Defending Your League Title: Analyzing Failure
Historically it’s been said, in football, getting to the top of the league is one thing but staying there is a whole different ball game. More often than not teams fail to defend the league title that they had worked so hard to gain in the first place. Over the past 20 years in some of Europe’s biggest leagues, only a handful of sides have managed to successfully defend their league titles. The question remains what, if any trends, exist between the sides that have managed to win back to back titles and whether there are lessons to be learned by new-be champions from their predecessors who had failed to defend their titles.
What we will do here is to analyze seven cases of clubs that failed to defend their famous league title victory the next season. The study will analyze the period since the 1992/93 season in the Premier League (Blackburn Rovers winners in 94/95 and Manchester City winners in 2011/12), Ligue 1 (Lille winners in 2010/11 and Montpellier winners in 2011/12), Serie A (Roma winners in 2000/01), Bundesliga (Dortmund winners in 2001/2) and La Liga (Deportivo winners in 1999/00). It is worth stating that there had been a number of other sides within the respective leagues that had failed to defend their titles including Stuttgart, Arsenal, Marseille and Wolfsburg among others, however, it was decided that the above formed an interesting platform for analysis. When it came to analyzing sides that had managed to win back-to-back titles, the selection pool was considerably smaller. A small condition was also put in for the sake of the integrity of the study and that was for a team to have been considered for selection for this aspect, there must have been at least an 8 season gap between their back-to-back successes and their previous league triumph. This was done so to isolate a side that could lay claim to be considered part of a larger successful era over a longer period (take Bayern Munich and Manchester United for instance). With that in mind, Dortmund (2010-12), Chelsea (2004-6) and Juventus (2011-13) were chosen to examine. Whilst Juventus have not clinched the Serie A title yet, they are 11 points ahead of Napoli with 6 games to go and barring a calamitous breakdown they are set to defend the title they masterfully had won the previous season.
A number of criteria will be compared and contrasted within the study and this includes the club’s transfer spending vis a vis the second season both against itself and against that of the new champion (if there had been one), the sale of key players, changes in performances of key player/s, managerial changes, performances in the Champions League and whether it posed a distraction to the squad, and the squad’s ability to cope with more games, as well as the historical size of the club in its league among other things. We hope by doing the aforementioned, some light may be shed onto common themes.
Blackburn Rovers (Premier League Champions in 1994/95)
In the early 1990s, Jack Walker had begun bank-rolling the town-club towards success. Rovers arguably formed the prototype of rich owner done-good in modern football. However, just when things were supposed to be starting, the club failed to build on its success and was eventually relegated to the Championship within 5 years of having lifted the Premier League title. One of the first startling discoveries from the side that attempted to defend its 1994/95 title was the fact that the club barely spent in the summer leading to the new season. Only £2.7m was spent and even by amounts being thrown away back at the time this was meager, especially considering that Walker had given Kenny Dalglish over 3 times that figure the previous season. This led to Dalglish deciding to step upstairs in a director of football capacity. Rovers also sold one of the key members of the title-winning side in Mark Atkins and that coupled with injuries and poor form to Chris Sutton and Jason Wilcox hampered the side to a point of finishing outside the European places.
Deportivo La Coruña (La Liga Champions in 1999/00)
Little-known Deportivo capped off the most successful era of its history with a title during a period when it was a force to be reckoned with domestically and a giant banana skin in European football. An undeniable factor was their transfer expenditure, pushing Barcelona and Real Madrid to the limits at the time. One of the mistakes the title-defending champions made was selling 3 key members of the first team, most notably Flavio Conceicao. Interestingly, Deportivo may be the only club in our research that actually improved its league performances in the second season. Unfortunately, it was going head-to-head with the Galacticos of Real Madrid. The side from the capital had a net spending of almost 10 times what Deportivo spent that season.
