Vamos… England?Posted: January 22, 2011
The argument of the just which is the best league in the world has raged for years. In recent years, most would agree that the title of the best league in the world would come down to two contenders – the English Premier League and the Spanish La Liga. Italy’s Serie A has been decimated by corruption scandals and waning crowds, Germany’s Bundesliga is exciting and vibrant but lacking in real quality and France’s Ligue 1 is lacking in both. The argument between La Liga and the Premier League has bounced back and forth – with cries of “Two horse race!”, “Ballon D’or!” and “Facht!”. Wait, disregard that last one. There’s an unemployed tubby waiter slumped outside my door wailing. If only, if only, if only, there was a competition designed specifically to discover the best team, and teams, and by an extension league, in Europe… what? There is?!
Many would say that the hallmark of a great league is how its teams do in the highest test of competition against the other leagues – the Champions League. In the last six editions, there have been two winners from England (Manchester United, Liverpool), two from Spain (Barcelona x2) and two from Italy (Milan and Inter). The problem for La Liga is that Barcelona have been flying the flag on their own.
Let us take the same period we will later take with the respective domestic leagues – 2004 onwards.
16 quarter-finalists, 12 semi-finalists, 5 finalists, 2 winners.
7 quarter-finalists, 5 semi-finalists, 2 finalists, 2 winners.
So whilst both leagues have had the same amount of winners, there has been more than double the amount of English quarter-finalists, semi-finalists and finalists. And this is not a Rob “almost double” (13 to 8 in case you didn’t know), that is 16 to 7, 12 to 5 and 5 to 2. The top end of the Premier League blows La Liga out of the water.
Many more would say that the hallmark of a great league is the race for the title – how close, how exciting. In the last four years of the Premier League, the gap between first and second has been on average 1.75 points. In La Liga, this figure is 6 points.
Sometimes clichés are there for a reason. The cliché that La Liga is a two-horse race is pretty much true. As I type this, halfway through the Spanish season, Barcelona lie four points clear of Real Madrid, who in turn lie nine points clear of Valencia in third. 13 points between 1st and 3rd. The gap between top and bottom is 38 points. Meanwhile, in the Premier League, Manchester United lead the way, on goal difference from Manchester City. City, who have played two games more, are two points clear of Arsenal in third, with a further five points to Chelsea and one more to Tottenham Hotspur. The same 13 points between 1st and 3rd in La Liga will get you down to 7th place in the Premier League. The gap between top and bottom is 25 points, 13 less than La Liga. Unlucky for some. Paddy Power will offer you betting on five teams to win the Premier League, four of them on 7/1 or less. In La Liga, Barcelona are 1/4, Real Madrid are 11/4 and the only other available teams are Valencia and Villareal, at 100/1 each. Two horse race indeed. Critics of the virtues of this theory will point out that only two teams, Chelsea and Manchester United, have won the Premier League since 2004. Whilst this is indeed true, it implies the notion that the Premier League has been a two-horse race for each of those years, which is incorrect, which we can see if we look at the tables from that period:
Premier League 2004/05:
1. Chelsea (95 pts) 2. Arsenal (83 pts) 3. United (77pts)
Premier League 2005/06:
1. Chelsea (91 pts) 2. United (83 pts) 3. Liverpool (82pts)
Premier League 2006/07:
1. United (89 pts) 2. Chelsea (83 pts) 3. Liverpool (68pts)
Premier League 2007/08:
1. United (87 pts) 2. Chelsea (85 pts) 3. Arsenal (83pts)
Premier League 2008/09:
1. United (90 pts) 2. Liverpool (86 pts) 3. Chelsea (83pts)
Premier League 2009/10:
1. Chelsea (86 pts) 2. United (85 pts) 3. Arsenal (75pts)
Premier League 2010/11 (so far):
1. United (45 pts) 2. City (45 pts) 3. Arsenal (43pts)
As we can see from the last seven seasons, including this one which is about 60% complete, Chelsea and Manchester United have comprised of the top two in just four editions. Compare the same period to La Liga:
La Liga 2004/05:
1. Barcelona (84 pts) 2. Real (80 pts) 3. Villareal (65pts)
La Liga 2005/06:
1. Barcelona (82 pts) 2. Real (70 pts) 3. Valencia (69pts)
La Liga 2006/07:
1. Real (76 pts) 2. Barcelona (76 pts) 3. Sevilla (71pts)
La Liga 2007/08:
1. Real (85 pts) 2. Villareal (77 pts) 3. Barcelona (67pts)
La Liga 2008/09:
1. Barcelona (87 pts) 2. Real (78 pts) 3. Sevilla (70pts)
La Liga 2009/10:
1. Barcelona (99 pts) 2. Real (96 pts) 3. Valencia (76pts)
La Liga 2010/11 (so far):
1. Barcelona (52 pts) 2. Real (48 pts) 3. Villareal (39pts)
As we can see, in Spain, Barcelona and Real have comprised of the top two for six out of the last seven seasons. The gap is only growing and growing too. In the last two completed seasons the gap has been 8 and 20 points. This year it’s on target to reach around that 20 point mark again.
