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.
Barcelona’s Lionel Messi continues to break goal-scoring records by the match. His performances have meant that soon enough there will only be his own records to better rather than that of his predecessors. If it wasn’t for the Argentine, Cristiano Ronaldo’s scoring heroics would have had a more long-term place in the record books. At the same time, both Rademel Falcao and Robin van Persie are virtually scoring at a rate of 2 goals every 3 games. There had been a time when scoring 1 goal every 2 games was considered the target for top strikers all over Europe. However, during the past two seasons, the four aforementioned individuals have really raised the bar when it comes to goal scoring. As silly as this may sound, is that group of four simply the most clinical finishers in football? One would be hard-pressed to bite his lip and take a step back and analyze things closely before answering that.
Whilst goals are the single most important measure of a striker’s ability, is it really fair to compare players playing at different clubs, receiving different levels of service and taking a varying amount of shots on goal? In order to fairly assess a striker’s “deadliness” in front of goal, we will take into account two factors. Firstly, we will assess how often the said player has shots on target in respect to the total number of shots he takes. This will reflect their accuracy. Subsequently, we will assess the ratio with which the said player converts the shots on target into goals. Combining the two variables and weighing them according to their importance will provide us with a figure which would reflect their conversion in front of goal. In order retain a level of integrity we will compare strikers across the top four rated leagues in Europe and examine statistics from the 2011/12 season as well as the on-going 2012/13 campaign. We will only consider players who have scored a minimum of 15 league goals during the period in question.
Bear in mind that assessing the difficulty of shooting opportunities no doubt plays a role but due to the intricacy involved and the lack of available data in the public domain, it has not been considered within the methodology of this study. Similarly, one school of thought may suggest that taking into account the amount of time a player’s team is in the opposition’s final third should play an indirect role at the very least. If a player’s side is taking the game to the opposition consistently then the player would be more prepped for taking his chances. However, if the team sits back and hits on the counter then the player’s anticipation and concentration levels must be at a higher than usual level and must be taken into account. This resembles the argument that goalkeeper’s, playing at top clubs, who face one or two opportunities a game must sometimes be heralded as even “better” than a keeper in the thick of the action, due to their higher concentration and motivation levels. But as there is no general consensus on agreeing upon or quantifying this element, it also has been left out, despite having been applied during the research stage of the study. Furthermore, failing to score a certain number of goals at this stage of the current season would count against the culprit, whilst hitting a certain number of shots on target would not go un-noticed.
Ultimately one always wonders how a player would fare had he been receiving the sort of service he would be getting at “insert top of the table club”. The goal of this exercise is to attempt to create a more level playing field when it comes to comparing the finishing ability of players wherever they may be playing.
The Bundesliga has emerged as one of the most exciting leagues in Europe. An excellent ownership structure, financially sound clubs, rising attendances, consistent success on the pitch as illustrated through its gaining of an additional Champions League spot and some of the best young players in all of Europe are just some of the reasons why. Add to that Pep Guardiola’s decision to take over Bayern Munich next season and its easy to see why the spotlight is firmly on the league.
Mario Gomez fulfilled the criteria of the research the best and found himself at the top of the list of clinical finishers in the league over the past 18 months, although his lack of game time this season did count against him on the overall scale of things. In fact, Gomez had the best shots on target ratio between all the players analyzed in all 4 leagues, keeping 59% of his shots on target. His conversion ratio was also impressive, scoring 47% of the time once he had kept the shot on target. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came second in the Bundesliga, keeping 50% of his shots on target, whilst going on to convert 49% of those chances into goals. However, he has under-performed this season and this counted against him in the final standings. Vedad Ibisevic rounded up the top 3, with Leverkusen’s consistent striker Stefan Keissling coming a close fourth and Robert Lewandowski fifth in the rankings. If the study was simply based upon goals scored then Huntelaar would have finished first, with Lewandowski, and Gomez in second and third place.
In Italy, the man that stood out was Inter Milan’s Argentine striker Diego Milito. He has found a new lease of life during the past 18 months and converted an outstanding 56% of his shots on target into goals. In simple terms, as long as Milito keeps the shot on target then more likely than not he will score. He is 1 of only 2 players in Europe to have that sort of record. Edinson Cavani came in second overall with 46% of his shots on target and 48% of those shots on target converted. Miroslav Klose finished third, converting 49% of his shots on target into goals. Udinese stalwart, Antonio “Toto” Di Natale suprisingly finished a lowly seventh, despite scoring 37 goals during the past 18 months. This was largely due to the fact that he converts a lowly 34% of his on-target shots into goals.
In England, only three of the final nominees break the 50% barrier when it comes to keeping shots on target and they are led by a Manchester United goal-scoring hero. Surprisingly, it is not the United striker you are thinking about. It isn’t even the second United striker that you’re thinking of. It’s Mexican super-sub Javier Hernandez. Chicharito keeps 52% of his shots on target and subsequently goes on to convert 46% of them. Chelsea’s Frank Lampard is the most impressive midfielder in between all the players assessed within any of the leagues. He converts 49% of the chances that he has kept on target. Sunderland’s Steven Fletcher and Swansea’s Spanish talisman Michu fall into the next slots just ahead of Manchester City’s Edin Dzeko who edges in ahead of van Persie, largely due to the fact that he converts a slightly higher percentage of his shots on target into goals. You might be surprised that players like Chelsea’s newly signed Senegalese striker, Dembe Ba, do not possess as good a conversion rate as you would have thought. Ba only converts 35% of his shots on target into goals, a similar figure to England’s Wayne Rooney, although that is still ahead of Fernando Torres who converts only 28% of his shots on target. The Spaniard has the lowest conversion rate between all the players assessed and that reflects some of his tame finishing even when the shots are on target and “test” the opposition goalkeeper.
Liverpool’s Luis Suarez fares even worse than Torres on the overall scheme of things as he only keeps 36% of his shots on target, going on to convert 31% of those into goals. Other players who don’t make the list partly because they failed to hit 15 goals during the period include two English strikers, Danny Welbeck and Daniel Sturridge. Welbeck keeps 41% of his shots on target but only converts 23% of those into goals. Sturridge, who considers himself a center forward keeps 36% of his shots on target and goes on to convert 34% of those opportunities into actual goals.
Last but not least, Spain’s La Liga is home to Europe’s most clinical striker and needless to say he’s Argentine. Chances are 95% of you just named the wrong player. Lionel Messi only comes in second in La Liga’s rankings well behind his compatriot Gonzalo Higuain. Real Madrid’s Higuain is one of only two players in all of Europe who convert into goals more than 50% of the shots they had kept on target. The other, of course, was listed earlier and was Inter’s Diego Milito. Higuain betters Milito’s conversion rate as he scores an incredible 59% of shots that have been kept on target. Lionel Messi comes in second, keeping 56% of his shots on target. What makes that rate even more impressive is the fact that he’s taken over 300 shots in compiling that percentage. His conversion ratio stands at 46% which is still among the highest in Europe, and considering the range of shots he takes might be a little undervalued. Roberto Soldado and Falcao follow in the next two spots. Both have proven to be consistent goal scorers in recent years wherever they have played. Soldado converts 47% of his shots on target into goals, a rate better than four-time Ballon D’Or winner Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo does feature on the list however his numbers are not as impressive as one may have thought. He keeps 44% of his shots on target, no doubt hindered by the fact that he takes so many long range shots. He goes on to convert 35% of his shots on target into goals, possibly slightly hindered by the previous fact again. In terms of midfielders, Barcelona’s Cesc Fabregas has impressive numbers. He keeps 56% of his shots on target, and goes on to convert 38% of them into goals.
Now comes the interesting part where all the numbers are crunched into the formula in order to produce the results. As stated earlier, each factor is giving a weighing variable, and there are points to be gained and lost for the number of shots taken as well as failure to hit certain targets in the current season in order to provide as much balance as possible.
The Top 35
As evident above, Gonzalo Higuain is the undisputed king when it comes to being clinical, finishing on 90 points (from 100). What is telling is that 3 of the top 4 are Argentines, firmly giving the national side a potency that makes them among the favorites to lift the upcoming World Cup in Brazil next year. Mario Gomez (79 points) splits Milito (82) and Messi (78). Although it must be said as the season goes on if Gomez fails to recover from injury he will undoubtedly lose his spot to Messi, even if the Argentine continues at exactly the same ratio as he’s performing.
Whilst the analysis takes into account the factors illustrated above, it has laid the groundwork for more intense research in the future. It is recommended to weigh the difficulty of the type of shots each player has taken.
A special thanks to Follow @liaBIGPUNov for his mathematical and football insight.
The UEFA Champions League remains club football’s most sought after trophy for a multitude of reasons. Due to its ever growing status in the post-Bosman world of football, not least of which is due to the financial prizes on offer, simply qualifying for the competition is considered more important than winning a domestic cup or even the Europa League. Just ask Arsene Wenger. The Arsenal manager has gone on record to state “I say that because if you want to attract the best players, they don’t ask if you won the League Cup, they ask if you play in the Champions League.” Wenger is not in the minority with that viewpoint. Teams like Liverpool and Atletico Madrid face uphill struggles to retain stalwarts such as Luis Suarez and Falcao if they are not able to offer them Champions League football imminently. But what is the role of the Europa League in providing a balance to the dilemma? It is after all UEFA’s “second” big competition.
