La Liga vs Premier League – The myth explained
Posted by: Reeve Boyd
One question I’ve always been curious about is whether the myth of the ‘super’ Premier league is true. Whilst I would concede that around 5 years ago the premier league was utterly dominant, and was able to produce 3-4 genuine Champions League contenders whilst remaining relatively competitive (relatively because, after all, the typical English “big 4” were often mentioned in the same way as the duopoly of La Liga), I have become dubious to the quality now on offer.
Indeed, the major Premier League teams have struggled to cope with the slower paced, more strategic tactics of their opponents in European competitions over recent years. Also, although controversial, it failed to feature a single player in the latest FIFA Pro World XI where every player instead plied their trade in La Liga. This was perhaps an over exaggeration of the power of Spanish football and in particular Barcelona and Real Madrid, but not to the extent that is often reported - Besides from Marcelo, Dani Alves, Pique and Xabi Alonso, who was potentially undeserving of a spot in that team? In any case, the front runner’s for them spots would be Philip Lahm (Bundesliga) on the right, Ashley Cole/Jordi Alba (La Liga) for the left spot, Mats Hummels (Bundesliga)/Vincent Kompany for centre back and Pirlo (Serie A)/Sergio Busquets (La Liga) for the centre of midfield. At best then, the Premier League would register 2 players in a team of XI, whilst the Bundesliga could expect 2, Serie A, 1, and at worst La Liga 6. How then can the Premier League boast to be the best quality in the world? The answer of course, is that many people view La Liga as boring, whereby both Real Madrid and Barcelona are almost certain of victory every week.
It is impossible to ignore the two aforementioned club’s dominance of La Liga but I would be inclined to think it is simply a case of them being too good for everyone in Europe, equipped with a plethora of the greatest players of this generation, rather than a general lack of quality in La Liga. I am even of the opinion that both clubs would record their spectacular point’s totals in any league in the world at this point, including the Premier League. Ultimately, it is facts that are best at painting an accurate picture and as such, will be used to ultimately prove or disprove my current opinion.
UEFA Champions League:
As the crème de la crème of European club football, the Champions League provides the perfect starting point. As I have said, I am not here to argue about the previous dominance of English football, only the decline in the last couple of years as well as the emergence of other leagues that possess genuine quality.
Barclays Premier League:
From a totally statistical point of view (the type I am taking) the performance of English clubs in Europe’s premier competition has been poor over the last two-and-a-half- years. Yes, Chelsea did win the competition last year and yes, Manchester United did finish runner up previous to that, but compared with the dominance of previous years they have been poor. Manchester United followed up their second placed finish by finishing third in a group containing Benfica, FC Basel and Otelul Galati whilst Chelsea became the first club in the history of the reformatted Champions League to follow up their success with an exit in the group stage. Combine that with Manchester City’s richly assembled squad failing and you only really have Arsenal as the sole consistent performers (although they never progressed past the quarter final).
In the last three group stages for the Champions league, the five English representatives (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham) have amassed on average roughly 11 points each, a respectable tally. By delving slightly deeper though, it is quite clear that problems are beginning to emerge. In the 2010/2011 group stage, it is arguable that despite the emergence of the Spanish superpowers, English football was still in its peak. The four clubs that year all progressed through on an average of 13 points, whilst only being knocked out by themselves, Madrid or Barcelona. Since then, the slump in performance has been dramatic, with English clubs in the last two group stages only registering an average of 9.5 points and only half of the clubs escaping from their respective groups. In that time, Manchester City have amassed an average of only 6.5 points, whilst Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal have all managed an average of 10.5.
As has been stated, the duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid in La Liga has allowed critics to suggest that it offers little excitement, with the quality of the other eighteen teams being substandard. However, the statistics over the last two years in Europe’s premier competition points towards a more realistic alternative – the dominance of both teams not only occurs in La Liga but also in the whole of European football. Much like my original theory, the statistics also point to the fact that whilst Barcelona and Madrid are streets ahead, the ‘best of the rest’ in Spain are more than a match for anybody.
There have been 5 teams who have represented La Liga over the last two years, each with varying degrees of success. Barcelona swept their way to victory in 2011 and were unlucky to be on the losing side against eventual champions Chelsea in the semi-final stage of 2012. Real Madrid meanwhile, despite missing out on La Decima (their tenth European title) have reached the semi-final stage in both of the last two years, whilst also becoming the first team in Champions League history to win all six of their group games. Despite losing world-class talent in the shape of David Villa, David Silva and Juan Mata, (and suffering serious financial difficulties), Valencia have also proved to be adequate opposition to Europe’s finest by escaping their group twice in the last three years. They were in pole position to progress in the 2011/2012 group stages as well, but were only denied by a Didier Drogba inspired Chelsea performance at the Mestalla. The other two European “minnow’s” to qualify from La Liga have had mixed fortunes. Malaga’s unbeaten run in this season’s group stages was only as impressive as Villareal were shocking in 2011/2012.
