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Understanding Liverpool and Manchester United’s European Super League Threat

It seems unlikely either club especially want a European super league—but it still might come to pass.

The Top Six Club Badges Photo by Visionhaus

Earlier today, news broke that Liverpool and Manchester United were both engaged in discussions about the formation of a potential super league, the European Premier League, a closed competition comprising 18 of Europe’s biggest clubs and including five English sides.

However, it seems highly unlikely that the formation of such a league is the preferred outcome for either of England’s northern giants—with why that’s the case, what it all means, and why we’re hearing about a super league now seemingly worth trying to get to the bottom of.

A European Super League and Project Big Picture

Last week, Liverpool and United saw their Project Big Picture shot down—an effort to reform English football, bringing stability and financial health to the domestic pyramid but at the cost of giving the richest Premier League sides almost total control of the league.

Amongst its headlining proposals were to share 25% of broadcast revenue every season—or around £575M a year in the current broadcast deal—to fund the lower leagues while contracting the Premier League to 18 teams, cutting the League Cup entirely, and installing a nine-club governing board for England’s top flight.

The result would have seen Liverpool play four fewer league games and one to six fewer cup games. As a result, some have imagined that a European Premier League might exist alongside Project Big Picture’s vision for English football. It could not.

Today’s European proposal is for an 18-team league with every team playing home and away for a 34-game schedule. The champion would then be determined by a playoff—most likely adding three to five games.

Between a European Premier League and an English Premier League, that would mean up to 71-73 league and European games per season for clubs involved in both—and that’s without even accounting for the FA Cup, which Project Big Picture intended to keep.

Currently, a top English side would expect to play 55-60 games in all competitions in a season. Add it up and, even without the FA Cup, playing both a European Premier League and Project Big Picture Premier League season would require two extra months of football to fit the games in.

In short, Project Big Picture’s vision of English football simply could not coexist with today’s proposed super league, and the founding of such a European league would mean the end of the Reds competing in England in anything like the current form.

If Not a European Super League, Then What?

Given the timeline, we can surmise that Liverpool and United would prefer a vision of English football that looks like the one proposed by Project Big Picture, which they had been working on for three years before its existence was made public.

No matter how lucrative a European league might be, as proposed today it would require them to abandon the Premier League. With more than half of Europe’s 30 richest clubs in England and with the Premier League’s gargantuan broadcast revenues, the English league already is a de facto super league of sorts and departing it to found a new competition would represent a massive gamble—and lose them a great deal of existing revenue.

Ideally, what Liverpool and United would likely prefer is a Premier League that they have more control over—and one in which clubs like Burnley or Brighton can’t block proposals, as is the case now where 14 of 20 teams must agree on changes. Such power would have, at the very least, allowed them to push through the use of five substitutes for the current season.

Meanwhile, a contracted but still otherwise intact Premier League and the dropping of the League Cup would comfortably allow an expansion of the Champions League—something that has been proposed in recent years to give the top leagues more spots and money.

If you cut four league games, it becomes relatively easy to expand the Champions League from 32 teams to 48 teams, expanding groups from four teams to six and adding four more group stage games. Cutting the League Cup then allows a Round of 32 to be added to the Champions League knockout rounds with room to spare.

One can easily imagine in an expanded Champions League the top leagues gaining most of the spots, with England, Germany, Spain, and Italy all sending at least six teams apiece to the tournament as a result, and more games would mean more revenue—revenue that the big clubs would demand the largest piece of.

If Liverpool & United Don’t Get What They Want

We know, or can at least safely surmise, that Liverpool and United want to see Project Big Picture’s reforms pushed through, and that doing so simply does not provide space for the formation of the kind of European Premier League that hit the news today—but it would allow for an expansion of the existing Champions League.

That would give Liverpool and the other richest English sides more power domestically while giving them a clearer path to Europe’s top cup competition and more money when they get there. It would also bring financial stability to the English pyramid—though current bottom-half Premier League sides would lose out.

What we don’t know is what happens if the Premier League resist enacting Project Big Picture or something very much like it—and whether at that point Liverpool, United, and potentially other top English sides might actually try to go through with a European Premier League, or whether what we’ve heard today is nothing but bluff and bluster.

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