Gone are the days of the prestige of playing in and winning the UEFA Cup and Cup Winner’s Cup. Big teams such as Barcelona, Juventus, Arsenal, Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Lazio were among the winners of those competitions during their final years before a re-structuring was undertaken by Europe’s governing body. In fact, UEFA has played a central role in the demise of Europe’s second competition through neglecting it whilst the Champion’s League’s grew larger and more influential in world football. Their high-profile public re-branding of the Europa League in 2009 has done little to change the perception or reality of the situation. At the time, UEFA President Michel Platini stated “I am convinced the new format will give the UEFA Europa League a successful new impetus…these changes will improve this historic competition, which is very important for UEFA and for European football as it gives more fans, players and clubs the thrill of European club football”
Firstly, the fact that less and less “champions” take part in the Champions League has simply depleted the prestige of the Europa League. It has been firmly given a second-tier look and feel, and that sense has never been reversed by the entry of the third-placed group stage “lucky losers” from the Champions League at the latter stages of the Europa League because those sides only see the tournament as a distraction to their quest of winning the league title or qualifying for next season’s Champions League through their domestic league. Secondly, UEFA provided the nail in the tournament’s coffin by confirming its position as a second-tier competition through the meager prize money on offer. For instance, winning a group stage match nets a team €140,000 in the Europa League whilst €800,000 in the Champions League. For a team in the Europa League to get that sort of prize money they would need to qualify for the semi-finals of the tournament. On the flip-side, a team that qualifies for the semi-finals of the Champions League gains €4,200,000. The winners of the Champions League and Europa League attain €9 million and €3 million respectively as further bonuses. In short, if a team wins every watch on its way to winning the tournaments, starting from the group stages, they would gain €31.5 million and €6.44 million respectively in the Champions League and Europa League. This is even before the huge impact of television money is taken into account as that further widens the financial gulf between the two competitions.
Nevertheless, UEFA still encourages managers to talk up the Europa League. In October 2012, it was reported that a sheet was distributed to managers of sides in the tournament. The sheet, headlined “Discover the Drama”, included terms such as “prestigious” and “rich in heritage” and highlighted that the dramatic nature of the matches should be talked up during press conferences and interviews. It is a bit hypocritical, not to mention naive, to expect supporters, teams, players, sponsors, and the media to buy into a manufactured and commercial measure. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, UEFA has taken a fruitless approach that has further brought it ridicule as well as further undermined the value of the Europa League. Simply put, it is all talk and little substance. This brings us to the ultimate question. What can UEFA do to salvage the reputation and importance of the competition?
On one hand, increasing the financial winnings that are to be gained by clubs could prove to have a positive impact. If, as expected, “big” clubs, from the big leagues then begin taking the competition a little more seriously, then supporters would do so, as a consequence, especially in terms of TV audiences, and sponsors would begin to pool more money towards the tournament. However, this could prove financially costly for UEFA and it would take a considerable increase in prize money, possibly doubling it at the very least, to have an impact. However, the prize money would still fall quite short of what is on offer in the Champions League. At the same time, it does not fix one of the biggest weaknesses of the competition in that almost all the big clubs are already present in the Champions League. Unlike the past when winning the domestic cup was seen as far more prestigious due to the passage towards the Cup Winner’s Cup, today, it has also taken a back-seat to the domestic league’s passage towards the Champions League. In many cases, the winner of the domestic cup would already be present in the Champions League so the runners-up or next best-placed domestic league position not in European competition qualifies to the Europa League. All lit roads lead to the Champions League, whilst a dead end leads one towards the Europa League. It has firmly become the “black sheep” of European football.
On the other hand, if one takes a closer look at Arsene Wenger’s comments, then a viable solution could be found in raising the profile of the Europa League. It is clear that everyone wants to participate in the Champions League, and the Europa League is little consolation to clubs that miss out on that privilege. But what if the relationship between the two competitions was further intertwined? We already have clubs who drop down from the Champions League to the Europa League mid-competition, so why can’t the reverse journey be possible? The proposal is not as radical as it sounds.
If UEFA begins offering the winner of the Europa League a spot in the following season’s Champions League it would almost certainly solve the problem permanently. It would offer clubs the chance to qualify for the Champions League following what could be as little as a 15-match campaign, less than half the matches it would take through most domestic leagues in Europe. In fact, in a knock-out competition most clubs would have more of a chance for success than a dragged-out 38 match league campaign. English teams like Everton, Liverpool and Spurs would find it more “attractive” competing with some of the sides present in the Europa League than their counterparts such as Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea for a spot through the league. Teams that get knocked out of the Champions League at the group stage may be suffering in terms of their domestic league as a consequence of their squad being stretched, as Spurs found out a couple of years ago, but re-entry into the Europa League would offer then a few matches to redeem themselves and give themselves a second shot at the Champions League the following season. In fact, one can argue that the winner of the Europa League has more of a claim to taking part in the Champions League than a 4th place side of a domestic league.
Having expanded the Champions League in recent seasons, it is unlikely that UEFA would have practical problems in offering a spot in the Champions League to the winners of its second-tier competition. In fact, to go further in gaining national association support for the idea, the Europa League winner’s “spot” could have special dispensation which does not endanger the final domestic league qualifier to the Champions League due to the fact that the Europa League winner finished outside those spots. So, in theory, England could have 5 spots one season or Italy could regain a 4th spot quicker than they would have expected. The proposal is certainly something that UEFA could look into if it has serious intentions in regaining the lost prestige of the Europa League. Whether it does so or not is a whole different debate. But there are no excuses left for UEFA and the clock is ticking for the Europa League.
Arsenal begin the 2012/13 season, on the back of having completed their very own 7-year itch and headed into the unwanted territory of a sequel. Having been unable to lift a major trophy since the 2005 FA Cup, Arsene Wenger spent the summer in full realization that time is running out for him to add a final chapter to his legacy as Arsenal’s greatest ever manager.
In retrospect, a shift in Wenger’s transfer policy had started during the summer window of the 2004/5 season when Ray Parlour, Martin Keown, Nwankwo Kanu and Sylvain Wiltord, all key members of the successful Arsenal side of recent years, were allowed to leave without being adequately replaced. However, the summer transfer window leading into the 2005/6 season then saw Wenger decide that club captain Patrick Vieira, having just turned 29 years old, had put his best days behind him, and sanctioned a move to Serie A, where the Frenchman would go on to lift 4 Serie A titles (a 5th was stripped due to the Calciopoli scandal that hit Juventus). He would later lift the FA Cup with Manchester City on his return to England. Robert Pires would also be released from the club, moving to Villareal in La Liga.
Wenger’s First Transfer Policy Shift
During the 2005/6 off-season, David Bentley, Jermaine Pennant and Stuart Taylor, all promising young English players joined Vieira and Pires out on the exit door. They raised circa £20m in transfer fees in that off-season. Until that point, Arsenal had been a net spender in all but one of Wenger’s seasons at the helm of the club. By the end of the season, Arsenal’s spending would have increased, having added big-money signings like Theo Walcott, Alex Hleb and Emanuel Adebayor among others. However, they had still raised more money from transfers out, if you were to take into account the sell-on percentages inserted into Bentley and Pennant’s contracts.
Wenger had clearly decided to build a team from scratch, one that would play a high-tempo fast-paced passing game and would be comprised of youth well ahead of experience. This would be the Frenchman’s “Third Project” to build and if successful his greatest achievement yet. No one questioned Wenger from the word go, despite the fact that Chelsea had broken the Manchester United and Arsenal duopoly in the Premier League. The belief that still existed around the club coupled with the backdrop of moving into a new stadium, the Emirates, meant that Wenger decided that spending “big” would no longer be a characteristic of Arsenal going into this project. This is not to suggest that Arsenal had been heavy net spenders under the Frenchman, as he had always been shrewd in the transfer market, in both bringing raw players in as well as selling them for a profit when they left, usually after they had accomplished their fair share of winnings at the club. It would be hard to recall the last player Wenger had signed but did not go on to make a profit on when the player was sold. Jose Antonio Reyes is one of the few players that fall into that category.
During the following season, the 2006/7 one, club captain Thierry Henry would leave the club to join Barcelona. Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Lauren, all established members of the starting line-up, would also be sold or released. Denilson, Lukasz Fabianski, Alex Song, William Gallas and Eduardo would be the sort of names that would join the club. Other than Gallas, who was 29 at the time, the other signings were young, raw and largely unknown.
During the summer transfer window leading into the 2007/8 season, Wenger surprised many when he spent more than he raised in transfers, bringing in Samir Nasri, Aaron Ramsey, Lassana Diarra and Bacary Sagna. None of the transfers could be considered as household names or “winners”, although all had undoubted potential. Once again, Wenger had banked on potential over ability, bringing in young and exciting prospects. However, having sold Jens Lehmann, Freddy Ljungberg and Jose Antonio Reyes, much needed experience had left the club once again, and they would end the season empty handed once more.