AS Roma (Serie A Champions in 2000/01)
Francesco Totti’s Roma were a force to be reckoned with at the turn of the new century, highlighted by extravagant spending which led to the signing of players such as Gabriel Batistuta, Vincenzo Montella and later Antonio Cassano. All this happened under the stewardship of Fabio Capello. One of the first things that becomes apparent is that Roma significantly reduced transfer spending after winning the title and this happened at a time when Juventus increased spending to £156m in the summer transfer window. Roma only had a net spending of £23m that summer. Whilst Roma did sign Cassano and Capello’s favorite son Christian Panucci, they let go one of the cornerstones of the title-winning side in Cristiano Zanetti. A lack of goals also hit the side at the wrong time of the season and this is illustrated by the fact that Totti, Batistuta and Montella scored 20 less goals between them throughout the campaign compared to the previous season.
Borussia Dortmund (Bundesliga Champions in 2001/2)
German champions, Dortmund, were experiencing a golden era in their history. This included back to back titles in the previous decade and their one and only Champions League triumph too. Little did they know that they were at the climax of their success and were about to face grave financial difficulties which almost led to their extinction. Again, just like the sides we examined before them, they decided to significantly cut down on spending after winning the title, whilst Bayern Munich spent 3 times their outlay. Two highlights of the new season was the departure of key players Evanilson and Jurgen Kohler, as well as the drop in performances of Bundesliga top-scorer Marcio Amoroso who only contributed 6 goals in the new campaign.
Lille (Ligue 1 Champions in 2010/11)
The French League is an interesting one. Over the last 20 seasons only 1 side has managed to defend its title and that has been Lyon. In fact, they defended it successfully 6 times. Less money is spent in the French league compared to many of the other top leagues in Europe and more time is spent on developing players and this could be one of the reasons that there has been such a close and level playing field over the past 20 years, only rivaled by the Bundesliga in this respect. The only time that this trend was broken was with Lyon who began competing on a European level. Lille had not spent any money the season they won the league and went on to spend £7.5m net when they had to defend their title. However, they did lose 3 key members of that title winning campaign in Adil Rami, Emerson and Yohann Cabaye. Interestingly, the new champions, Montpellier, spent virtually nothing when they won the title away from Lille.
Montpellier (Ligue 1 Champions in 2011/12)
Montpellier made the grave error of selling their key player after they won the league title. Olivier Giroud left to join Arsenal and was replaced by 2 or 3 lessor known strikers who have failed to get on the scoring-sheet regularly this season. Nevertheless, Louis Nicollin did allow some money to be spent this past summer. However, after a poor start to the campaign and an early exit from the Champions League, Rene Girard also lost his captain, Yanga-Mbiwa in a mid-season transfer to Newcastle United. The majority of the key members of the squad continue to perform admirably but in a league where the margins are minimal losing players of the caliber of those Montpellier have lost is an insurmountable obstacle.
Manchester City (Premier League Champions in 2011/12)
The Abu Dhabi Sheikhs bought Manchester City with the vision of turning them into the biggest club in England and later Europe. Whilst City wrestled the title away from city-rivals Manchester United they have failed to put up a successful defence of their title and formed the inspiration behind this article. The first highlight of their failed defence is a 40% reduction in transfer spending. Secondly, Manchester United out-spent them this season. None of the sides we have examined in the study have managed to defend their title having spent less the following campaign unless it was still a higher amount than their closest rivals. Next, Roberto Mancini sold 3 key members of the title-winning side in Nigel de Jong, Adam Johnson and Mario Balotelli. The club’s best performers also failed to hit the heights of the previous campaign and this is mostly highlighted in the goals contribution of their top-scorers. An early exit in the Champions League forms another stereotypical characteristic of failure to defend the league title. In short, Manchester City form the text-book study of how not to defend your title.
Those Who Succeeded in Defending their Title
Chelsea (Defended their Premier League Title in 2005/6)
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea had just set a Premier League record-high number of points in 2004/5 and lifted the double. The following campaign saw them successfully defend their title. One of the highlights of the success was the fact that they strengthened the starting line-up with the signing of Lyon’s Michael Essien. They also added Asier Del Horno and Shaun Wright-Phillips, with the former making the left back position his own. It also helped that Chelsea out-spent runners-up Manchester United and the performances of their key players somewhat improved (Drogba and Lampard both improved their goal contributions).
