Monday, July 13, 2015

Who messed up Scotland's UEFA coefficient?

Last July, I puzzled over the weird way in which UEFA, the European soccer association, figures out which European club teams end up in which European competitions (namely, the Champions League and the Europa League).

One of the concerns in Scottish soccer over the past few years has been the dip in Scotland's coefficient. The Scottish ranking used to be enough to send two teams to the Champions League; now it's only one (always Celtic). An opinion piece in today's Daily Record summarizes the distress nicely.

The article assigns blame to three parties:
  • Celtic has not been doing as well as Scots feel it should. Since Celtic tends to earn the majority of points that count towards the coefficient, that hurts.
  • The non-Celtic teams don't contribute much.
  • Rangers, which traditionally could be counted on to contribute significant points most years, hasn't been part of the picture since their departure from the top flight.
I've been puzzling over the numbers, as I like to do, and I'd like to nominate a fourth culprit:
  • The Europa League, for existing.
UEFA posts season-by-season rankings for Scotland going back to 2004. The actual UEFA coefficient is aggregated over five years, but the reasons for a particular ranking are clearer in the yearly statistics. One thing that jumps out at me is that from 2004-2007, Scottish football was anywhere from 5th to 17th, while since then, it has been no higher than 19th. The 2008 season seems to be somewhat of a fluke; I can't figure out why only two teams are counted. But from 2009 on, the number of teams involved never drops below four, while it was never more than three prior. This matters because your one good team gets its results divided by four (or five or six) after being added to the pittance the rest of the league produces.

Usually that team has been Celtic, but as recently as 2010, it was Rangers, who produced 12 of Scotland's 18 points. The average, across five teams, was 3.6, good enough for 21st. If Rangers and Celtic were the only two teams, their combined 14 would have given an average of 7.0, good enough for 11th. Perhaps more fair would have been to say what had happened if you paired Rangers and Celtic (the top two league finishers) with Dundee United, the Scottish Cup winners. Well, then you would have 14.5 points, divided by 3, so at 4.833, Scotland would be a still-respectable 14th.

With the Europa League here to stay, what does Scotland have to do to climb back up to its previous heights of at-least-we're-not-Sweden? For the current season, Scotland is ranked 23rd with a coefficient (five year total) of 16.566. That earns them one berth in the Champions League, entering in the second round, two first-round entries into the Europa League, and a second-round entry into the Europa League.

Nothing would change for Scottish Champions League entry unless it rose to 15th, at which it would get two berths, both entering in the third round. Since that's what Celtic has been complaining about, it's worth keeping that in mind as a goal. Nothing would change in the Europa League until they rose to 18th, which would boost the second-round entry to the third round. 17th place (or 16th) would promote one of the first-round entries to the second round. 15th place would mean two second-round entries and one third-round (in addition to the two Champions League spots).

So it seems like 15th place is the goal for real change in Scotland's fortune, with some consolation prizes at 16 through 18. This year, the Czech Republic took 15 place, which a coefficient of 29.350, almost twice that of Scotland. Next year is already set, with Romania at 26.299. Looking back in time doesn't help too much, since it includes pre-Europa League years. So somewhere in the 25-30 point range should be Scotland's goal -- in other words, 5-6 points a year.

But that's a per-team average, so 20-24 points spread across 4 teams (for the forseeable future). Over the past four seasons, the average Celtic team has contributed 11.875, while the average non-Celtic team has kicked in 1.077. That projects out to 18.882 for a five-year total with Celtic and three non-Celtics. If Scotland could field two Celtics and two non-Celtics, the resulting 32.38 coefficient would be more than enough. In fact, one-and-half Celtics and two-and-half non-Celtics projects out to 25.631, at the lower end of the range I identified above.

So one path to regaining European respectability is the emergence of a club with decent, but not Celtic-caliber results. I have three nominees for this position.
  • Aberdeen. They seem to be well-run, and finished second to Celtic in the Scottish Premier League last year. On the other hand, they barely squeaked into the second round of the Europa League this month, and it looks like they can only afford a payroll about 6-7 smaller than Celtic.
  • Hearts. Despite being only promoted this year, they seem to have emerged from bankruptcy as a well-run club, dominating the second-tier without living beyond their means. As an Edinburgh-based club, they have the potential to increase revenues more than some of the other clubs from smaller areas.
  • Rangers. Despite living in the second-tier for another year, they will eventually get back up. When they do, they are the only side positioned to challenge Celtic.
Another scenario would be Celtic and three "mini-Celtics"  -- perhaps the three sides I mentioned above. If Celtic can continue to earn more than 10 points per season, and the other three Scottish teams chip in between a third and a quarter that number, Scotland's coefficient would be in the 25-30 range. It seems less likely that smaller clubs that get hot and enjoy one year near the top of the league or hoisting the Scottish Cup will do anything other than what they do now -- go out after a round or two.
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