The trend continued into the next season when Gilberto Silva, Alex Hleb and Matthieu Flamini, who had finally been coming into his own, all left the club. Wenger signed Andrei Arshavin, then 27, and a veteran signing with respect to Arsenal’s transfer policy. The Russian would bring in a much-needed winners background, having experienced winning the UEFA Cup and Russian League titles in the past. However, the weight of expectations on his shoulders and lack of other alternatives to carry the weight would be telling. Whilst he may have brought in his best form at the club during his first season and a half, the same cannot be said of his team-mates who were probably too young to match the Russians talent at the time.
In the following season, the 2008/9 one, Emanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure were sold to an up and coming rival in Manchester City. This proved to be a psychological blow, one that signalled that Arsenal no longer “willingly” sold their players, but had, for the first time, been forced to sell some of their best players to their rivals in the Premier League. Thomas Vermaelen would be the only big-money signing to join the club. A player of huge potential, he was still young and relatively inexperienced despite having captain Ajax.
During the next season, Wenger would again spend more than he would recoup, but the fees in question did not total to more than £14m in transfers in. Marouane Chamakh, Sebastian Squillaci and Laurent Koscielny joined the club. Whilst Squillaci was experienced, Koscielny was a raw player picked out from Ligue 1 on the back of 1 season in the top flight. He would need a full season before he began to show the quality that Wenger had been sure he could produce. Chamakh had never been a goal scoring forward but had just experienced his best return in Ligue 1 for Bordeaux. However, none of the three had boasted the sort of experienced pedigree required to nurture the club’s existing young talent.
During the 2011/12 season, Wenger would establish his biggest spending spree whilst at Arsenal with over £50m being sanctioned. However, when taken into the context that some of the signings were last-minute and rushed during the final hours of the summer transfer window and the fact that Arsenal had sold club captain Cesc Fabregas, Emanuel Eboue, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy among others for a combined total of over £70m, the picture becomes clearer. Whilst experienced players like Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos all joined the club, none could boast the sort of winning mentality and background that would lift the Emirates Stadium towards past glories.
Although Wenger had always sought out young and talented raw players and developed them to the point where they’d lead Arsenal to successes on the pitch, the fact that the project had been reset to start from Day Zero meant that the players signed in the period 2005-2012 would not be supplementing an established winning group such as those Wenger inherited when he took over at Highbury as well as those he had nurtured to winning the league title as the “Invincibles”. This was a significant factor that inhibited the new group’s development. If one adds the fact that the lack of success on the pitch had a knock-on effect where the said young players would not realize their peak potential at Arsenal, instead choosing to experience that in a new team, then the blow for Wenger would be doubly painful and would virtually deem his “Third Project” a failure, based upon those two inter-related factors. The 2011/12 season would be one of internal strife for Wenger and a sort of interim period between projects. Question marks were raised about his position for the first time but by the end of the season he had arguably silenced those critics to a point, at least temporarily.
Winning the Alternative Premier League
Whilst it may be of no consolation to Gunners supporters, had the Premier League table been re-calibrated to be based upon a points per pound spent analysis, then Arsenal would have been league champions during the 2007/8 and 2009/10 seasons. This analysis was done using the m£XIR Analysis undertaken by Transfer Price Index. It provides interesting further reading on the relative successes that Arsene Wenger’s side have had in every respect other than winning trophies during the “Third Project”.
Admitting Past Mistakes
Whilst Arsene Wenger has not publicly and unequivocally admitted that the attempt to build his “Third Project” was a failure, steps he has taken during the 2012/13 season suggest that he has done so, at least, privately. The reasons established above already highlighted how Wenger’s policy had been undermined both by himself, through distancing the gap from experience to youth too quickly, as well as through a by-product of failing to be successful on the pitch (probably more so than not being able to compete financially). Consequently, Wenger became unable to retain the same sort of players that he had been purchasing as youngsters during his tenure as Arsenal manager to the point of them realizing their potential whilst at the club, instead of at their next club. Almost every major player that has left Arsenal during the 2005-12 period has gone on to win trophies at their new clubs, many if not all, experiencing winning for the first time during their careers.
However, during the 2012/13 pre-season, Wenger’s policy shifted once again. Firstly, on the back of the shock of losing 3 key members of his starting line-up the previous summer and only reacting to replace them during the latter stages of the transfer window, Arsenal would, this time, makee their forays into the transfer window quite early. They brought in Lukas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Podolski is an experienced German international who is almost certain to become Germany’s record goal scorer if he stays free from injury. He has 2 third place finishes in the World Cup with Germany, along with a runners-up spot in the European Championship. He’s also lifted both the Bundesliga and German Cup during his stint at Bayern Munich. He has just finished his best goal scoring return in the same league where Papiss Cisse shone, before joining Newcastle United.
Giroud, other other hand, has just won Ligue 1 with Montpellier where he finished top scorer of the league as well as being called up for France’s Euro 2012 squad. Worryingly, he has only scored 1 goal in 10 internationals. Podolski, currently 26, and Giroud, who will be 26 next month, are at an age where they should experience their peaks at the club. Wenger’s biggest coup, though, was without doubt the signing of Malaga and Spain maestro Santi Cazorla. Equally adept on the wing or in an attacking midfield role, the Spaniard is a World and European champion, so the winning mentality is definitely written into his psyche. At 27, he, too, should be entering the prime of his career. His passing quality had seen him called out to be heir to Xavi in the Spanish national team. Furthermore, he is possibly the most established world class player Wenger has ever signed, and probably also the club have since Dennis Bergkamp, not overlooking the fact that most of Wenger’s signings joined raw and with unfulfilled potential including players like Fabregas, Nasri and Robin van Persie.
Ridding the Rotten Core of the Third Project
Another big shift in Wenger’s approach this summer has been the lack of “fight” he has put up in letting go some of his players. In the past, the Frenchman had been quite resistant to his star players wanting to leave. This summer he sanctioned the sale of club captain van Persie as well as Alex Song, to Manchester United, in a bitterly sour blow to supporters, as well as Barcelona, respectively. Once again, Wenger received excellent transfer fees for both, as he has always done when he’s sold his star players.
However, one might argue that having privately admitted defeat in his project, Wenger did not resist two of the ever-presents of that project leaving, especially considering the fact that they, like many Arsenal supporters, had lost faith in the project. Even though Wenger is seemingly turning the leaf over, it may have been too late to re-embed new found belief to convince van Persie that a trophy would be in the offing. In the case of Song, question marks over his motivation had been raised in recent times and getting a fee of circa £15 million for a player who not many, if any at all, would consider world class, is some achievement for Arsenal.
From that original core of players that were almost ever-presents in the 7 year dry spell that Arsenal experienced, Theo Walcott is one of the last remaining members. He’s been hesitant to sign a new contract too and with Wenger’s new found ruthlessness, do not be surprised if the inconsistent winger is sold before the end of the season. Walcott has been one of the players who has arguably received the most support from Wenger throughout his inconsistent career and probably owes him a certain degree of loyalty. However, even if he is sold, the question remains would Arsenal truly miss him?
Arsene Wenger’s “Third Project” clearly failed. Even the Frenchman reluctantly agreed to this principle, at least privately. Whilst Wenger has continued to expand the club’s coffers as well as make big profit on players he signs, develops and sells off, it has seen Arsenal fall further behind the leading clubs in Europe.
Wenger’s main falling grace has been the fact that, contrary to the past, he’s been unable to develop his signings in a winning environment, where winning breeds confidence as well as ability. His signings have grown frustrated at the lack of honors at a time when they would be approaching their peaks and lose faith in the club’s project just when they are approaching their peaks and probably rightfully so. It had created a never-ending vicious cycle. The Frenchman probably did not envisage the importance of the experienced core that he held at Arsenal during the creation of his first and second groups of champions, culminating in the Invincible side.
However, this summer has seen a shift from Wenger. Even though, the club’s transfer activity continues to place them as net sellers, shrewd signings of 3 established players who have experienced winning at the highest level, bringing in a necessary mentality and leadership into a dressing room already disenchanted, will be uplifting. The next phase of this policy has been the sale of key ingredients from the failed project. Van Persie and Song have already left and so has Almunia. Nicklas Bendtner is on his way out and Theo Walcott may follow suit unless he commits to the manager’s new project. Arsenal arguably no longer have any more big “stars” from the previous project remaining. Vermaelen is the closest they have to one and he only joined during the latter end of that project. He has been made club captain and that does not bode well if history is a reflection.
Nevertheless, Wenger is still in the market for players and at the time of publishing this he was close to confirming the signing of Turkish international Nuri Şahin, a former Bundesliga winner with Dortmund during a season in which he was named the Player of the Year in Germany. His signature could be the missing piece to the puzzle which catapults Arsenal back into the mix of challenging for trophies in England.
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As we look back over the past 3 weeks worth of Euro 2012 action, in a tournament where the 4-2-3-1 and variations of it dominated the tactical approach, one has to highlight some of the players and teams that deserve to be recognized and name those who fell from the limelight. The Poland/Ukraine event was one of the first major summer football tournaments to play out under the backdrop of strong social media coverage, as supporters and fans never felt closer to the action, even if they were on the other side of the world.
