After another dreadful day in Europe yesterday, more people than ever are asking if England could be on the brink of losing their fourth Champions League place. That said, for all the understandable sturm und drang going on in the media and on Twitter over this possibility, finding a good resource to explain how exactly UEFA’s coefficient system works is tricky.

In hopes of answering that question, I’ve put together this resource that explains how the system works. If you find it helpful, let me know on Twitter @jake_meador. I’d love to hear any thoughts or suggestions you might have.

What is the UEFA coefficient system?

In order to determine how many teams from each member association can compete in European competition, UEFA needs some kind of ranking system to assess each member association’s performance in Europe.1)An additional system is needed for scoring individual clubs in order to determine placement in the draw for both the Champions League and Europa League, but that is not our subject today. That system is UEFA’s coefficient.

How is the coefficient calculated?

This is actually not that complicated. What complexity that does exist is there for sensible reasons when you actually look at how the system works:

  • Each team receives two points for a win and one point for a draw in the group stage and subsequent rounds of the Champions League and Europa League.
  • In the qualifying rounds, each team receives one point for a win and half a point for a draw. This is done so that nations cannot rack up huge amounts of points during the multiple qualifying rounds of the competition.
  • Four bonus points are awarded for each team that reaches the group stage of the Champions League and an additional four bonus points plus one for each additional round are given for each team that reaches the knockout rounds of the Champions League. This is the only way in which the coefficient system privileges the Champions League.
  • The score for each nation is then determined by taking the cumulative point total from every win and draw by a club in the member association, adding the bonus points, and then dividing them by the total number of teams from that association to compete in both European competitions. This is done to prevent nations with more teams competing in Europe from building up an insurmountable lead in the rankings purely through fielding more teams in European competitions.

To understand how this works in practice, let’s go through England’s coefficient score from last season team-by-team. England had seven teams in Europe last year:

  • Arsenal
  • Chelsea
  • Liverpool
  • Manchester City
  • Everton
  • Hull City
  • Tottenham

Here is how each team performed as far as the coefficient is concerned. I have broken down each column by the number of coefficient points each team won. So Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City each received nine bonus points (four for Champions League group stage, four for advancing out of the group stage, one for reaching the second round). Liverpool received four bonus points. Note also that Arsenal, for example, is listed as having 10 under the W column. That is not 10 wins, but 10 coefficient points for winning matches. Arsenal won five matches in the group stage and subsequent rounds last season.

Bonus QW QD W D  Totals
Arsenal 9 1 0.5 10 1  21.5
Chelsea 9 0 0 8 4  21
Liverpool 4 0 0 4 2  10
Manchester City 9 0 0 4 2  15
Tottenham 0 2 0 6 3  11
Everton 0 0 0 12 2  14
Hull 0 2 0.5 0 0  2.5
 Totals 31 5 1 44 14  95

That gives us a total of 95 points. Now we simply divide that number by seven for the seven English teams to compete and we get an average score of 13.571—which is the score England received last season.

How does the coefficient affect Champions League placement?

UEFA wants to reward the most successful associations in European play with additional qualification spots. However, they do not want to base this process on a single season—that is too small a sample size. In that case a country that, for example, sent three teams to the Europa League semifinals (as Portugal did several seasons ago) might have an artificially high coefficient score that doesn’t reflect their year-to-year quality.

To correct for this, UEFA takes the last five years of play and sums them. This is what produces the final UEFA member association rankings.

By looking at five years of play, UEFA basically guarantees that results will not be skewed too dramatically based on only one year. That said, one exceptionally good or bad year can still be significant. It’s actually a clever, well-designed system mostly, although you could certainly complain that there should be additional mechanisms to privilege the Champions League over the Europa League.

Why is England in danger of losing their fourth Champions League place?

It’s a variety of factors. England hasn’t been good in Europe for several years, but as long as no one other than Germany or Spain was comfortably superior that didn’t really matter as far as Champions League places are concerned. The top three member associations all get four spots. So as long as England was Europe’s third best, even if they managed it while drunkenly crashing out of Europe like Vlad Chiriches on a weekend bender, it didn’t hurt them.

From 2010-11 to 2013-14 England was poorer in Europe than they had been in the 2000s, but still better than Italy, which is the only member association with a realistic chance of surpassing England. 2)The gap between fourth-placed Italy and fifth-placed France is 16 points—which is the same as the gap between France and the Czech Republic way down in 13th in the rankings.

Then last year happened.

What made last season so brutal for England is not only that they failed to send any teams to the advanced stages of either European competition, but that Italy did incredibly well. Juventus, Napoli, and Fiorentina alone produced 29, 22.5, and 20 points. (In other words, Napoli had a better year in Europe according to the coefficient than any English team. Fiorentina had a better year than anyone besides Arsenal and Chelsea. And Champions League finalist Juventus received nearly 50% more points than any other English team.)

Little Torino even managed 16.5 points last season which means that Torino performed better in Europe last season according to the coefficient than every English team besides Arsenal and Chelsea. Plus Inter Milan chipped in with 12 points in the Europa League and even Roma, who had a nightmare in Europe, provided a respectable eight points (only two points worse than Liverpool). And since Roma, at eight points, was Italy’s weakest link, the average score was not drug down as it was in England’s case by Hull City and their 2.5 points.

Result: Italy finishes the year with a total of 114 points that are then divided by six—giving them a total score of 19, a full 5.5 points better than England. In one year alone, Italy cut England’s lead on them in half.

Could England lose their fourth place?

Here’s the funny thing: As bad as England have been this season, they’ve already got 29 points—good for 3.625 points in the coefficient column once it is averaged out. In contrast, Italy has struggled with a total score so far of 2.666 points averaged out from the 16 total points Italian teams have won.

Even if Arsenal crashes out at the group stage and goes into the Europa League, they could still do quite a bit for the coefficient from Europe’s lower league. In fact, if you compare the points won for getting to the second round and being bounced after a loss and a draw to Barcelona (which we all know would happen if they made it) or getting to the semifinals in Europa, it would actually be better for England if Arsenal was bounced, provided they did well in the Europa League. The former scenario gives Arsenal an additional six points. The latter, assuming Arsenal wins four matches, draws three, and loses one, gives them 11 points. (That is assuming, of course, that Arsenal made a go of it in the Europa League after being knocked out of the Champions League.)

Meanwhile, Manchester United look fully capable of advancing to the quarterfinals depending on the draw they get (though they are unlikely to get beyond that) as does Chelsea. Manchester City is another disappointment but, like Arsenal, could actually do England more good in the Europa League than they are likely to do in the Champions League anyway. Then you also have Tottenham and Liverpool who, whatever their issues might be, can still make a run into the late stages of the Europa League with a bit of luck and motivation.

This is all to say, then, that though England could lose their fourth place it is unlikely to happen. The only way it would is if we again saw every English team in both competitions eliminated before the quarterfinals and multiple Italian teams making it into the advanced stages of the two competitions. That could happen, but it is unlikely to if the start of this Serie A season is anything to go on.

Conclusion

Have questions about anything else coefficient related? Hit me up on Twitter. I’d love to talk—@jake_meador. If there is anything that isn’t clear or that I’m missing in the above explanation, I’d also love to know so I can fix it. Ideally this will be a useful guide for anyone with questions about how the coefficient works. Thanks for reading!

References   [ + ]

1. An additional system is needed for scoring individual clubs in order to determine placement in the draw for both the Champions League and Europa League, but that is not our subject today.
2. The gap between fourth-placed Italy and fifth-placed France is 16 points—which is the same as the gap between France and the Czech Republic way down in 13th in the rankings.
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