. There was no bronze medal ceremony - a bag full of them was dumped into England’s changing rooms. Half of the players were probably too far gone to get all the way up a podium anyway. The thought of players in a similar condition getting just a few more days to recuperate ahead of England’s opening match against Serbia wouldn’t fill the average Three Lions fan with much confidence.

Luckily, we only need worry about one player playing in the Champions League final a fortnight before Euro 2024 kicks off – Bayern Munich will play Real Madrid in the semi-finals, meaning that only one of Kane and Jude Bellingham can play in the irresponsibly-scheduled showpiece match at Wembley at the start of June. Still, that’s two more high-intensity matches for two of England’s most important players at the business end of a non-stop season.

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It’s important to remember just how exhausted these players are, and how many are playing through pain and injury. Saka has withdrawn from the last two England squads now as he tried to manage Achilles and hamstring problems. Arsenal, meanwhile, have just kept playing him, as they have with Gabriel Jesus who claims now to not be able to remember playing football without pain.

This isn’t to single Arsenal out – pretty much every team does it, it’s just that in Arsenal’s case we know about it more explicitly than is usually the case this season because Saka and Jesus’ issues have become public knowledge. Players simply can’t keep going at elite intensity without pause all year round and maintain their standards or fitness, and yet are compelled to.

So often, the teams that come into major international tournaments and do well are those who have the fittest and best-rested players. It’s probably not entirely coincidental that only twice has a country won the Euros after a team from their nation played in the European Cup or Champions League final – in 1988, the Netherlands won in the same year Ajax did, and way back in 1964 Spain won after Real Madrid lost the European Cup final to Inter Milan. And in the latter case, Euro ‘64 only involved four teams playing twice each, three weeks after the Real game.

Proper preparation is essential in major international tournaments. Their managers need to maximise the time they have with their squad to hone their tactics and get the players on the same page as each other. The players need to be as sharp and as well-rested as humanly possible in the day and age of the wildly overcrowded fixture list. If players arrive in dribs and drabs over the course of the first week of pre-tournament preparation having just run themselves into the ground having played in a major final, then that won’t help England at all.

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So in practice, Arsenal and Manchester City losing last night was pretty awful for them and their supporters, and may well have been pretty good for everyone else in England. Except, somehow, Spurs fans. They really do always seem to get the short end of the stick…

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