The tournament started on June 8 when one of the hosts, Poland, took on Euro 2004 winners Greece. During that year, the Greeks beat hosts Portugal in the opening game. This time around they would not be as lucky or as dominant as Borussia Dortmund’s three Polish players, Robert Lewandowski, Lucas Piszczek and Jakub Błaszczykowski starred in a 2-1 victory. The former scored the opening goal whilst Błaszczykowski scored the winner after the Greeks had equalized in the second half. It would turn out that the opening victory would be invaluable for the hosts as they would go into their final game against Czech Republic needing a win after being tied with the Russians on 4 points. Both sides would go on to progress into the Quarter Finals with the Russians, and the ever impressive Roman Shirokov, beating the Greeks 2-0 and finishing as group winners.
In Group B, also known as the “Group of Death”, at least one of 3 traditional power weights would be eliminated. Whilst it was expected that things would go to the wire, the Portuguese national team and their manager Paulo Bento would go into the final group game facing an uphill struggle, which would prove insurmountable. The Germans, surprisingly beaten by the Oranje in their second game, would comfortably qualify with 6 points, but it would not be enough to overhaul the Dutch national side, who powered through with a fresh-looking Ibrahim Afellay tormenting opposition defenders on one wing and Bayern Munich’s Arjen Robben doing the same on the other. The Barcelona winger, Afellay, could have been on his way out of his club but with the tournament he has had, its unlikely that Tito Vilanova would let him go on the cheap. Bert van Maarwijk was blessed with having a player in the caliber of Rafael van Der Vaart coming off the bench to play in a deep lying play-maker role in the second halves of games, giving the Dutch extra class and control in the middle.
Defending champions Spain would continue to struggle breaking down opponents and scoring goals. They would have to rely on solitary goals to beat Croatia and Italy and would top the group despite being held by Ireland. The much hyped Italy vs Trapattoni duel would be a deciding game in the group but Mario Balotelli and Claudio Marchisio scored goals to give the Italians a 2-1 win and confirm their qualification to the Quarter Finals. The Irish went out despite losing only once. Slaven Bilic bowed out as Croatia manager disappointingly at rock bottom.
Roy Hodgson took a page out of Chelsea’s page in his approach to matches. Whilst this was expected against a rampant France side, during the sides opening match of the group, it was received less well by England supporters, more so than the media, during England’s matches against Ukraine and Sweden. Despite the safety first approach, England bowed out disappointingly scoring just 2 goals in the 3 matches, with Andy Carroll and the controversial John Terry scoring them. Laurent Blanc’s France side were the most impressive side of all in the group stage with Frank Ribery and Karim Benzema starring as they took a clean sweep and topped the group with 9 points. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s Sweden proved to be the consistent tournament side as they once again made an impact and finished 2nd to qualify. Zlatan’s deeper play-maker position, similar to a role he has played with Milan during last season, proved to be fruitful for the national side. Ukraine could not match their co-hosts exploits and bowed out at the group stages with their leaky defence proving to give forward players Yevhen Konoplyanka, Andriy Yarmolenko and Andriy Shevchenko too much work to do.
As the tournament wore on in the Quarter Finals, Jogi Loew’s Germany began to hit levels that they had been expected to reach pre-tournament. Mario Gomez, whose scoring exploits off the bench earlier in the tournament earned him a start ahead of Miroslav Klose against Russia, justified his selection by scoring another goal in a dominant German victory. Shirokov would score again for Russia but this time it would be in vain. In the second Quarter Final, Spain would be pitted against Sweden. Vincente Del Bosque’s side were looking to make it 3-major tournament triumphs in a row, but would find strong opposition from the Swedes, until the game turned on its head when captain and talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic bowed out of international football with a red card. Jordi Alba, impressive at left back and soon to be officially confirmed as a Barcelona player, teed off the vibrant Fernando Torres for the second goal as Spain went on to win 3-1.
In the next Quarter Final, hosts Poland’s fairy tale run would end against the impressive Dutch side led by Robin van Persie’s brace. The 18 year old Jetro Willems continues to impress at left back having been a surprise selection at the time the squads were named in May. Finally, perennial rivals France and Italy would face each other yet again. The marauding right-back Mathieu Debuchy would give two assists as Samir Nasri and Adil Rami scored goals to give France a place in the final 4 and stretch their unbeaten run further.
In the Semi Finals, Germany and Spain would face-off yet again in a major tournament. In what would prove to be the game of the tournament, the Germans would finally emerge victorious through a winner by Bayern Munich’s Thomas Muller in extra time. Once again, the Spaniards found it difficult to add width to their game in a match that closely resembled some of Barcelona’s lower points from the previous season. Despite bringing on Pedro and Jesus Navas, Spain failed to overturn a 2-1 deficit late into the game and would not go on and defend their European title. In the other match, France and Holland would face each other for a place in the Final. The French led by the sublime Ribery would prevail 2-1, having been up 2-0 at half time.
July 1st. Olympic Stadium Kiev. The 31st and final match of the last 16-team European Championships. Germany looking to win their first major trophy since 1996 would face France, arguably the most impressive side at Euro 2012. Six months before the tournament started, the French would not have been considered a serious threat whilst the Germans were neck and neck with the Spaniards as favorites. But how time changes it all. Loew’s side wanted to culminate the renaissance of German football, which started with Jurgen Klinsmann, with a major trophy. The French would put up an excellent fight but Ribery, Nasri and Benzema would run out of steam at the final hurdle as Germany would finally win that elusive trophy, after their 2-1 win.
Team of Euro 2012
Neuer – Debuchy, Badstuber, Rami, Alba – Shirokov, Schweinsteiger, Kroos – Robben, Ribery, Benzema
Lloris, Lahm, Marchisio, Błaszczykowski, Afellay, Gomez, Lewandowski
Did Themselves Proud
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Disclaimer: I really don’t know what will happen next season. Tito Vilanova’s reign at Barcelona might end in utter disaster after a 5-0 defeat to Real Madrid in the first Clasico of the season and Sandro Rosell’s supposed dream might come true and “Big Phil” Scolari will take over on an interim basis until Muricy Ramalho becomes Barça coach in 2013, bringing in Neymar and Paulo Ganso as key signings, as Big Phil moves upstairs as Sporting Director. It might also end at the other end of the spectrum and Tito may become even more successful than Pep Guardiola ever was, if “bettering” his era is even remotely possible. This article is not a prophecy or prediction, but will try to objectively analyze why Tito Vilanova was appointed over candidates such as Ernesto Valverde or André Villas-Boas in a decision that no one, other than Pep, Andoni Zubizaretta and Rosell, knew about.
FC Barcelona took an extraordinary decision this week to replace their most successful coach in history with Tito Vilanova, someone who hasn’t coached a top division club anywhere ever. The decision is further surprising because it was stated, in the Spanish press, that one of the reasons pushing Guardiola to resign at the end of the season was Vilanova’s health. Tito had a tumor removed from his mouth and therefore his health was always a lingering issue over the season. As an example, he couldn’t join the team on their trip to Japan for the Club World Cup. However, looking towards the challenges ahead, which Barcelona face in replacing Pep Guardiola whilst maintaining their winning and convincing* form of the previous years, this decision makes more sense.
There are 3 pillars to Barcelona’s success over the short and long term future:
1) Make sure Lionel Messi stays happy
After the Champions League Final in 2011, Guardiola was asked about how Barcelona can continue their success and maintain Messi’s excellence. His answer was short and precise, “make sure he is happy”. Messi might be a genius, arguably the best player over the past 20 years, one of the all time greats and deserving of all the plaudits you read every week. However, Messi is also a “difficult” character. The difficulty comes from him being a very introverted person, who does not speak too much and his silence, not from his motivation for football or anything specific in particular. If Messi doesn’t feel well mentally, or he is not happy, or is frustrated as evident once in a while on the pitch, he won’t perform. There have been actions taken by the club in order to make Messi happy. Signing Javier Mascherano and the contract extension given to Gaby Milito are two clear examples, but the signings of his old friends Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas might have also been motivated by keeping Messi happy. Whoever was going to replace Guardiola would have needed to understand Messi and make sure he can get the maximum out of him. There might just be no one better to do this than the guy who knows him longest, the guy who coached him(as well as Cesc and Pique) when he was 14 years old and the person who was first to know about Messi’s goalscoring abilities. Maybe both Valverde and Villas-Boas would have been able to get along with Messi as well, but there’s almost a guarantee that Messi won’t have problems with Tito Vilanova.