Overall then, the five Spanish clubs have registered an average of 12 points each in the group stage, which is more than English clubs amassed in the same period. However, for the same reasons that I split the performance of the English clubs from 2010/2011 onwards, it is important to separate the Spanish clubs into three distinct categories. The first category of course concerns Barcelona and Real Madrid who have simply dominated each group stage they have faced, amassing a stunning average of 15 points (rounded up from 14.66) and losing only once each in the last three years. The second concerns Valencia and Malaga, who have performed admirably in the shadows of Spain’s top two clubs scoring an average of 11 points over the three year span. Indeed, if solely assessing the last two group stages, despite not being as illustrious as their English counterparts, they do indeed outscore them. The final category then, belongs to Villareal who have single-handedly cancelled out the statistical dominance of Barcelona/Real Madrid for Spain by registering 0 points in a year they were also relegated from La Liga.
Other European Competitions
The contrasting ways in which Spanish clubs and English clubs approach Europe’s “inferior” competition also makes for grim reading for die-hard English fans. Despite similar performances in the group stage (average of just under 10 points for English clubs as opposed to 10.5 for clubs from Spain), the performances in the knockout rounds could not have been more different. The furthest any English club has come over the last two-and-a-half-years is the third round whilst Villareal and Valencia have reached the last four, Athletic Bilbao have finished as runner’s up and Atletico have become Europa league champions. Also, in the year when Vilas-Boas’ supreme Porto side seemingly brushed everyone aside, Sevilla perhaps provided the sternest test by only losing on away goals.
Finally, perhaps unsurprisingly, the UEFA Super Cup has also been dominated by Spanish clubs – with Barcelona and Atletico Madrid sharing two each over the last four years. The last super cup was particularly telling with Atletico thrashing current Champions league winners Chelsea 4-1 in a Falcao inspired performance.
Far from proving the competition in La Liga is not as competitive, these statistics actually suggest that the teams outside Spain’s top two are actually of better quality than teams outside of England’s big four.
The final issue of contention concerns the theory that the world’s two best players, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are able to score ridiculous amounts of goals because of the league that they play in. Many followers of the Premier League for example remain adamant that Lionel Messi would not be able to score with such regularity if he was to play teams such as Stoke on a rainy British day, given that he would be theoretically be lumped from pillar to post. Personally, I find that claim almost laughable but the hard facts do not lie, so I will use them to portray the most accurate answer possible.
Again, the first and most obvious place to start is the Champions league as theoretically if you can score goals with such regularity in the world’s most competitive competition, any other league should be a piece of cake. It is here that the theories of La Liga providing Messi and Ronaldo with goals are firmly put to bed. Messi for example, has finished top scorer in the Champions League in each of the last four seasons, whilst only managing to finish top scorer in La Liga for three of those four seasons. In that time, Messi has broken numerous records including the most goals in a single Champions League game (5) and the most goals in a single Champions League season. Considering a younger and less effective Ronaldo playing at (arguably) a slightly worse side than the current Real Madrid still managed 31 goals in the premier league, it is surely entirely conceivable that he and Messi would be able to score the same amount of goals in the Premier League as they do in La Liga. Indeed, it is possible that going on the statistics over the last few years in Europe, coupled with the fact that many Spanish clubs now play in a way to nullify the effect of Barcelona as much as possible, maybe English clubs are even less prepared to handle Messi.
The second way to prove my point would be too look at the amount of goals scored in La Liga by the rest of its top goal scorers. If La Liga was that easy to score in, it surely wouldn’t only be Messi and Ronaldo who would benefit but also the rest of La Liga’s elite strikers. However, this is evidently not the case, with the goal tallies being similar to that of across the rest of Europe. It is hard to imagine players such as Falcao, Benzema, Higuain, Villa or Soldado not scoring the same/higher amount of goals in the Premier League when supplied with the ammunition on offer from the ‘big’ clubs.
The transition of players from La Liga to the Premier League also suggests that the Premier League is no harder to play in. In fact, players such as Fernando Torres, Michu, David Silva, Juan Mata, Kun Aguero, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas all have become club idols despite not coming from the Barcelona/Real Madrid first teams. Again, this evidence only indicates that a team with the firepower that Real Madrid or Barcelona possesses would set the sort of point’s totals that we are consistently seeing in La Liga. After all, Barcelona are frequently labelled the best team of all time, so why is there any reason to doubt that they could set a points total higher than that of Chelsea 2004/2005 (95) who were at the time competing in a much more competitive league.
In conclusion then, it is not that I am trying to deliver criticism of the Premier League but rather I am attempting to deliver a more realistic viewpoint on the strengths of each league. The Premier League does an exemplary job of marketing itself as a global business and as such, I think many fans buy into the view that it therefore must automatically be the best quality. Despite being played at a more frantic, end to end pace - recent statistics suggest that that isn’t the case.
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