Is Serie A a defensive, low-scoring league?

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Statistical Analysis of the Top 5 European Leagues: Part Two

The 0-0 or 1-0 score line was so commonplace in Serie A throughout the years that the league, and country, have been stigmatized for their style of play. We only have to look back at the history books to find out just how fixated the Italians were on results; all attention to aesthetics were sacrificed in order to achieve what was perceived as simply more important.

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In recent years, there has been a complete shift in Italian football. Serie A has transformed into a league with exciting, end-to-end freneticism that makes for entertaining viewing. What we will discover through the data is the difference in stylistic approach of the title winning sides in Italy when compared with, for example, Spain. The differing opinions of Serie A appear to be more based around this rather than another aspect which is always singled out: goals.

This piece will once again start at the 1999/00 season and finish at the 2015/16 season, looking at the total number of goals scored, averages of goals scored throughout the seasons and the importance of goals scored for and against in different leagues. The idea is to discover whether or not the saying that Serie A is ‘boring’ or ‘dull’ due to low-scoring matches holds any weight, by comparing the figures we find in Italy with the other four top European leagues.

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The most interesting piece of information we learn from the above table, which focuses on the goals per game ratio in a league season, is just how similar Serie A is with the English Premier League. For example, the EPL is a highly entertaining and faced paced league which wouldn’t be associated with boring football on too many occasions throughout a season, yet is only slightly ahead of Serie A for ratios of goals scored throughout the seventeen studied seasons. Serie A holds a 2.6 goals per game ratio from season 1999/00 until 2015/16, with the EPL’s figure not a whole lot different at 2.66.

The EPL’s figures often fluctuate and the seasons when this occurred were usually ones where Serie A outscored them. The Premier League went through a minor goal-scoring slump from 2005/06 until the end of the 2008/09 season. 2006/07 saw the Premier League drop to its lowest ratio, at 2.45 goals per game, getting outscored by every other league except Ligue 1. Serie A held a higher average for three out of four of those years, but since 2009/10, have only seen one season average a higher number than the Premier League.

Stark contrasts can only begin to be made when the German Bundesliga and French Ligue 1 are brought into the equation. We see two leagues at different ends of the scale; the Bundesliga has the highest goals per game ratio of 2.87 goals from 1999/00 until 2015/16, while Ligue 1 sits at the bottom of the rankings with a measly 2.37. The other three leagues hover between those two, with La Liga just ahead of the EPL with 2.69 goals per game ratio.

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Since expanding to 20 teams in 2002, Ligue 1 has seen their top scoring team hold an average of 72.64 goals scored per season. Six teams have top scored the league: Lyon (6 times), Paris Saint-Germain (5), Lille (2), Monaco (2), Marseille (1) and Nantes (1). With a 20-team format, Lyon have secured a league title with the lowest number of goals scored in a season, just 56.

Italy holds the lowest average tally for top scoring sides, narrowly behind France at 72.29. There has been a more even spread of top scoring sides in Serie A, with Juventus (6 times), AC Milan (4), Inter (4), Roma (3) and Napoli (1) taking turns at the top of the charts. Serie A is joint-top with La Liga for the lowest number of top scorers ending up winning the league, at nine out of the 17 studied when both leagues are combined. Though by looking at the differences in title-races in those two countries, we see these statistics mean different things for each league.

In Italy, it means the significance of a goal both for and against was much higher regarding the title race (similar things can be said for Ligue 1). With eight of the 17 champions not having to be top scorers to win the league, it shows a solid defence and more conservative style of play was decisive for teams who won the league. Teams who won Serie A but didn’t top score often weren’t far behind in the goals scored tally, but it was the goals conceded figure where a noticeable difference was found. The same doesn’t apply in La Liga, as it’s the quantity of goals that reflects the difference of Real Madrid and Barcelona from the rest of the league. Atletico Madrid’s 2013/14 title-winning season was a big change for La Liga, where a league was decided by an approach that would not look out of place in Serie A. (We must also point out that goal difference won’t directly effect a team winning or losing a league due to Spain deciding that over head-to-head records, but it’s just simply a measure of elaborating the differences in quality).

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To explain, there has not been a season in La Liga where one of Barcelona or Real Madrid have not scored 100 goals since 2007/08. 100-goal tallies have been racked up by the two sides a total of 13 times over the course of the period studied, compared with four when we combined the EPL, Serie A, Bundesliga and Ligue 1. Does this have more to do with the quality of opposition or strength of the two Spanish giants? It’s likely to be a mixture of the two, rather than just one direct cause, especially when the success of those two sides in Europe is taken into account.

In conclusion, the notion that Serie A is a defensive minded league holds truth when considering tactical styles that have brought success. Juventus’ run of five league titles in a row did not once see them score more than 80 goals in the league, while goal tallies of 83 in 2014/15 for Manchester City, 89 for Manchester United in 2011/12 and 101 for Liverpool in 2013/14 were only enough to see them finish runners-up in the Premier League during those five years. These kinds of numbers show how the approach differs in Italy, with a style focused on keeping things tight at the back and playing at a lower-tempo, making for more tactically astute battles between teams.

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Regarding goal-scoring, the ‘defensive’ tag Serie A is often branded by pundits is lightweight statistically. We found that the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 are at the opposite ends of the scale regarding goal scoring, with Germany being the highest and France the lowest, while Italy, England and Spain all ranked closely in-between the two. Perhaps the stigma associated with Italian football has carried on for generation after generation, altering our perception of what the games are like compared to actually taking the time to watch them. Maybe it’s simply a stylistic choice, with many not willing to sit through games played at a slower pace after years of watching leagues like the Bundesliga and Premier League.  What’s for sure is the argument of Serie A being a boring or dull league because of low-scoring games simply holds no truth, especially considering that the numbers match up so closely with the English Premier League, a competition hailed for its free-scoring nature.

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