2) Make sure success-ion and the La Masia philosophy continues
A lot of key players at Barça are coming into the twilight of their career, notably Puyol and Xavi. A couple of players are entering the best years of their career, Fabregas and Pique being the examples. There’s also a great generation of Masia “products” coming through the ranks or already there, notably Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa, Marc Bartra and Sergi Roberto. The idea of succession, bringing up players through the ranks, as well as the idea that the current playing philosophy the team upholds continue are key to the future success of the brand/sect/club called FC Barcelona. It’s arguable whether this is good or bad. Some might have the idea that football needs new influences and not altering your formula and relying too much on similar players is a mistake. However, this would ignore the fact that all of the players coming through from La Masia are different in one way or another. Sergi Roberto, for instance, is not the next Xavi or Fabregas, as he plays much more direct, is more a threat from the second line and prefers to move with the ball at his feet more than in any other way. If we take the recent examples of wingers coming through the ranks, Tello is not Cuenca and neither of them is Pedro, but they are all different players with different characteristics. The key to a successful La Masia policy is to know the players coming through, their characteristics as well as the needs of the first team squad in terms of which type of player should be integrated in order to add something new and different.
The La Masia policy wouldn’t work and make sense if Barcelona would allow players without the necessary quality to play just because they are from the youth ranks. It would put the whole policy in jeopardy. Instead, the key is to know which players have the necessary quality and which positions need to be filled from outside. That will only work with a coach who works for the long-term even, over the short-term period (as all coaching periods are these days), and who knows the youth teams well. While AVB seemed to know the Barcelona youth teams too, as his signing of Oriol Romeu suggests, he might have given up long-term interest over the short-term future of the club and went for the easy way, especially given the fact that he was burned once by following the alternative during his experience at Chelsea.
Finally, in Cesc and Pique, there are two players who are the natural successors of Puyol and Xavi both on and off the pitch, despite having different characteristics, again both on and off the field. With Cesc and Pique, the key will be to involve them more in the squad and simply load more responsibility onto them. Pique might be seen as some kind of rich celebrity party boy, but his passion for the club, his position as a team leader and his competitiveness are also beyond any doubt. Again, maybe the best idea would be to make sure the guy who knows La Masia and La Masia graduates best do the job.
3) Keep Guardiola at the club
How do you keep Pep at the club without him actually being at the club? You could replace him with his footballing twin brother. Guardiola and Vilanova share the same footballing ideas and philosophy, with the main difference being Vilanova seems more calm and relaxed. Guardiola is the Barcelona player who has been sent off more than any other other but not because of tackles but rather largely for arguing with referees and getting sent off for dissent. Vilanova, as his interviews, behavior and body language suggest, is much calmer than Pep, except maybe when he faces Jose Mourinho’s finger. This might have been a problem if Barcelona players needed motivation or a strong hand to accept the leadership of the coach, but remember that they have already been convinced and converted to the “Barcelona belief” by Pep. Tito doesn’t need to do anything in that respect, but what he needs to do is to guide the ship and keep the footballing ideas of Pep alive. In theory, he should have very little of the usual problems assistant managers have when they need to replace the first team coach with regards to respect and authority. So again, Vilanova, more than anyone else, makes sense in terms of an appointment. Furthermore, since he appears to be a much more calm and collected person, maybe that’s exactly the Guardiola version the team now needs. Maybe the players would do well with a manager who keeps the tactical and ideological approach but is a bit less tense, which Guardiola was, especially over the 2011/12 season.
With all that said, success for Vilanova is far from guaranteed, failure might lead to an implosion and Barcelona returning to their turn of the century self or even worse, to the eighties era. One should be aware that Barça is a snakes-pit with lots of vested interests by different groups and while battling a Madrid empire with all their media power is already difficult and tiresome, Barcelona has its fair share of internal strife and enemies through different political groups, such as Group Godo, a powerful media group in Catalonia, who have their own interests to follow and want their share of the power. Guardiola not only had to fight Madrid and the Madrid press, who he called “Central Lechera”, but he also had enough internal enemies in Catalonia, people who, during his time as a player, came up with rumors about his sexuality and ran stories about him being HIV positive. Tito Vilanova has a huge task coming up and it’s far from easy. However, he can be sure of the support of his Sporting Director and the whole squad. He is assured the moral support of Pep and he knows himself that he doesn’t have to change too much from the current squad and that no one expects radical changes as a tool to cement his own legacy, something Villas-Boas tried to do and failed at. After all, Tito is Pep’s twin brother and no one expects him to be anyone else.
*As they say in Spain, it’s not only about winning(vencer) but convincing(convencer) people of your superiority and style. For Barcelona, the second has always been as important as the first, as there is no winning without convincing. This might also have been the explanation as to why the Madrid press and Real Madrid are particularly hostile over recent years towards Barcelona and run ridiculous amounts of conspiracy theories.
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In general, Marti Perarnau is not only one of the best Spanish journalists, but also the best source anywhere with regards to information about Barcelona. His article on Cesc and why his signing was done can be found here(although only in Spanish). It’s highly recommended to visit his blog, also only in Spanish.
A good article by Simon Kuper on some tactical aspects of Barcelona
An old article by Pep Guardiola in El Pais from 2007 that was only about a cup game in a lousy season but that explains the importance of “feeling” and knowing the history and what to play for
Jonathan Wilson on why great teams come to an end for the Guardian
Football is in an era where live television, Internet and, most recently, social media coverage mean that virtually everything is covered from all angles. There is a school of thought that there are no more surprises in the world of football, especially when it comes to tactics. The World Cup used to be place where managers pitted wits against each other and displayed tactical “evolutions” which would go on to trickle down towards club football until the next show-and-tell four years later. Each country brought a bit of what they’d been undertaking domestically over recent years and displayed it in front of world cameras. Had there been similar coverage to what we have today then the impact of the “Mighty Magyars” tactical performance against England at Wembley in 1953 would’ve been diminished as it would have been noted earlier. The WM, the Ajax model, the libero, the 4-2-3-1, the “Makelele role” and the “false 9″ provide a range of tactical cornerstones and innovations in the history of football. Now, we’ve been introduced to what can, and very well should, be another cornerstone. We’re going to call it “the Busquets role”.
In 2009, Jonathan Wilson, author of Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics, spoke about the potential return of the sweeper in modern football. Whilst taking that argument as a basis, renowned tactical expert Michael Cox, of Zonalmarking, stated that due to the popularity of one-striker formations, the modern “sweeper” may not be the spare man pushing up into midfield leaving a 1 vs 1 situation, but rather a defensive midfielder dropping into defence. This would effectively split the central defenders as the said player slots into the middle, whilst the “full backs” already starting a little further ahead than their central defensive colleagues, would have further license to bombard forward. At the time, Cox theorized that a crucial aspect of Pep Guardiola’s tactical success in overloading the midfield, pressing his opponents and keeping possession, had seen Sergio Busquets, the defensive midfielder, drop into defence, pushing up Eric Abidal and especially Dani Alves into extremely advanced positions. This allowed Busquets to drop into space, dictate possession and spray the ball across from the back. His performances and role for Barcelona are often overlooked by people with less of an eye for the smallest details defining success. Cox labelled Busquets role as a traditional “center half”, a term used to describe a player dropping into central defence from midfield, before it was falsely mirrored, largely by British “pundits”, to reflect a center back.
Whilst on paper Barcelona may line up 4-3-3, in practice it has become much harder to decipher their formation. However, by using an analysis of average positions, it is safer to call their formation a 3-4-3 (if not a 2-1-4-3) system with Busquets as the traditional center half between two central defenders. As a consequence, both full backs are able to play the role of wide midfielders and sometimes even wingers. Sometimes, if Guardiola picks Puyol, Pique and Mascherano as 3 members of the “back four” in defence, the remaining full back, likely to be Dani Alves, pushes up to a winger’s role, whilst Busquets holds his ground next to a more disciplined midfielder such as Seydou Keita, effectively forming a belt of three as a second line in front of the back three. Barcelona used this shape against Milan in the Champions League Quarter Final First Leg, where they virtually lined up as a 3-3-3-1. In this instance, Busquets continues to provide cover but not necessarily as the “center half” which he usually does. Incidentally, its the presence of Javier Mascherano, a natural defensive midfielder, in central defence, which frees up Busquets and gives the tactical flexibility to Barcelona. In either shape, Barcelona are able to free up their wide players and provide adequate cover in defence too. Only Xavi and Dani Alves pass the ball more per game than Sergio Busquets does from his center half position.
Marcelo Bielsa’s Athletic Bilbao has played some of the best football in Europe this season. Even though they are on the verge of making it two cup final appearances for the season, the lack of depth in the squad has meant Athletic has not been able to fight on three fronts, without hampering their league form. Nevertheless, one of the cornerstones of their play has been the placement of Javi Martinez, arguably a world class central midfielder, in central defence, probably more a la Mascherano than Busquets, but still worth a mention. Can we classify him as a center half?
Interestingly, whilst, on paper, Athletic have largely set up as 4-3-3 this season, in reality, they play a 3-4-3 (or 2-1-4-3 to be precise) similar to Barcelona in many ways. Javi Martinez plays at center back but the “center half” role is largely filled by Ander Iturraspe, who drops in from central midfield. Javi Martinez plays as more of a conventional center back with passing ability, an added bonus. His reading of the game and athleticism like Mascherano’s has allowed him to fit in at the back rather effortlessly. The end result is the same, as Iturraspe’s presence allows Aurtenexte and Iraola to bombard forward with the “right back” effectively playing as a winger. However, the consequence of playing someone with Javi Martinez’s passing ability in defence is that he is able to dictate play from deep. He averages over 50 passes a match and touches the ball more than any other Athletic player. Furthermore, the space and time that he has on the ball helps him to confirm his accuracy, where once again he leads his teammates. Just to illustrate the difference it has made to his game as opposed to the past when he has played in central midfield, his passing accuracy is up by 10% whilst he is averaging 20 more passes a game compared to his performances last season. It must be stated that Bielsa’s Bilbao side implement a much more passing game as opposed to the more direct approach of last season, however, Javi Martinez’s coming of age as an individual in his new role must not be downplayed either.