Dortmund (Defended their Bundesliga Title in 2011/12)
German champions Dortmund not only defended their title but also completed the double having trounced rivals Bayern Munich 5-2 in the Pokal final. Dortmund did increase its own spending even if Bayern Munich managed to out-spend them. Their transfer activity saw one Turkish-origin star replaced by another with Nuri Sahin departing to Spain and Ilkay Gundogan replacing him. On paper it seemed like Jurgen Klopp’s side did not get the better end of that deal but time has shown that to be false. Dortmund’s players continued to excel with Robert Lewandowski improving his finishing and other players contributing more goals than previously. Dortmund finished 6 points better off than the previous campaign.
Juventus (On Course to Defend Serie A Title in 2012/13)
Italian champions Juventus are back on top of the football pyramid domestically after a tumultuous few seasons, which included relegation due to match-fixing. Juve have virtually been alone in lavishly spending in recent seasons. This has helped them re-build their side. Whilst they decreased their transfer expenditure this season, it was still significantly higher than closest rivals Napoli. Antonio Conte also retained his key players and built on it by adding 3 key members to the squad in Giovinco, Asamoah and Isla. His side is on course to better its points haul of last season when it had gone unbeaten.
Looking at the above analysis, it is difficult to find a wholesome irrefutable rule of thumb in analyzing successes and failures when it comes to defending titles. Before attempting to do so, it is interesting to note that over the past 20 years the Premier League has seen 7 back to back champions (6 Manchester United, 1 Chelsea), the Bundesliga has seen 5 (3 Bayern Munich, 2 Dortmund), Ligue 1 has seen 6 but it all involved Lyon, La Liga has had 7 back to back champions (6 Barcelona, 1 Real Madrid), and Serie A is on course for its 9th this season (4 Inter, Juventus soon to be 3, with 2 for Milan). It must be added that Milan and Barcelona won their 1992/93 titles on the back of having won the previous season. What this suggests is that money plays a huge role in defining the legacy of the sides. Less dominance is found in the leagues where less money is spent.
One of the common characteristics of Chelsea, Dortmund and Juventus’ successful retention of titles is the fact that none weakened their sides during the summer after becoming champions. At the same time, Juventus and Chelsea both continued to invest in their squad and out-spent their rivals. Dortmund may have spent less than Bayern Munich but it must be noted that the figures being spent by either side would be dwarfed by some of the money being thrown around by lessor sides in some of Europe’s other leagues. So one could argue Bayern Munich’s expenditure in 2011/12 may have been higher than Dortmund’s but it was not at a level which could help shift the title back to Bavaria.
Another factor that must be highlighted is that all the sides that failed to defend their titles saw their top-scorer of the previous campaign fail to repeat his feats. Dortmund had Lewandowski score more goals than Lucas Barrios had the previous campaign. Juventus have three players 1 to 2 goals short of improving on last season’s top scorer with 6 games to go, whilst Chelsea saw both Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba improve on their tallies.
Amazingly, only Deportivo and Juventus made it into the Quarter Finals of the Champions League from the 10 cases studied. Lille and Montpellier were the only sides that increased spending after winning the title but failed to retain their crown. It must be added that Montpellier had a negative net expenditure though. Also, only one side improved its point tally and failed to retain the title and that was Deportivo.
Finally, it is clear from the analysis that only a few sides attempted to continue towards building a legacy after winning the title. Most of the clubs were happy to taste one-time glory and cash in on their success. This includes Blackburn and Montpellier. Others such as Dortmund, at the turn of the century, and Roma decided to keep the status quo whilst rivals continued to spend to make up for lost ground. Only a few sides attempted to create a legacy and these were the 3 sides that managed to defend their league titles and arguably Deportivo who just fell short. Lyon, who were not addressed in the analysis, also fit the bill. Therefore the motivation of the club owners is quite central to what happens next for the clubs in question.
The study above was undertaken with the goal of shedding light onto why retaining a league title proves to be difficult for most sides in Europe’s top leagues. Whilst there are certain intangible and unquantifiable elements at play such as the motivation and ambition levels of the players at hand, it is clear that lessons can be learned for sides that are in a process of winning a title after a long and dry spell. Certainly, the grounds exist for more conclusions to be drawn by those studying the data under the microscope.