Which Is The Best Football League In Europe?
Is the Bundesliga the best footballl league in Europe? Is La Liga really a league dominated by passing? And does the Premier League really have the highest tempo? Today on the blog ChalkOnTheBoots returns to offer his league by league comparative analysis looking to challenge a few stereotypes and perhaps answer the question, which league is the best football league in Europe?
As the season reaches its climax, a fleeting glimpse back over the preceding ten months can help ascertain if there have been any new developments or trends in European football. Has a new tactical set up emerged? Has a particular set piece been favoured time and time again by various teams? Or simply return to the perennial favourite, which league in Europe is the best.
It’s not even important to have a considered opinion with substantial evidence to back up your viewpoint in some instances, all that is needed is the reliance upon time honoured myths that populate elements of the mainstream media.
Is The Bundesliga The Best League In Europe?
The Champions League Final will see Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund collide. Undeniable proof, if it were needed, that the Bundesliga is now the best league in Europe. That both sides beat La Liga teams comprehensively in the semi finals collaborates the belief that the Bundesliga is the number one league in Europe. Even Pep Guardiola is going there in the summer. It’s the footballing place to be. La Liga and the Premiership need to take a back seat for the time being. Lick their wounds and rebuild. The new capital of football will be in Bavaria and not Barcelona.
Is it really that simple? Are the strengths of individual leagues really connected to the performance of a few teams within the Champions League?
At some point of every season there are the inevitable discussions over which of the five major European leagues is considered the best although what the best actually comprises is seldom accurately defined.
In recent times, the argument has centred around the Bundesliga, La Liga and Premiership and is often inextricably linked to the performance of the same teams in the Champions League even if this offers no clear assessment of the depth of quality within a league as a whole.
The Bundesliga appears to be a recent discovery for many and so some plaudits are thrown in the direction of Germany revolving around ticket prices, efficiency and league structure before the debate moves forward.
Spain’s La Liga is the most technical, they claim, but the game is too slow, it revolves around a tiki-taka style of play and lacks excitement. Observers, either ignoring or completely oblivious to their own bias, will thereafter state that the Premiership provides the greatest entertainment that therefore makes it the best league.
Serie A appears to have fallen from its heady heights around the turn of the century with a tactical game that is ponderous whilst Ligue 1 has always been the poor relation by comparison. A league that is conveniently patronised and never considered as one of the top leagues but just mentioned in passing.
It’s worth considering how these stereotypes evolve around certain domestic leagues. Why do we think of the Spanish league as being the most technical? Why do we associate structure and organisation alongside the Bundesliga?
Are these stereotypes even close to being true or does that even matter?
And are these terms really applicable to the entire league? Or is it because we’re lazy and it’s simply more convenient and easier to label an entire league with a few terms that apply more aptly to an individual club.
Or even to the National team?
As football becomes an increasingly homogenised product, all leagues are converging in style to a greater degree. The idiosyncrasies of domestic leagues have slowly disappeared over the last 20 to 30 years with football now a truly global sport.
The differences in teams are arguably most manifest at national level where some sides do still try and retain a sense of what their football was once about. And so we do pander to stereotypes. Spain becomes the land of tiki-taka even though the term was carved in a derogatory fashion by Javier Clemente and the league contains sides such as Levante who could make Stoke look cultured. Holland becomes the side of total football even though their national team has not played anything resembling total football in a generation. Germany becomes the clichéd organised and efficient team even though the domestic league produces the highest number of goals per game amongst the five big leagues.
A cursory glance over some basic statistics begins to reveal a rather different situation from that which may be initially envisaged.
The table below lists the average number of short passes, the pass completion percentage and the average number of long balls played per game for each of the leagues in question:-
The Premiership has the highest average number of short passes per game of the leagues highlighted. This will surprise many who view the Premiership as a fast based, physically demanding league. And whilst that may be true to an extent, it should not detract from the technical improvements in the league over the past two decades. Averaging 12 passes per game more than the second placed Bundesliga, the Premiership has made great strides forward technically.
There’s not a great deal of difference between the remaining four leagues although Ligue 1 is a little isolated at the bottom.
La Liga is second bottom in terms of short passes per game which will shock many but remove Barcelona from the equation and the average figures falls considerably lower. Barcelona is a freak in that regard. Their passing statistics distort the situation considerably. Without Barcelona’s passing stats in the equation, La Liga sides average just 339 short passes per game, a hefty drop.
Why is this? The myth of the land of tiki-taka must have been constructed with some semblance of evidence? It did, to a degree. This idea was centred around Barcelona and Spain who have styles of play that are extremely difficult to replicate elsewhere, irrespective of money or determination. A number of teams in Spain attempt to construct play from defence such as Athletic, Deportivo, Valencia etc but even allowing for this, the passing of Barcelona is unique averaging 159 passes per game more than Bayern Munich who average the second highest number of short passes per game at 529.
