Thursday, 17 January 2013

Competition? What competition?

It’s regularly stated, yet seldom justified, that the Barclays Premier League is the ‘most competitive league in the world’.  A statement often made with the premise that on any given day all teams can beat one another and that the top 4 is less predictable than other European leagues. 

Yet, at this point in the season the difference between 1st and 3rd is 13 points in England, 18 points in Spain, 12 points in Germany, 5 points in Italy, 3 points in France, 3 in Holland and 9 points in Scotland (12 if Celtic win their game in hand).

I've been fascinated and irritated by such sweeping statements over the last few seasons listening to fans of different leagues berate each on internet forums.  To this I've brought together stats that I believe indicate the competitiveness of individual leagues.  To make the process simpler and less open to bias the leagues studied will be the top flights in England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France over the last ten years.  I will portray the stats but with each league assigned a random letter such that the statistics being compared are not subject to either the writer’s or the reader’s inherent biases.

As you read the stats, consider whether you can correctly guess which league is which and whether the analysis supports or opposes collective belief.

In theory a competitive league is one where winning the league is difficult and the opportunities to take advantage of weaker teams is limited.  It also might be expected that a strong league would have a greater number of individual winners across ten years than a less competitive league.

Across the five leagues there were two leagues that only had three different winners across the last decade and two leagues that had five different winners.  The average was 4.2.

In a competitive league it might be expected that the winners would win a lesser number of games while in a less competitive league it would be easier for one team to dominate and win easily.

The league with the highest winning percentage was League C with a win rate of around 71.05%.  This was from an average of 27 games won in a title-winning season.  The lowest winning percentage required to win a league was 60.52% in League B from an average of 23.1 wins.  

Another measure of the strength of competition is the distance between first and second place to determine how long the season remains competitive.  The logic here is that the smaller the points difference between the winner and runner up the more competitive the league.

Here we see that the difference between the leagues is fairly minimal, ranging from an average of 5.6 points in League D to 7.9 in League A.  The average across all five leagues was 6.8.  

Lastly, with the fascination that the 'top 4' has garnered in the BPL in recent seasons I thought it sensible to compare the difference in points between winner and fourth place.  I also thought it useful to contrast the numbers of individual teams making the top four in the last ten years in their respective leagues to gauge how competitive the top European league placings are.

As can be seen League C has experience the least variation with only eight different teams making the top four since season 2002 - 2003.  In contrast both Leagues B and D experienced 50% more different top four teams with 12 each.  The average across the five leagues was 10.6.

Finally the average points difference between first and fourth was compared.

This time we can see some significant variation across the leagues.  League B had an average difference of only 16.7 points dividing the first and fourth placed teams and even less in League D. League's C, A and D experienced an average of 20.2, 21.2 and 22.3 with around seven to eight victories being the difference.

So, do you think you could work out which league was which?

It may be no surprise to see that the league with the lowest variation in top four placings was the Barclays Premier League (League C) with its meagre eight- two of which were Newcastle and Everton's solitary appearances. Indeed between them, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea made up 29 of the 40 available spaces in the top four across the decade.

Another interesting observation is that the league with the greatest variation in winners was Ligue 1 (League B) and the Bundesliga (League E).  In fact, Ligue 1 has been won by five different teams in the last five seasons and should PSG triumph this season it will be six different winners in succession.

Above all, the dawning realisation found looking at these stats is that across Europe there is not a great deal of variation.  It certainly seems true that the BPL is no more competitive (using these stats only) than any other league.  Though it has a smaller winning degree (by 5.8 points) than three of the others, the difference between winning and coming fourth is some distance behind France and Germany and comparable with Spain and Italy.  Furthermore the belief that on their day any team in the BPL may win, the team that wins the league on average does so with a higher winning percentage than any of the other major European leagues.

It may be that England has strength in depth that the other leagues don't have, yet over the last ten years the fourth placed team in Spain has better kept the pace with Real Madrid and Barcelona than their counterparts in England.  In fact, it is only in the last three seasons that the first to fourth place gap has been smaller in England with the previous seven seasons all being closer in Spain.  Perhaps England is actually becoming less competitive, as asides from Newcastle and Everton's Champions League appearances earlier in the Century it is becoming a more exclusive collection every season with only the demise of Arsenal and Liverpool, rather than great strides made by others changing the status quo.

It would appear that if you want a close title race then you should watch the BPL or La Liga.  If you want variation in winners then you watch Ligue 1 or the Bundesliga.  If you want a less predictable top four then you should give your attention to Ligue 1 and La Liga.  If dominance is what you're trying to avoid then Serie A is all yours.

There's a league for every taste but if a competitive league is what you're looking for then you might find it in the most unlikely place.  Celtic may run away with it, but in Scotland there's less points between second and tenth than there is between first and third in England.  Most competitive league in the world?  Maybe next season...

*Germany's points difference between teams may be artificially lower due to the 18 teams in the Bundesliga versus 20 in the other four European leagues.


  1. I think ul find Man u - Man city - Chelsea - Tottenham - Arsenal - Liverpool - Everton are all competing top 4 and swansea quality coming through.

    1. The difference between 4th and 10th is currently 11 points in England.

      6 points in Germany.

      8 points in Spain.

      9 points in Italy.

      4 points in France.

      That's obviously not the way the leagues may finish, but it's certainly an indication as to why the BPL is no more competitive than any other league. And if you'd read the article properly, you'd see that I do stress that the top four in England do compete- it's just that it's no closer in England than anywhere else and the title is far more predictable as well.

      I'm afraid the stats don't lie. They clearly show (certainly currently) than the BPL is the least competitive of the five major European leagues.

  2. Statistics may not lie, but they sure don't always tell the true reality of any circumstances. They can easily produce highly manipulative conclusions since they operate on assumptions (especially the more simple the analysis is. Nice blog though on a very relevant talking point in he world of football. We've all heard it before from many professionals in the game and many from outside England, that the Premier League is perceived to be the most competitive. I'm starting to think that competitiveness somehow equates to how entertaining the league is perceived to be compared to other leagues, in that 'cliche'.

    However, what I really want to touch on is the scope of the sampled statistics, as I believe the analysis could be enriched and made more objective. With the current sampling - we seem to be focusing on the top teams or the top half of table. Why not look at the bottom half of the table, the promotion teams and even possibly the 2nd tier league since that enriches the stats and conclusions inferred from the bottom end of the premier league also. Thank you for the enjoyable read, but I think this requires a little more 'width' in analysis; then imo, you'll have a gem of an article. Looking forward to checking back in - all the best!

    1. Yeah, you certainly make a very valid point about the scope. My intention is to extend it to include comparisons across promoted teams across the leagues to determine how close their 2nd highest division is to the quality of their highest division.

      I'd also like to compare the domestic trophies against one another- in England the FA cup is horrendously uncompetitive, but the league cup is far more entertaining, perhaps because clubs don't take it seriously.

      I would agree with the sentiment that competitiveness and entertainment have become somewhat synonymous in the BPL- I don't doubt its entertaining, but just because Liverpool, Arsenal and Spurs can give Man Utd a game doesn't make it 'competitive'. The stats that compare the difference in winning percentages and difference in points between 1st and 4th show the danger of this fallacy.

      Thanks for the input!

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