Wolves on course for Europa League, but is becoming the Premier League’s best of the rest worth it – or a poisoned chalice?
Should Burnley manager Sean Dyche feel moved to dispense some characteristic no-nonsense wisdom to his opposite number this weekend, it might be of the be-careful-what-you-wish-for variety.
Occupying the visitors’ dugout at Turf Moor on Saturday will be Nuno Espirito Santo, a rising star whose Wolves team have cut a dash in their first season back in English football’s top division.
Far from merely scrapping for survival, Wolves’ cultured midfield of Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho and dovetailing forwards Raul Jimenez and Diogo Jota have racked up the points – and many more admirers.
Read more: Trevor Steven: Wolves are back, thanks to Nuno and Mendes
They are on course to emulate Burnley by finishing seventh in the Premier League – making them the best of the rest after the traditional Big Six – and will likely qualify for the Europa League.
But as Dyche will attest, that achievement can be a poisoned chalice. For Burnley, it has meant going from being one of the top flight’s success stories to fighting for their Premier League lives.
Their case is far from unique and raises some uncomfortable questions for the game. Is it worth striving to finish as high as possible for more modest teams? And if not, are they simply there to make up the numbers?
Attaining European qualification for the first time in half a century was supposed to be the crowning moment of Dyche’s six years in charge at Burnley, but the celebrations proved to be short-lived.
The extra workload that accompanies the Europa League – the Clarets started their season in July and were playing twice a week once the domestic campaign began – hit their results hard.
Dyche’s usually reliable outfit took just 12 points from their first 19 Premier League games, leaving them in the relegation zone at the half-way mark of the season.
Their Continental adventures hardly compensated. Having scraped through ties against Aberdeen and Istanbul Basaksehir, they fell to Olympiacos without even reaching the competition proper.
Burnley are just the latest Premier League team to find that reaching for the last Europa League spot can be at best a wasted endeavour and at worst highly damaging to their wider fortunes.
Last season Everton collapsed under the strain of the extra competition, winning just three times in a 20-game spell that contributed to the end of Ronald Koeman’s previously promising tenure.
In 2016-17 it was West Ham, whose short-lived Europa League run set the tone for a difficult first year at the London Stadium. Before them, Southampton also perished at the play-off stage.
Extra games do not only inflict fatigue; they necessitate investment in larger squads, make it harder to establish a settled team and allow less time for tactical work – all pressure points for smaller clubs.
Burnley thrived under Dyche’s drilling; with less time for that, they have suffered. Wolves rely on consistency of selection from a small core of players; that looks unsustainable if they qualify for Europe.
Qualifying for the Europa League is not without its advantages, of course. Seventh place in the Premier League is worth £27m in prize money; £2m more than eighth and £20m more than the payout for 17th.
The flip side is that it demands buying a bigger squad, which may negate the increased windfall. Burnley spent around £30m net last summer, a five-fold increase on a year earlier.
Playing in Europe also has a cachet. It raises a team’s profile and can make it more attractive to signings, should they not be sufficiently persuaded by a Premier League wage packet.
But to what end? Gatecrashing the Champions League spots has to be the goal for aspirational clubs, but the increasing financial polarisation of the division means the glass ceiling has never been thicker.
Wolves might argue that they are better placed than most medium-sized Premier League clubs to take the next step.
Their owners, the Chinese conglomerate Fosun, are worth an estimated £60bn and have shown a willingness to spend what it takes to progress by running up a £57m loss in last year’s promotion campaign.
Fosun have spoken of Wolves becoming a Champions League club and it would be unwise to discount it; those who mocked when Leicester’s owners expressed similar sentiments were soon eating their words.
This weekend’s meeting with Dyche and Burnley, and the predicament in which the Clarets find themselves is a timely reminder, however, that the path Wolves have plotted is unlikely to be a smooth one.