For Mascherano, whilst he can’t expect to be the biggest passer of the ball at Barcelona, he does average 20 and 25 passes a game higher than Pique and Puyol, the other regular center backs, respectively, and that is another significant statistic. He may have been labelled as someone who can’t “pass the Barcelona way” after joining them from Liverpool, but the faith that Guardiola has kept in him is reciprocated by his performances, even from a passing perspective. One positive of playing players such as Javi Martinez and Mascherano in orthodox central defensive roles is that their reading of the game and intelligence from midfield is translated to higher interceptions and successful tackles than anyone else in their respective squads, hence winning the ball back and getting on it far more than other counterparts. The bottom line is their passing statistic. But as its clear, there is a whole chain of thought, by their managers, and events that lead one there.
The Busquets experimented has been exported abroad too. In Serie A, Roma’s Luis Enrique, with obvious strong influences from Barcelona, has sought to play an attacking 4-3-3 formation. Pressured to include Francesco Totti, Luis Enrique has varied his 4-3-3 somewhat resembling a diamond-shape in the middle with Totti or at times Erik Lamela, dropping behind two strikers at the top end. At the other end, Danielle De Rossi has played in the Busquets role dropping in between the two center backs, Juan and Simon Kjaer, and dictated play from deep. His reading of the game has been vital in allowing further risks to be taken by Roma’s players in advancing forward. Whilst results have been mixed, the same cannot be said of De Rossi’s performances. Arguably, Roma’s best and most consistent performer this season, he also leads them in passes, interceptions and is amongst their best tacklers. He also plays 1 key pass per game (WhoScored), which is impressive for someone who is playing so deep. According to James Horncastle, a leading European football writer and expert in Italian football, the Busquets role is labelled the “Parachute” in Italy. Horncastle states that, according to De Rossi himself, Luis Enrique gave him tapes of Oriel Romeu and not Busquets when explaining the role to the Italian. Horncastle added “De Rossi plays this role. Its the keystone of Roma’s play under Luis Enrique. Without it, they are a different side”.
Interestingly, De Rossi has also played as a center back on a couple of occasions, against Juventus in December, as well as Novara this past weekend. Whilst he performed admirably against Juventus and scored a goal, he was less influential in terms of dictating play. Nevertheless, Roma looked more solid and drew 1-1 at home. He averaged between 25 and 35 fewer passes compared to his season average on both occasions of playing in central defence. Nevertheless, it allows Roma to take extra attacking liberties. They virtually played as a 2-3-3-1-1 against Novara. However, the inability of Fernando Gago to provide better defensive cover a la Busquets or even Iturraspe means that Roma will not benefit by playing Danielle De Rossi in central defence as much as they potentially could. This is further confirmed by the influence that he holds by playing in the Parachute for Roma. As much as Luis Enrique has tried to bring in the Barcelona-system (2-1-4-3), he has been let down largely due to the parts (players) not fitting the system as quickly as he would have hoped.
When you implement the Busquets role, you will need two attacking full backs who are able to provide width as well as undertake their fair share of defending as a prerequisite. Adriano, Dani Alves and Andoni Iraola fulfill those duties for their respective clubs. Luis Enrique has been unable to nail down the right players for those roles. Jose Angel and Aleandro Rosi, whilst talented, have needed time to adapt to their roles, whilst Rodrigo Taddei has been converted to a full back this season and has not been able to produce an acceptable transition back to defence yet. Nevertheless, De Rossi’s role and performances has never been in question. When in full flow and everything falling into place, De Rossi’s performances in between the two central defenders provides both cover as well as passing tempo, setting every attack into motion. One such example was when Roma played Inter Milan in February and came out 4-0 winners. De Rossi dominated the game on both fronts, whilst the Roma shape and flow was as disciplined as it was beautiful. De Rossi made 99 passes, the most on the pitch, and the team kept the right width, shape and positions on the field, perfectly illustrating a 3-4-3 (2-1-4-3) formation, as it should be.
In the forum of tactical “innovation”, managers are always looking for ways to gain an advantage over the opposition. This has led to the reincarnation of the center half. The benefits of having a center half in front of the defence instead of a traditional destroyer, anchor or even an Andrea Pirlo-esque deep-lying playmaker is that in many ways it blends facets of those roles into one. This allows more attacking full backs (and in some ways requires them more than allows for them), as well as the ability to flood the midfield and dominate possession with up to seven players (usually in a 2-1-4-3 shape) outnumbering the opposition. Spain has been the setting for the most experiments when it comes to the re-emergence of the role, as well as other variants of the re-inventing traditional midfielders. We’ve talked about Busquets and Iturraspe as well as Mascherano and Javi Martinez who have been turned into ball-playing center backs. It is no coincidence that Guardiola and Bielsa share similar values and visions on football. In Italy, Luis Enrique has done the same with Danielle De Rossi. He has played in both the Busquets role, or Parachute as it is referred to in Italy, as well as at times in the Mascherano one. His influence and performances have never been better throughout his career. Roberto Guana of Cesena has also played as the Parachute this season. However, as we’ve found out in order to get the best out of playing a center half, the set up, shape, and movement must follow suit too. Otherwise, one man may shine more than the team does, which would be, ultimately, fruitless in the pursuit of success. The English Premier League, Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have yet to delve into experimenting with such a role but if one had to pick a player who the role would fit like a glove then Rennes Yann M’Vila would be that player. His intelligence, reading of the game and passing ability provide him with all the necessary ingredients to benefit his next club side. Food for thought for a club like Arsenal.
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I would like to thank ESPN Soccernet’s GAMECAST services for providing key in-game diagrams that were used during the analysis above. With special thanks to work previously done by Jonathan Wilson and Michael Cox of Zonal Marking as well as conversations held with James Horncastle.
As we draw towards the tail end of the Spanish Primera División, Real Madrid continue to set the pace with what could be a record-breaking season. Leading their bitter rivals, Barcelona, by 8 points, they are on course to win their first title since 2007/8, and go on to record the most points ever made in a single La Liga season, as well as most away wins and overall goals. Looking at those stats, it is all the most impressive considering that Jose Mourinho’s Los Merengues are trailblazing at a time when experts are debating whether the current Barcelona side, under Pep Guardiola, is worthy of being considered the greatest club side ever on the back of their recent achievements.
If anyone claims to have the definitive answer as to why Barcelona trail Real Madrid by such a significant gap, they’re lying. With the smallest of margins deciding who wins what, it would be useful to look at a number of the “small marginal changes” that have occurred this season, in order to draw certain factual conclusions, without leaving room to speculation.
Possession and Tiki-Taka
That’s the name of the game for Barcelona. Its been a cornerstone of their success under Guardiola. They averaged just over 72% of the ball last season, but are currently averaging “only” 70% this time around. Yes, you read that right, only 70%! Whilst it may not seem like much, at the summit of the game the difference between great and perfect is slim, especially if it’s a backwards step. They’re currently averaging 68% possession away from home, which is 3.5% less than last season. In terms of pass success ratio, they’ve slightly dropped off to 89% from an incredible 90% success ratio.
Real Madrid, on the other hand, have increased their possession of the ball by 5% to 61%. Their pass accuracy has also increased to 85% from 83%. Whilst Barcelona’s slight drop-off may not seem significant, as they are having a “relatively” successful season in the league by most standards other than their own, in a league where “draws are the new defeats” the margins are tight. Real Madrid’s improvement is a sure sign towards becoming more dominant and ruthless.
Score Goals When They Matter
Last season, La Liga ended with Real Madrid losing the race by 4 points. They scored more goals than Barcelona to no avail. They even drew one less match than Barcelona had. However, the key statistic that cost Mourinho’s side was their failure to score goals in key moments. Simply put, Real Madrid failed to score in 6 out of their 38 matches. They drew 3 of those games and lost the other 3. In the tightest of leagues, the slightest margin counts big and despite Cristiano Ronaldo’s record-breaking 40 goals as well as the side scoring an amazing 102 goals, it proved costly. Barcelona only failed to score twice.
This season has seen Real Madrid become more ruthless in front of goal. After 26 rounds of games, they have only failed to score twice. In theory, they may fail to score in a number of games till the end of the season and that could very well cost them a title. Barcelona have failed to score in 3 matches, effectively 1 more time in 11 less matches. So it may not be as much about Barcelona’s failings as much as it is about Real Madrid rectifying one of their few “failings”.
