Are Teams Obligated to Finish Strong in the League?

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger recently complained about teams with nothing to play for going “on holiday” before the season is over.

He said, “Some teams, once they are safe, they have a breather, which didn’t happen 10 years ago.”

But do teams that are stuck in mid-table really have an obligation to give their all in the final moments of the season?

Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola didn’t seem to think so, his response to Wenger being “win more games yourself.”

Pep added, “He plays against Everton and Sunderland, no? Both teams are done, no? One is relegated and one is in the Europa League, so it’s the same situation,” referring to Arsenal’s circumstances at the end of the season.

Pep brought up a good point. Teams are not obligated to play a certain way to appease other teams in the league. The fans may have a different view, however. Ultimately, many factors play into a team’s end-of-season performances.

The Main Culprits

Looking at the Premier League, examples of teams taking it easy are in abundance. Chelsea, having already won the league, were able to rest first-team players against Watford. Speaking of the boys in yellow, Watford hit a patch of abysmal form once their safety in the league was guaranteed, perhaps showing that the players aren’t completely motivated to perform.

West Ham also didn’t inspire much confidence after their 4-0 loss to Liverpool recently, which was actually the source of Wenger’s disdain. The London club haven’t exactly been lighting the league up with their results lately, except for a win against Tottenham, which ultimately decided the title.

Manchester United, with their sights set solely on the Europa League final, have also put in lackluster performances against Arsenal, Tottenham and Southampton recently. Jose Mourinho’s team selections demonstrate a complete disregard for league results, and he has the right to make those decisions.

West Brom under Tony Pulis have been known to slow it down once they hit 40 points in the league, and this season has been no different. But Pulis would argue that his job is just to secure safety for the club.

In another boat, Everton have guaranteed a seventh-place spot and ever since it was confirmed that they can’t finish any better or worse, they seemed to have let up in their performances in the league.

Already On Holiday

Despite how much fans or rival managers might not like it, teams have plenty of reasons to hold back once there is nothing feasible left to play for.

A team in Everton’s current situation, in which it is impossible for them to move up or down the table, may see little reason to risk injury to their star players by pushing too hard for a win. The same can be said for teams that have already won the league and teams that are already relegated.

Perhaps a team has already secured a place that qualifies them for European competition next season, so they would want to rest players and keep the squad healthy for the next season.

Similarly, teams may be focused on another competition, so their priority becomes keeping the team rested and prepared for an upcoming match. Manchester United with the Europa League and Chelsea with the FA Cup are in this situation.

It’s also completely possible that a team is caught in that purgatory between relegation and European places. The main thing to play for in that case is pride, but some teams may just prefer to play youngsters for valuable experience, sacrificing the team’s performance in some cases.

The Case for Finishing Strong

Although these are all valid reasons to hold back towards the end of the season, there are also factors that may motivate teams to give it their all.

For example, a team may choose to go all out for a derby or a big match because a positive result in a game like that would do a lot for team morale and local pride. West Ham appeared to play this way against Tottenham, and teams in La Liga frequently play this way against Barcelona and Real Madrid.

If the team has been rotated for an end-of-season fixture, the bench players and youngsters may be particularly driven to play well to impress their manager. The prospect of securing a spot in the first team in the future can be enough to get a positive result.

Then there’s the case of players and managers that just do not accept losses in any situation. They always want to play their best and give the fans a performance they can be proud of. This sense of pride can also push them to play for club records, meaning they can’t afford to slip up in the dying stages of the season.

A final, often overlooked factor at play here is that there is prize money associated with each place in the league. Some teams may care about the cash bonuses earned with each higher finishing spot, meaning every point earned or dropped matters.

No matter what situation a club is in, it is up to them to decide how they address the final matches of the season to suit their needs.

It All Balances Out

To further address Wenger’s concerns, there are plenty of issues that come up throughout a season for each club that make their schedules easier or more difficult. Key injuries, fixture congestion, and squad rotation can make a team’s toughest fixture an easy one for others.

But in the end, it all balances out. The only thing you can do to improve your fortunes is “win more games yourself.”

Michael Hurtado

Michael Hurtado is 21-years-old and joined GB Articles' Writing Team in April 2016. He was promoted to an editorial role in June 2016 and reports regularly on Atletico Madrid, English Premier League, Spanish La Liga and Major League Soccer. Michael became interested in football after watching the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. He thought: "Hey, this sport is pretty cool" and this inspired him to write about the beautiful game.

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