Not all passes are the same however. Aimless sideways passes in defence offer nothing whatsoever. Are there fewer passes in the continental leagues because the teams are better structured and organised? Do teams control space better? With fewer short passes but the lowest number of long balls, is Serie A an altogether more controlled environment where tactical discipline prevails?
With regard to pass completion percentages, these are relatively similar with Serie A the clear standout here. Perhaps evidence of a less risky strategy within the Italian top division where possession is key but La Liga, home of tiki-taka, has the lowest level of pass completion with just 76%. Is this due to teams attempting most risky passes? It surely cannot be attributed to misplaced passes and lack of technical ability, can it?
Do teams in Spain recover their position quickly, preventing the dominance of transitions? In doing so does it become more difficult for teams to create genuine opportunities? Spain has seen a rising number of teams who retain their positions and look to counter attack, led by arguably the greatest counter attacking side in the world in Real Madrid.
The Bundesliga witnesses the highest number of long passes per game whereas the Premiership witnesses roughly eight long passes fewer per game. Does the German top flight really have the equivalent of teams like Stoke and Norwich? Yes, just as the Spanish top flight has Mallorca and Levante, who play just 241 short passes per game, the least of any team across the leagues. We can’t have a Spanish side breaking the myth so it’s overlooked. It’s not about whether Barcelona can handle the likes of Osasuna or Levante, it’s only whether can they handle Stoke.
It is widely accepted that the pace of the game in England is higher than on the continent. With a higher tempo, the ball will be circulated quicker offering more passing opportunities which can result in increased passing statistics as the ball moves around. Other factors too will dictate the number of passes attempted in a game.
The number of tackles being attempted which can lead to turnover in possession and following on from that, the number of fouls in a game. The table below shows the averages per game for both across the leagues:-
Fewer tackles and fewer fouls meaning less stoppages and contributes to the ball being in active play more often. This should result in an increased number of passing opportunities but whether those opportunities are then taken is another issue entirely.
The perceived physicality of the Premiership does not appear to manifest itself in fouls with the lowest average number per game but critics will turn their attention to match officials in that case citing their lack of vigour in dealing with robust tackles as the reason for it. Yet the Premiership also has the second lowest number of tackles per game. The old notion of “up and at em” whilst still existing in the lower leagues of English football is more or less now eradicated at the top level.
With an average of four fouls per game more in Serie A, there is clearly greater disruption to the flow of the game. With more stoppages, there is less time to pass the ball perhaps contributing to the lower average number of short passes. Or does Italian football really have a slower tempo and more conservative feel to it?
The notion of structured, efficient and controlled football follows the Bundesliga around but with the highest number of tackles and the second highest number of fouls adding to the high number of long balls, is it really as controlled as some claim? And the technical aristocrats of La Liga average just under 23 tackles per game and 13.5 fouls again demonstrating that the league contains a mix of playing styles and qualities.
Ligue 1 makes the fewest tackles and has the second lowest level of fouls. Two statistics which should lead to a better flow to the game yet it has the lowest level of short passes and also one of the lowest levels of long balls. With the league being very competitive in recent seasons, are teams a little more conservative? Is there a greater fear factor as the league is often tightly bunched and a run of poor form can see you slip down the league? Equally, good form can see you rise up but it’s always easier to destroy than to create.
The final table below captures the average for the number of crosses, number of shots at goal and the number of goals per game in each league:-
The Premiership has the most crosses per game and the most shots per game. Adding to the information above and you can see that the assertion that the Premiership is certainly the most exciting of the main leagues has evidence behind it. The transitional nature of the play means goalmouth action occurs on a regular basis.
The Bundesliga provides the most goals per game yet also has the lowest number of crosses per game and the second lowest number of shots at goal, albeit the differences in this area are very small. Does this represent greater shot accuracy or better creation and conversion of chances? Or are the goalkeepers poorer?
The Bundesliga has the narrowest of leads over La Liga in terms of number of goals per game but in Spain the dominance of the big two cannot be overlooked. Barcelona and Madrid account for nearly 200 league goals. Remove them and yet again, the La Liga statistics drop considerably. Ligue 1 has the lowest number of shot and goals per game possibly highlighting the more tentative nature of the league in comparison to others.
It must be remembered too that not all shots are of equal value. Speculative shots from 30 yards are inferior to an unrestricted shot from a central position just eight yards from goal. Similarly, opponents often clear crosses and completion rates for this aspect are often very low.
Which Is The Best League?
Of course, statistics must always be treated with care. The old adage of lies, damn lies and statistics, usually holds true at some point. Simply referring to statistics produces a mechanical feel to a game that can always contain the unexpected and possess moments of spontaneity that buck the general trend. As Juanma Lillo points out, it’s not the end result that we find so enthralling, it’s the process.
Maybe we should simply enjoy what we see and stop attempting to label one league is vastly superior to another. All the leagues have both strengths and weaknesses. Why not just kick back and enjoy the league that we find entertaining?
Ultimately, the best league will always be subjective and with such fine details defining things at the top level, which we consider the best league may be nothing more than a matter of individual preference.
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