Margins Of Victory : How Competitive Are The Big Four Leagues?
How competitive are the big four leagues of Europe? Today on the blog Abhisar Gupta takes a look at margins of victory to see how fine the difference is between success and failure in the major leagues.
Most of us are largely indifferent to the Goal Difference stat. Sure, it's ever-present in the League table right next to the points tally, and we notice it at some point or the other. At the back of the mind there's always this idea that Goal Difference could come into play. At times it does prove decisive, particularly in group phases of Cup competitions. But last season's Premier League climax took its value to a whole new level.
Even then, at an analytical level, I don't see much value being derived from the Goal Difference numbers. Maybe there isn't much to glean and there's better data for fans and students of the game to analyse, but I want to spend some time with this stat and see if it tells us something interesting or gives a more precise version of certain truisms.
Margin Of Victory Occurence
Let's start with a simple table. The following stats were compiled on Nov 26, so they do not include the results of the mid-week clashes across Europe.
I have taken the top four Leagues and have divided the results based on the Goal Difference. The Column with heading '0' represents draws, obviously. The others show number of games in which the margin of win was 1, 2, and 3 or more goals.
As you can see, the number of drawn games in the Barclays Premier League is much higher than the other major competitions in Europe. La Liga seems to have fewer draws but many games determined by a 1 goal difference. The Italian League has also thrown up a number of close wins. In contrast, the Bundesliga seems to have the fewest 'tight' games. Then again, there have been fewer games played in Germany so a direct comparison of numbers seems unfair. Let's look at a normalised table which shows these stats in the form of percentages of total games played.
This season, after 13 weeks of football, one of every three games in the Premier League was a draw. A slightly higher number of games were decided by a 1 goal margin. How often have we heard the cliché, "There are no easy games in the Premier League"?
Well, the numbers seem to indicate that it largely holds true. Over two-thirds of the games are either drawn of settled by a solitary goal. This is important because it suggests that a single wonder-strike from a player, an incorrect penalty call - whether given or denied, a crucial off-side decision, one moment of madness in defence, a marginal improvement in shooting accuracy or chance conversion, and other such factors can turn a draw into a win, a loss into a draw, and vice-versa.
As a side note, this degree of 'closeness' in scores also presents a strong case for a very thorough and public review of the refereeing decisions. Over the course of 38 games, two-thirds of which are so tight, a couple of decisions in favour of a team and one or two against its rival could make a massive difference come judgement day. I don't believe everything evens out at the end, and if it truly does, what could be better than settling the argument once and for all by an unbiased, open analysis.
Returning back to the data at hand, we see that La Liga and Serie A also remain highly competitive with 63 percent games decided by a one goal margin or less. Even in the German league, roughly 55 percent games are decided by the odd goal or drawn.
Of course, there can be some 1-0 games or even draws that are extremely one-sided, but those are likely to form a small portion of these numbers. In general, top level football is extremely competitive. Verbally most people know this, but it doesn't often permeate deep into our thinking. Narratives tend to portray the winners as heroes with superpowers while those who struggle are deemed terrible. Fan opinions can be even more glorifying or harsh depending on the results, often wavering from one extreme to the other over the course of a few weeks.
The Difference Between Top & Bottom
Let's dig a little deeper into the details and see if there's more value to be discovered. The following chart shows the Goal Difference breakup for the top 4 and bottom 3 teams (at the time of compiling, the tables have changed after the midweek fixtures) from each of these Leagues.
|Premier League 2012-2013
|La Liga 2012-2013
|Serie A 2012 -2013
I've clubbed the one goal results and draws together because, as discussed earlier, one extraordinary event has the potential to completely change these results and have a big impact on the points table.
I found these numbers rather interesting. 10 out of Manchester City's first 13 League games, or approximately 77 percent of their League fixtures, were decided by a 1 goal margin or less. Oddly enough, the same can be said for Reading. But their positions in the table virtually mirror each other's as one is second from the top while the other is last but one. If there could ever be quantitative proof of the notion that 'Champions know how to win ugly', this seems to be it. Based on these numbers one could hardly claim City, or United for that matter, are dominating the League. Majority of their games have been hard-fought and decided by a slim margin. But the fact also remains that they've put points on the table.
