Is La Liga a two-horse race?

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Statistical Analysis of the Top 5 European Leagues: Part One

The first part of the Statistical Analysis of the Top 5 European Leagues begins in Spain, trying to debunk, or at least provide more insight, on the notion that the Spanish league is simply a contest between two sides: Real Madrid and Barcelona.

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To help gather conclusions on the competitiveness of the league, we have compiled data on the top four-finishing sides of the five best European leagues since the 1999/00 season. Of course, the top five leagues may have changed once or twice from the earlier years we are analysing, but for the sake of consistency, we will stay with the five best from the most recent coefficient tally. This will give us something to compare La Liga’s recent history with, as well as help draw information out of the recent trends and patterns found. Also, keep in mind, when phrases such as ‘all leagues combined’ is used, remember that we are always referring to the time period that has been reviewed (1999/00-2015/16).

We begin in Spain, in the 1999/00 season. Deportivo La Coruna are the first league champions from our data range, winning the league title on 69 points. This was the second-lowest title-winning tally from all the 38-fixture leagues compiled from the data, obviously excluding Bundesliga and early 2000’s Ligue 1 statistics where there were only 18 teams in the league. This season was also second for smallest points gap between the top four finishers from the leagues studied, with just six points between the champions and fourth placed Real Zaragoza.

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Only one season in all five leagues finished closer, and that was the 2002/03 season in France. Lyon finished champions on the lowest title-winning tally recorded in our data, on 68 points, with one point deciding the title and just four points separating 1st from 4th. Germany also trails France in that department, with six points between 1st and 4th in 2001 and 2009, putting it slightly ahead of Spain due to that figure occurring more than once. The Premier League ranks 4th out of the 5 leagues in that department, with the 2014 season being their closest top four finish to a season. The champions that year, Manchester City, edged out Liverpool by two points for the title, with Arsenal seven points behind them in 4th place. Italy holds the worst record for such statistics, with 2003’s 12-point gap between Juventus and Lazio the closest that 1st has been to 4th.

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The graph displays how the English Premier League had a huge gap from 1st to 4th between 1999 and 2005, but has seen the playing field even out a little bit in years since. Serie A has seen a return to serious discrepancy, with 2014’s 37-point gap eclipsing the tally of 36 in 2007. The Bundesliga has not seen a great difference between 1st and 4th overall, though as is the trend with the diagram, it appears to be widening in more recent years. Ligue 1 has the lowest average points difference, at 16.65, between 1st and 4th. La Liga holds the worst average, at 20.88, as we can now begin to create an argument for reasons as to why it is perceived as a two-team league.

The next five seasons, from 2000/01 to 2004/05, saw less than ten points between title winners and runners up each time. Real Madrid added two league titles to their incredible history, as did Valencia, while Barcelona won one league title. None of the Spanish champions from this period exceeded 90 points, which wouldn’t happen until the 2009/10 season. The title race was also tightly contested in two of those mentioned seasons, with Real Madrid edging out Real Sociedad by two points in 2003 and Barcelona winning the 2005 season with a four-point distance between themselves and Real Madrid.

2005/06 to 2008/09 included a slight increase in points gap between 1st and 4th place, but nothing unusual when compared with the other four leagues. In fact, the disparity between champions and European place-finishers would not become evident until the 2009/10 season. After this season, we can begin to discuss the problem that La Liga is still suffering from.

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From 2010 to 2013, the distances between 1st and 4th were 36, 34 and 42 points. The figure from 2013, 42 points, was the largest difference in any of the Top 5 European Leagues. An over 30 points differential for 1st and 4th occurs four times in La Liga, twice in Serie A, twice in the Bundesliga, once in the Premier League and once in Ligue 1 from the studied period.

For all La Liga seasons combined, 355 points separate 1st from 4th. That number is exactly the same in Serie A, showing that Italy has the same historical trend as Spain. To add some extra insight to the Spanish figure, 207 of the 355 points separating those sides were accumulated since 2010. That shows La Liga’s recent problem: a gulf in class has arisen between title-winning sides and those fighting for a spot in the Champions League. Too often a rift is formed between Real Madrid, Barcelona and the rest of the league. However, it’s the performances in European competition that these lower-placed Spanish sides (often outside of the top four) begin to show their ability.

