How competitive is the English Premier League?

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Statistical Analysis of the Top 5 European Leagues: Part Three

The third and final part of our statistical analysis will question the credibility of the notion that the English Premier League is the ‘most competitive league’ in Europe. What defines a competitive league? The number of teams challenging for the title is a crucial part, as is the distance between title winners and runners-up, third place and fourth place. The number of teams that have actually made the top four will also be taken into account. We will continue to use the data from the selected five European leagues (England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France) from the 1999/00 season until the end of the 2015/16 season.

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The above graph looks at how close the title-race was in each of the studied years, showing the points difference between 1st and 2nd. The most noticeable statistic is Ligue 1’s 2015/16 title race, which was decided by the biggest margin in our study when PSG finished 31 points ahead of runners-up Lyon. The Bundesliga and Serie come close with tallies of 25 (Bundesliga 2012/13) and 22 (Serie A 2006/07), but on the whole Serie A ranked closely with the EPL. Serie A averaged a difference of 7.92 points, not too far ahead of the EPL on 7.29. The Bundesliga and Ligue 1 averaged the biggest differences between their champions and runners-up, at 8.29 (Bundesliga) and 8.53 (Ligue 1). The league that fared the best, meaning it ranks as the most competitive league between champions and runners-up, was La Liga, averaging 5.65.

What about third and fourth? How close were they in the final tallies; did they have a realistic chance of winning the league? We found out through part one that La Liga was at the opposite end of the scale to where they are in the above paragraph, holding a massive average difference between 1st and 4th, at 20.88 points. Ligue 1 went in the opposite direction to be ranked as the most competitive between sides that make the top four, at 16.65. For the Premier League, 18.18 average points ranks them right in the middle of the five leagues.

To expand on the chances of the 3rd and 4th placed teams regarding the title, we must understand that the data cannot account for late dips in league form from teams who challenged for roughly three quarters of the season but then faded away. A perfect example is Tottenham, who all Premier League viewers know were title challengers for the majority of the 2015/16 season. However, when viewed on a statistical basis, Tottenham did not finish the season in the manner of title challengers. They were only a point off of runners-up Arsenal, but finish 11 points behind eventual champions Leicester City. For that reason, when we use the term ‘title challengers’, they must apply strictly to teams who finished within a reasonable amount of points (within three games, so nine points or less) of the champions.

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This is where the data begins to get really interesting. The idea of the Premier League being entertaining because there are ‘four or five different sides that could win the league every season’ holds little credibility. One of the weak points of the EPL is the ‘elitism’ that is held at the top end, regarding sides that can actually break into the top four. There have been only 10 teams to make the top four since 1999/00, ranking the Premier League last for the number of teams who made a top-four finish. That kind of information doesn’t disprove the competitiveness of the league, but shows it’s usually the same teams competing for the league every season. Ligue 1 was ranked the best, with 16 teams, while La Liga is 2nd with 15 teams. The Bundesliga is 3rd with 12 teams, while Serie A ranks just above the EPL with 11 teams.

Regarding title challengers, remembering what was said two paragraphs ago, we find that on only five occasions out of a possible 17 did the third placed team in England put up a title challenge. Add the 4th-placed side into the equation, and those sides could have been labelled as ‘title challengers’ in just one season.

In Ligue 1, the 3rd-placed side was within three games of the champions on eight occasions, and two seasons where the 4th-placed team also had a good chance. Even more encouraging for Ligue 1 was the variety of teams that appeared in those positions, with six different teams (Lyon, Lille, Auxerre, Marseille, Monaco and Bordeaux) in the 3rd and 4th spots, with two of those seasons seeing smaller clubs like Nantes and Montpellier take the title. Compare that with the Premier League, where it was the familiar names like Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City that were keeping the league interesting in those 3rd and 4th spots over their five competitive seasons.

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Spain had the best variety of teams challenging for the title, with the likes of Zaragoza, Deportivo La Coruna, Mallorca, Valencia, Real Madrid, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid putting a solid case forward for a league push from those 3rd and 4th spots. A shock title win went to Deportivo in the 1999/00 season, which was one of the closest and competitive leagues studied, as they won the league by five points over Barcelona in 2nd and Valencia in 3rd, with 4th-placed Zaragoza only six points behind the champions.

Valencia’s 2003/04 La Liga title win was equally as gripping, with runners-up Barcelona missing out by five points, Deportivo by six and Real Madrid by seven. All the variety of names appearing in the top four doesn’t make up for the fact that the recent quality gap is hurting the reputation of the league for many viewers, as discussed in part one. In the 2011/12 season, 4th-placed Malaga were a massive 42 points behind champions Real Madrid.

It could be argued that the German Bundesliga is one of the most competitive leagues in the world, at least statistically. The title-race has gone down to the wire between three teams in seven seasons, and four teams in three of those seasons; none of the other top leagues has seen a closer distance between 1st and 4th on that many occasions. Serie A ranks the poorest in this respect, having only two seasons (both early 2000’s) where 3rd and 4th were active in the title challenge.

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So, what does all of this mean for the English Premier League? It shows that regarding the number of teams who have challenged for titles over the 17 studied seasons, there isn’t a whole lot of difference. You might think that would be expected; there’s a reason why these leagues have been ranked so closely by UEFA, but much of what you hear through mainstream media will lead you to believe otherwise. We constantly hear how Serie A is a defensive and slow league, yet the goal figures once again show minimal difference. We hear how La Liga is a league about two teams, yet if that was to be true then why do the figures almost mirror that of the EPL when looking at who won the title and how many times they won it? And what about the quality of the rest of the league? How many times do teams like Atletico Madrid and Sevilla have to prove themselves in European competition before those teams and the league they play in get the recognition that it deserves?

Lastly, we hear all the time about how competitive the Premier League is. That might be the case regarding mid-table teams that have built a solid, stable side to offer a consistent problem to top four sides, like Stoke City and Southampton, but the data proves these kinds of teams very rarely crack the top four. It is more likely to see a club of that stature make the top four in La Liga, the Bundesliga or Ligue 1, yet those three leagues are constantly lamented for being ‘straight forward’. This means the widespread perception is that the same teams win those leagues every year, yet once again the data showed very little difference between the number of different title winners in all five leagues. The deciding factor for watching any one league over another simply comes down to subjective preference; there is no right or wrong answer.

 

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