Of the 10 Man City fixtures that had a Goal Difference of 1 or less, there are 0 losses and 5 wins. In contrast, the 10 Reading games with similarly close scores have seen only 1 win for the Royals and 3 defeats. Over a period of time, it is this ability to consistently manipulate the score in your favour through the endeavours on the pitch that determines where a team finishes the season.
Nevertheless, these numbers should give the teams at the bottom great hope. They're not being played off the park every week. Small changes to the system of play, minor improvements in defensive or offensive output, and individual moments of quality can drag them up.
In that sense, Harry Redknapp won't have to perform a miracle at QPR, only astute adjustments. The Rangers were winless after 13 games (are winless after 14 as well) and only had 4 points to show for their toils, which does make them look like an awful team, but in reality many of their games have been extremely close. They just need to make some of the percentages work in their favour and they could move out of the relegation zone.
That said, eventually 3 teams are going to drop down. It'll be the ones that most consistently fail to convert draws into wins and losses into draws.
The other European Leagues show slightly different patterns in these numbers. For instance, the top 3 in Spain have had distinctly fewer close encounters. It goes nicely with the theory that Spain was a two-team league where Athletico Madrid have now matched the level of Barca and Real. Juventus are the dominant side in Italy while Bayern are seemingly head and shoulders above everyone else in Germany thus far this season . Teams in the relegation zone in Bundesliga like Hoffenheim and Augsburg have found it relatively harder to compete.
By extension, they'll need bigger improvements to survive the drop. Based on these numbers it's tempting to say the Premier League is the most hard-fought league in Europe. But it's difficult to say whether the smaller teams have improved or if the top 2 have dropped their level. For that we'd have to study multiple variables over the course of the two seasons, which is out of the scope of this article.
We could however, look at the same table for the top 4 and bottom 3 teams from these Leagues from last season.
|Premier League 2011-2012
|La Liga 2011-2012
|Serie A 2011-2012
There's quite a bit of information in that chart. I'll look at some of it and leave it to you to dissect the numbers that interest you in greater detail. For instance, City had 13 games with a Goal Difference of 3 or more and a look at the fixtures list tells us that all of those were wins. Clearly, this season Mancini and his men are finding it harder.
Similarly, in Spain, Real and Barcelona had 20 and 15 wins with a margin of 3 goals or more respectively. Only 1 in 3 games for Mourinho's side were decided by a difference of 1 goal or less. Barcelona had comparable dominance and it shows how the two teams were in a League of their own, so to speak. It was a much tougher battle below them and we can see all the five clubs listed here - despite the fact that they finished 3rd, 4th, 18th, 19th, and 20th - had 23 or more games which were decided by a solitary goal or less.
We also get a different kind of insight by looking at a club like Schalke 04. Like Real Madrid, they too had only 13 games with a difference of one goal or less. But their 64 points at the end of the season isn't even in the same ball park as that of Mourinho's century. That indicates exceptional inconsistency. They won some games with big margins but also lost a few that way.
Juventus went unbeaten last season. But their dominance - in terms of nature of wins - pales in comparison to that of Real or even Barca. The Bianconeri had to grind out many results, over 60 percent as a matter of fact. To their great credit they did that and converted every possible defeat into a draw and many stalemate's into a win. Unlike the leaders in England, the Old Lady of Italian football is finding it relatively easier this season on a broader scale despite the fact that they're no longer unbeaten.
We can go even deeper into these numbers, look at the breakup for each team in detail and study it across the years. But that would make this an interminable, and perhaps unbearable article, if it isn't already one!
My main aim here was not to provide any definitive conclusions or earth-shattering insights, that rarely happens these days. But hopefully this article will have given you some food for thought and a more quantified and palatable version of certain clichés that we all accept as truths but don't always enjoy reading.
Follow Abhisar on Twitter: @goonerdesi
And read more of his work on his blog Desigunner.wordpress
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Good stuff Abhisar..it´s worth the read :)
Good article and thanks for a great insight of the difference between the big four leagues in Europe. My only comment is that not people would know who got relegated in the Spanish, Italian or the German league. However most football fans can tell you the team who won and got relegated in the premiership .making the most watch league by .