You have to look as low as 9th in the 2009/10 La Liga season to find the eventual Europa League winners, Atletico Madrid. This is one of the many indicators of the depth of quality in Spain. Atletico Madrid did it again in season 2011/12, when they won the Europa League for the second time in their history after finishing 5th in the league. Even more fascinating was knowing their opponent in the final, Athletic Bilbao, avoided relegation by eight points that season after finishing in 10th in La Liga.

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Such trends in Spain continue with Sevilla, the side that has made the Europa League their own in recent years. They have won all five of their Europa League titles in the period studied, and only once have they finished inside La Liga’s top four, in 2007, when they lifted the trophy. In 2006, they finished 5th, beating 14th placed Premier League side Middlesbrough to win the trophy. In 2007, they finished 3rd, and played out one of many all-Spanish Europa League finals, seeing off 11th placed Espanyol in the final. In 2014, after finishing 5th, they beat Portuguese champions Benfica in the final. In 2015, they finished 5th again, beating 3rd placed Ukrainian outfit Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk to win their fourth Europa League. Last season they finished 7th, and thanks to a second-half surge, beat 8th placed Premier League side Liverpool to take their tally to five trophies.

These impressive statistics of La Liga sides in Europe doesn’t even begin to mention the stranglehold that Barcelona and Real Madrid have had on the UEFA Champions League, winning eight of the 17 competitions in question. This also neglects the fact that Valencia and Atletico Madrid have been runners-up a combined four times, with Atletico’s two final appearances coming within the last three seasons. In short, La Liga is the pinnacle of club football right now, all subjective opinions aside.

So, overall, who has won the league the most times? For the time period studied, Barcelona have won eight titles, Real Madrid five, Valencia two, Deportivo La Coruna one and Atletico Madrid one. The two top sides grab all the attention, and the data could easily be used to back up the idea that La Liga is indeed just a two-horse race. One of Barcelona or Real Madrid have appeared in the top two for 15 out of the 16 years studied, with both of them appearing in the top two for 10 out of the 16 years. However, when comparing with the English Premier League, you begin to realize there are more similarities between the leagues than differences.

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For example, since 1999/00, Manchester United have won eight league titles, just like Barcelona. Chelsea have won four, closely mimicking Real Madrid’s five. Then the remaining title wins went to three separate teams in Spain, just as it did in England, with Arsenal, Manchester City and Leicester City. There have only been three seasons when either Manchester United or Chelsea didn’t appear in the top two spots, in 2002, 2014 and 2016. The undisputed dominance of Manchester United and Chelsea isn’t exactly the same as Barcelona and Real Madrid, but with just one less title between them, it’s hard to draw contrasting conclusions about the title-winners of both leagues.

To conclude, it is fair to say that La Liga is simply a two-horse race as far as who has the most realistic chance of winning the title. Barcelona and Real Madrid have simply taken over La Liga, and even Europe to a certain extent, with the recent title win of Atletico Madrid in 2014 a rare shift from the status quo. This does not make it a poor league overall, though. European competition has consistently proven the quality of Spanish sides all throughout the top half of the table, making them the most successful league in recent history of European competitions.

The flipside to that argument is what recent data has proven about other leagues, particularly the English Premier League. If one person sums up La Liga as a two-team league, then the same must be said for England. Die-hards may argue that the English Premier League is now a three-horse race instead, due to the rise of Manchester City, but statistically the winners of the last 17 seasons are almost identical to that of Spain. This will be explained further in an upcoming addition to the series.

Again, the general consensus that only a small number of teams have a realistic chance of winning the title does not make a  league poor or boring. What the data is useful for is to realize how quickly time adjusts our perceptions, just as it would with anything else, where we simply forget history that is still recent and relevant.

 

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