In his post, Rob discussed the fact that there have been more UEFA Cup winners from La Liga recently, intimating that this demonstrates a deeper strength in La Liga. Whilst aspects of this are true, a deeper look at this suggests huge flaws in this theory. Of the four Spanish winners since the last English winner, three of them placed well up the Spanish league in the year of their triumph – 1st, 3rd and 5th. Only Atletico Madrid finished relatively poorly in the same season – 9th. By contrast, England’s two finalists in the same period finished 14th and 12th. Spain’s success in head-to-heads in recent years simply proved that 3rd in La Liga was better than 14th in the Premier League, and 9th was marginally better than 12th, winning after extra-time. Fulham qualified by placing 7th and Middlesbrough through the Fair Play Award. Spain’s four winners qualified finishing 4th, 5th (x2) and 6th. The fact that the only Premier League teams to do well in the Europa League have done poorly domestically suggests that the better English teams allow Europe’s ginger stepchild of trophies to take a firm backseat in favour of concentrating on the league, whilst in Spain those teams progressing to the latter stages of the competition can firmly concentrate on it knowing they have no hope of catching Barcelona or Real at the top of La Liga.
Atletico Madrid last year qualified through finishing 4th and then dropping out of the Champions League in the group stages without winning a single game. They then didn’t win a tie outright from the Europa League Round of 16 onwards, winning three times on away goals and AET in the final. The fact that a team can win the Europa League without winning a game in six in the Champions League simply demonstrates the gulf in class between the Champions League and the Europa League. The same dominant Champions League which is in turn dominated by English teams. Meanwhile, the team placing 4th in the Premier League, Arsenal, won their group and their last 16 tie before being knocked out in the quarter-finals by a supremely talented Barcelona team. So whilst Atletico’s triumph was held up as a shining light of La Liga’s strength, I would prefer to point out that they, the 4th best team in Spain the year before failed to win a game in the Champions League, whilst the exact same placed team in England made the quarter-finals, winning five games along the way.
So much of the discussion has centred on past history with the two leagues, but what about the here and now? After all, the discussion is, “what IS the best league in the world?”, not what has been or what will be. One merely has to look at the respective leagues this season, as well as the Champions League, to deduce the stronger league. Of the current top five in the Premier League, four are in the last 16 of the Champions League. The other, Manchester City, are through to the last 32 of the Europa League, having won their group. In fact, of England’s three representatives in the Europa League this season, two have won their groups. Of Spain’s four, just one has. Two (Atletico and Getafé) crashed out of relatively weak groups, whilst Sevilla edged out Dortmund to qualify in second in their group. In the Champions League, England has three group winners to Spain’s two, with Arsenal slipping up to finish second by playing weakened teams after winning their first three games.
The gap between the top two and the rest in Spain is growing and growing, thanks in no small part to a huge gulf in income from TV, as seen here:
… whist the gap between the top teams in the Premier League is closing to such an extent that pundits can no longer agree on a ‘Big Four’. Or five. Or even six. The gap between 1st and 3rd last year was 11 points. The similar figure for Spain was a staggering 23 points.
Goals mean excitement of course, and both leagues enjoy pretty identical goal records. However, much of Spain’s record comes from the top two. Outside of them, seven of the remaining 18 teams average less than a goal a game. In England, this figure is three. If it’s not Barca or Madrid, don’t tune in – you’re not going to get goals. In fact, is there much point in tuning in at all? Even if you do choose to watch Barcelona, you’re going to get great football, but it’ll all be coming one way. They’ve won 16 out of their last 17 matches by an average of over 3 goals. Boring, boring La Liga indeed. Your average Premier League match will feature more goals and a closer result.
With Manchester City’s meteoric rise, England can legitimately claim to have 5 of the world’s top 16 club teams. Spain, 3. Of the top 10 performing teams in Europe of the last 7 years, Spain has just one – Barcelona. Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all make it from England. 4 to 1. It’s all well and good having more Ballon D’Or nominees, but not if they’re all located in one or two clubs. Real Madrid, one of those two clubs, haven’t progressed past the last 16 of the Champions League in 7 years.
La Liga boasts the best team in the world, but not much more. The Premier League currently boasts better respective top teams, a closer title race between more teams, goals more spread out and a tighter league top to bottom. There’s a reason it’s the most watched league in the world.