A Game of Two Halves, or at least the Second Half
Barcelona are notoriously strong starters to matches. Turn on the TV 15 minutes late and its likely you have missed a goal or two. Last season, they were 8-0 (goals scored-goals conceded) during the first 15 minutes of matches, and they are just as dominant again this season with a 14-4 record in the early stages of games. In fact, Barcelona usually have matches sewn up by the end of the first half. They had a 42-8 record last season. This season, they have an identical first half record even though there are still 11 matches to go. That’s quite significantly different to Real Madrid who have been poor starters to matches, especially this season. They have an 8-6 record in the opening 15 minutes of games, even though, strikingly, they get stronger as the half goes on. Away from home, they’ve only conceded two goals in the first half of games all season long.
It’s in the second half of games where Barcelona have found trouble and Real Madrid have found extra gears. Barcelona have a relatively poor first 15 minutes of the second half with a 12-5 record, already conceding more goals during that period compared to the whole of last season. However, it’s the final 15 minutes of the game, away from home, when Barcelona are at their most vulnerable. They have an 11-8 record during that period. It may still be a “winning” record, but as stated numerous times before, in a league of fine margins the smallest elements can sway a title race. Last season, for instance, the champions had a 21-5 record away from home during the last 15 minutes. Real Madrid, on the other hand, perform even better in second halves of games. They have scored an amazing 53 goals in the second half, conceding only 13. Last season, they “only” scored 56 goals, whilst conceding 26. Even more impressive is the way Mourinho’s side close out matches. They have a 17-3 record in the last 15 minutes of matches, as opposed to the 21-9 accumulated through the whole of the previous campaign. Conceding so late against Malaga at home cost Real Madrid 2 valuable points, and the side will rue giving away a free-kick in a dangerous position in stoppage time.
Much credit must go to the mental strength that Mourinho has instilled into his players to keep on pushing until the final whistle. The levels of concentration they’ve kept has minimized individual errors late in games too. The hunger is also there to want more goals even when the game is won, a criticism which is sometimes, possibly unjustly, aimed at Barcelona.
Speaking about mental strength and concentration, Mourinho has instilled a “never say die” attitude in his players giving them the belief that they can come back from any deficit. Guardiola’s side have been relatively lax at times this season. They have twice lost half-time leads to end up drawing. Real Madrid almost always win when leading at half time, with Malaga being the only side in 2 years to avoid defeat at full time, after trailing at half time. Going back to last season, Barcelona, drew once and lost once after leading at half time, winning the other 21 occasions. Real Madrid, once again in resilience in the image of their manager, converted all 21 half-time leads to victories.
Even more surprisingly is how a team reacts to going a goal down. In Barcelona’s case, not too well. They have only won twice after conceding the first goal, drawing two and losing a further two. Real Madrid, on the other hand, lost only once after conceding the first goal as they recovered to win 7 times. They have also won by a one-goal margin on 6 occasions this season. Winning by one-goal is their most common type of victory. This is not say that they Real Madrid do not go on to romp opponents too. They have won by a margin of 3 goals or more in 13 matches, virtually half of their current La Liga games.
Every Barcelona and Real Madrid comparison has a Messi/Cristiano Ronaldo comparison at some point. Its pointless. There is nothing to add to what has already been said. Both players post incredible numbers and performances match after match. When everything is so tight between the two clubs, it may come down to one or two other players standing out more or less than they have before. But when we’re talking about almost 30 international players, consistency is usually a key constant. But not always.
Last season, Karim Benzema was on the verge of being let go of. He was even compared to a cat by his manager. Mourinho said he was overweight. He said he didn’t work hard enough. Nevertheless, he did end up scoring 15 goals, but at a key point of the season, Mourinho preferred to not play with Benzema even in an injury crisis. Gonzalo Higuain had an injury hit season too. It was largely hit and miss, but he ended up scoring 10 league goals. Between them, they started 36 matches in La Liga, and scored “only” 25 goals. Its a goal scoring record good enough at almost every club but not at Real Madrid and not when the margins are so close.
This season, Benzema, having shed a few pounds, and Higuain have had a healthy competition. What is more striking is that Mourinho has gotten both of them motivated and willing to rotate, largely irrespective of performance, as they’ve both been in fine form. They have started 29 league games between each other and have scored more than a goal a game, with a total of 31, a record, had it been owned by only one of them, on par with Messrs Messi and Ronaldo. Whenever one has tailed off the other has been ready to come on and make an impact.
Similarly, Angel Di Maria, has had an excellent season, even though he has virtually missed half of it. Despite starting only 12 matches, he’s already matched his goal/assist record from last year. He’d scored 5 and laid off another 13 before his injury, compared to 6 goals and 11 assists in 29 starts last year. Once again, Mourinho has managed to get an extra something from a player who had been criticized for his diving, play-acting and inability to perform consistently. His injury has meant that Kaka has gotten an unexpected opportunity and even though he isn’t the same player he was at his peak, he’s looked very useful for Real Madrid. In fact, Mourinho has said he’s never seen Kaka work harder for any team. He’s pitched in with 5 goals and 6 assists in only 14 starts this season.
On the other side of the spectrum, Barcelona have suffered with numerous injuries this season. Long-term victims include David Villa, Ibrahim Afellay and now, most worryingly, Eric Abidal requires a liver transplant. Carles Puyol has not been fully fit either and that has pressured Guardiola into selectively picking him for games, a fact which has not helped the captain gain consistency or hit top form. Alexis Sanchez, one of the club’s big summer signings, has only started 13 times, pitching in with 8 goals and 3 assists. Had he been fit throughout the season, he would’ve made Villa’s injury feel less influential. Going back to Puyol’s injury problems, even though they are nothing new, the main difference compared to last season was that Gerard Pique had been largely playing at the top of his game.
This season, though, Pique, has found himself at the center of huge criticism, due to his dip in form. A pre-season which was hampered by injury as well as questions about his concentration on the pitch have meant that Pique, more than anyone, has missed Puyol. Pique has started only 13 times this season (29 starts last season), less than half of all of Barcelona’s matches. Most of the time he has been out injured but on a few occasions, mostly recently, he has been kept out of the side, even when Puyol has not been available. His tackle, interception and clearance figures have all dropped compared to last season by 0.3, 0.7 and 1.2 per game respectively to stand at 1.4, 1.2 and 2.4 per game (WhoScored). Most strikingly he has made 24 less passes per game this season than last. Guardiola has been lucky to have Javier Mascherano step into central defence and perform so admirably. On performance, Mascherano is, arguably, in the La Liga Team of the Season. His figures, in contrast to Piques, stand at a 3.7 tackles (a league high for center backs), 3.7 interceptions and 2.2 clearances per game. Nevertheless, “losing” both Pique and Puyol this season has hurt Barcelona, and they have conceded more goals as a result. A further dip in form for Pedro has only been compensated by recent emergences of Isaac Cuenca and Cristian Tello, both ahead of schedule, as well as the goals which Cesc Fabregas has been scoring.
All in all, while Real Madrid have had players like Kaka and Callejon ready to step in for the likes of Di Maria without hampering the team’s performance, Barcelona have not been lucky through a series of injuries, as well as, what must be said, an over-rotation of some players by Guardiola for the first time. Burn-out after playing over 60 matches for 3 consecutive seasons may have finally caught up with them.
It is difficult to pin-point exactly what has been the catalyst for the relative shift in the fortunes of both clubs domestically and one must be wary when drawing conclusions. Despite the so-called “crisis” for Guardiola’s side, they convincingly beat Real Madrid in La Liga, after going behind with an early goal, picked up the Supercopa de España over Real Madrid in August 2011, won the European Supercup, the World Club Cup and knocked Mourinho’s side out of the Copa del Rey, with what included another away win in Madrid. Whilst Real Madrid have looked “better” against Barcelona this season than previously, the end result has largely been the same. Other than a nervous final 15 minutes at Camp Nou in the return leg of the Copa del Rey, where Real Madrid looked the more likelier side to net a winner, Barcelona have enjoyed another season with the upper hand in head-to-head meetings. Nevertheless, the capital club have been the more consistent side in the league due to some of the reasons highlighted above.
We’ve looked at what has changed more than why it’s changed because that would require deeper analysis over a longer period of time, possibly in the post-Mourinho and post-Guardiola periods. Nevertheless, two of the key themes of this article have been words like “relative” and “margin”. In what is an historic period for La Liga, the smallest of margins can be the difference between success and failure as Real Madrid found out last season, whilst Barcelona are finding out, to their dismay, now.
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When it comes to debating which of Europe’s football leagues is the “best”, there is never likely to be widespread consensus. Supporters of clubs in each of Europe’s top leagues, especially in Spain, England and Italy will be advocates for their leagues. Supporters in Germany would argue back that theirs is the most competitive. Supporters in France may argue back that there’s is the most open league. A choice of words could tip the argument on its head. From best to strongest, to most competitive, to most entertaining, advocates of each league will be able to have their way one way or the other. We don’t want to get involved in a subjective discussion about the merits of each league.
For our purposes, we will establish that strength is largely, if not wholly, indicated through success. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that the most telling indicator, and, importantly, only time when “leagues” come up against each other is during European football, in either the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League. Whilst, this may be subject to fluke or one-off results, over a period of years, a pattern or trend, which would be hard to dispute, would emerge. It is quite straightforward to highlight Europe’s “strongest” league through these parameters during respective eras of European football. That is not what we are trying to do, although, nevertheless it would, naturally, be highlighted during the course of the article.
