Mirror, mirror on the wall; Who’s the most competitive of them all?

Here’s a truism for you. It’s hard to write about current affairs in football, even of your beloved club, if you don’t watch the darn thing. So, I shall not attempt to tell you what you already know about the Liverpool situation. To put it succinctly, I think we now have a very slim chance of getting into the Champions League next year, though I think we might get the better of Benfica in the Europa quarter finals. May as well get used to playing more games in the second tier of Europe, since that’s what we would probably be doing next year! It will obviously have a significant impact on the club’s finances and so on … But let’s leave such gloomy topics for another day.

Instead, let me try and address one of those vexed questions – which of the top European leagues is the most competitive? Note that this doesn’t mean a thing about how strong the leagues are with respect to each other, just how internally competitive they are. Obviously, this is a question that can be addressed in many different ways – for example, one could look at the standard deviation of the points scored by the clubs in the league to get a feel of how ‘bunched together’ they are, or look at which game-week the champion or the last relegation candidate was known etc.

But I choose to look at 3 other parameters – a) how many teams were within 4 points of the eventual champion, b) how many champions has the league had in the recent past and c) how many times has a single team won the title in the recent past. And I look at results for 6 years over 6 leagues: the 3 traditional “big” leagues in the Premier League, La Liga Primera and Serie A and and the 3 leagues of the “next tier”, i.e. Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Eredevisie.

I have also included the current season though it isn’t complete, with current league positions being used as proxies for final positions. I’ve assumed that Bordeaux is leading the pack in France though it is a point behind since it has two games in hand. Similarly, Barcelona is assumed to be ahead in Spain since decisions in that league are made on head-to-head records and Barcelona won the first round at the Camp Nou, with the second round of the el clasico being only next weekend. And of course, one must remember that the league results of 05-06 in Italy were determined by a committee after the calciopoli scandal. Oh, and why did I choose a 6 year window and 4 points off the champion as the benchmarks? Well, because it’s my bloody blog – if you want 5 points or 7 years, go write your own!

Right, now to look at how the cookie crumbles.

Figure 1 shows the number of teams within 4 points of the champions in the six countries over the last 6 years. While the picture itself may not throw much light (other than the fact that 04-05 and 05-06 saw horribly one-sided leagues in all major European countries!), considering the average number of title contenders over these years shows France as the most competitive country with an average of 2.17 contenders, with Netherlands and England coming next with 1.83 contenders, Spain and Germany are next with 1.67 and Italy as the least competitive league with just 1.5 contenders on average. Well, what do you expect if Inter Milan keeps winning the title every year? In fact, even France’s appearance is very deceptive as it is skewed by this year where six teams still have a shot at the title as they are separated by a narrow margin. Take out this year, and France plummets to just 1.4 contenders for the title (remember Lyon’s vice-like grip on the title for seven long years?!). In fact, without the current year, the Netherlands emerges the most competitive (1.8) followed by England, Spain and Germany (1.6), then France (1.4) and Italy stubbornly last with just 1.2 contenders. Whichever way you look at it, most leagues really are pretty uncompetitive with at most 2 teams in contention – out of the 36 data points, only 1 exceeds 3 (the France outlier for this year) and 7 equal 3. So, less than 25% of the data points involved 3 or more contenders – not exactly an advertisement for competition!

No of title contenders

Figure 1: Number of teams within 4 points of the champion

Team domination in leagues

Figure 2: League domination by teams

Let’s instead look at how many different teams have become champions in the last six years and what is the maximum number of times the same team has won the title in these six countries. Figure 2 provides this data. Every country except Germany and Netherlands has seen exactly 2 champions over six years, while these countries saw just three. England has been dominated by Chelsea and Manchester United, Spain by Barcelona and Real Madrid, France mainly by Lyon while Inter Milan have their grubby hands pretty much soldered on to the Serie A title.

Not surprisingly Italy also leads the most single-team dominated league with Inter winning the title five out of the last six years. In Germany, France, Netherlands and Spain, Bayern Munich, Lyon, PSV Eindhoven and Barcelona have dominated winning 4 out of the 6 titles. Only in England have the big two split the titles evenly over the last six years. An interesting aside is that in the Netherlands, traditional giants Ajax have not won the title even once in the last six years with only AZ Alkmaar and Twente Enschede breaking the PSV strangehold over the last two years.

So, what does all this mumbo-jumbo tell you? Not much, to be honest. Except that the Italian league is the least competitive whichever way you slice the pie. They have the least number of contenders for the title, and have a single team dominating the show. Perhaps the Netherlands could be said to be the most competitive league but just by a whisker, since PSV won the title in the first four years of this analysis and without any competition at all in the first two of those. England and Spain are about roughly equally competitive except that both have essentially become two-team leagues. The picture in the Bundesliga is clear – every time Bayern Munich plays well from the beginning, they run away with the title and if they don’t play well at the beginning, they often still end up winning it. But at least it has seen teams like Stuttgart and Wolfsburg pick up titles over the last 6 years, and even perennial chokers Schalke did their bit by hanging in there and choking close to the end a couple of times. France was practically a one-team league that morphed into a two-team league briefly and suddenly this year lots of them have decided to give the big two a run for their money. And finally that leaves Italy. But sorry, I don’t have time to write about their competitiveness – I have an appointment with some grass that wants watching while it grows.

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