Success does not necessarily begin and end with the lifting of the Champions League, but the overall performances of clubs in European competition. This season’s Champions League has seen critics of the Premier League highlight the plight of the English sides in Europe. Most people claim to have seen this coming for a few years. Others state that it is just a blip and things will be back to business as usual next season. However, in order to understand why there has been a fluctuation of “strength” in some of Europe’s top leagues, namely the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga, Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and the Eredivisie, we have looked at the relationship between spending and European performance since the 2002/3 season in order to draw potential conclusions or even parallels.
Spend the Money
Since the 2002/3 season, the English Premier League has been the biggest spending football league in the whole world let alone between the 6 leagues that we’ve analyzed. It has spent €6 billion, which is almost twice as much as the next biggest spenders, the Serie A. Needless to say, the Premier League has spent far more money than it has recouped in each of the seasons in question. La Liga and the Bundesliga are the other two leagues who have spent more than they’ve received each and every season during our analysis. Ligue 1 has made a profit in 6 of the 10 seasons at hand, whilst, the Eredivisie has made a loss only once, during the first season of the period. Serie A provides us with one of the most interesting patterns which we will go into further depth later during the article. It made significant profits between 2002/3 and 2004/5, coinciding with the period where superstars left Italy to play in Spain and England, as clubs faced financial constraints and bankruptcy, only to be hit with the Calciopoli scandal in 2006, which further damaged Italian football.
Some other interesting patterns that emerge include the Premier League’s increased spending season on season from 2002/3 until 2007/8, when it almost hit €1 billion. It then experienced back to back drops until a “resurrection”, during the 2010/11 season, was followed by another drop in spending during the current campaign. Another interesting development is that Serie A has out-spent La Liga during each of the past four seasons. Serie A and Ligue 1 are the only two leagues that did not experience their biggest spending seasons in 2007/8. The Italians broke their spending record during the current campaign.
The amount of money spent cannot illustrate, on its own, the pattern a league takes during a period of time. It would also be helpful to look at the “migration flows” into and out of the leagues in question. We’ve analyzed whether there was an influx or outflow of players during each season. Some of the telling points we’ve come across have included the fact that the Serie A has largely seen an outflow of players into other leagues, until the current season when it hit record numbers of bringing in players in a season. Serie A “bought” 231 more players than it transferred out of the league this season. This is the first time an influx has been in three digits in any of the leagues. What this demonstrates is that the Serie A has looked into making up for “lost time” as well as its previous dormant period by competing with the other big leagues for big players. It had seen more players leave than enter the league during the preceding 5 seasons. There is far more balance when it comes to the other leagues from season to season as visible from the table below.
Where the Money Goes
Having established which leagues have been spending the money during the last decade, as well as establishing the influx/outflow ratios during the said period, it may be pertinent to fill in the final piece of that picture by looking at where the money is going to as well as where the players are coming from.
The English Premier League, unsurprisingly, has a trade “deficit” with the other 5 leagues when it comes to dealing in transfers to and from. The intake from Spain to England is the most lucrative across Europe with the move across the Channel from France to the Premier League being the second most lucrative. La Liga follows in third place with its intake from the Premier League which comes in third in the overall table. The Italians love to shop in Spain, spending more in La Liga than anywhere else, but the Spaniards almost reciprocate that spending and the trade stands at parity. The Bundesliga’s favorite hunting ground is the Serie A whilst the Dutch-English and French-English provide the least balanced trade relationships.
In terms of numbers, more players move from Ligue 1 to the Premier League than through any other path. A close second is the players moving from Argentina to La Liga, followed by from Portugal to Spain.
Reap the Rewards?
When it comes to tasting consistent “success” in European football, the last decade has largely been dominated by English and Spanish clubs. The tables below highlight UEFA European co-efficient points per season as well as rankings from 2002/3 till the current, on-going, season. During that period, the Premier League has finished as the best performing “league” in European competition twice (and is currently leading this season too). It has only finished outside the top three once. It has bettered the other 5 leagues mentioned 4 times out of the previous 9 seasons, and may do so for a 5th time in 10 seasons by the end of the current campaign. La Liga has finished first twice and has never finished outside the top three. Its “golden period” during the past decade coincided with a time when Sevilla added its weight to Spain’s continental strength. The Bundesliga has cemented itself in the top four consistently over the past four seasons. Whilst Bayern Munich has been its notable representative in the Champions League, the strength in depth of Germany’s performance has largely been due to its clubs endeavors in the Europa League. This is a strong indicator of the competitive depth found within the Bundesliga.
The Bundesliga – Serie A clash, which eventually led to the Germans gaining a 4th Champions League spot at the expense of the Italians is as tight as ever. Serie A bettered the Bundesliga during the first five seasons, whilst the Bundesliga returned the favor during the previous five, including the current campaign. Effectively, this translates to mean that the Italians need to significantly improve their European performances especially in the Europa League where they have been especially dire if they are to loosen the German grip off that additional Champions League spot.
Value for Money
The beauty about football, probably more so than most other sports, is that on any given day almost any side can beat another, despite un-level playing fields brought upon by spending power, transfer budgets and wages. Watching sides like Levante, Monchengladbach, Montpellier and Swansea impress everyone in their respective leagues this season is testament that you can “succeed” even if you have microscopically smaller budgets than other sides. However, when it comes to football at the highest level, in the Champions League and Europa League, this argument gets transferred onto a bigger “league” stage. The Dutch, for example, have done themselves proud when it comes to performing in Europe when one looks at the spending their sides do in comparison to the other leagues.
The table above is self-explanatory as it details how many points each nation’s clubs would have accrued on a per season basis compared to their spending pattern during that given campaign. The Dutch league consistently punches above its weight and considering its export nature is really performing as well as one could perceive it to. The Premier League spends the most for the amount of points it gets, whilst the Bundesliga does relatively well in terms of its points per Euro spent, spending almost one-third of what the Premier League has to spend per every point. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that whilst the Dutch get “value for money”, the highest points that they have attained in Europe was 12.00 during the 2004/5 campaign. The Bundesliga has out-scored that figure 4 times, Ligue 1 twice, and the Premier League has scored more points during each of the past 7 seasons, including the current incomplete campaign, despite having two major sides knocked out in the group stages of the Champions League already. La Liga has never scored less than 12.437 during any of the past 10 seasons whilst Serie A has out-scored the Eredivisie’s figure 4 times. That puts things into perspective, with the reality that whilst a league may perform well in terms of the resources they’ve spent, the “success ceiling” will be limited past a certain point.
Looking at it from another angle, the graph below looks at things from the perspective of how many million Euros have been spent, per co-efficient point, and may be easier to relate to. Only on three occasions has the Premier League spent less per point than another league. On each of those occasions, including the current campaign, it has been the Serie A that has spent more per point. In terms of consistency and value for money at the highest level, one must not look past La Liga. Whilst not necessarily spending the most, their sides performances have remained consistent over the past decade. Whilst the Premier League has never spent less than 30 million Euros per point, La Liga has only spent that figure only twice during that period.
Direct Correlation between Spending and Succeeding?
Having illuminated many aspects of the argument, it is time to look at a graph designed to illustrate the direct relationship between league spending and European performance by that nation’s clubs. Looking closely at the graph a few realities are realized. The horizontal axis demonstrates the amount of money in millions of Euros whilst the vertical one establishes the UEFA co-efficient points.
1) The most recognizable trend is that the English Premier League sides perform better in Europe as their league spending increases. In other words, performances are better when spending is higher. Their points move upwards and to the right almost without disruption. The consistency of this breaks on a couple of occasions but as stated previously, “one-off” results and performances may vary but the overall pattern/trend over 10 seasons validates our point. The Bundesliga follows a similar model to that of the EPL. Its best performances in Europe have correlated to its biggest spending seasons. However, with a clear cap in its spending, its sides have had limited success past a certain level. No German side has won a European trophy during the period in discussion.
2) Ligue 1 sides seem to perform better when their league has spent less money during the transfer windows. This could suggest that retaining their squads and maintaining continuity is more influential in France when it comes to performance. Serie A also follows a similar model and argument. Money certainly does not equate to success in these two leagues. Furthermore, it may also suggest that a lot of the transfers do not work out over a period of time for the teams and players may be re-transferred sooner than expected. Although, this would require deeper analysis.
3) La Liga falls somewhere in between the two models, probably closer to the Ligue 1/Serie A one. Again, retaining squads and creating “eras” aided La Liga sides during the past decade. Sevilla and Barcelona are two of their success stories during that time. Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Espanyol are three other sides that played in European finals during the past decade.
4) Annual expenditure of approximately 200 million Euros will largely restrict a league to collecting under 12 co-efficient points during the corresponding campaign.
If history is an indicator then a country’s performance in European club football plays a significant role in establishing the “strongest” league of different time periods. La Liga dominated during the 1960′s until English football took over in the late 1960′s for approximately a decade when the Bundesliga went to the fore. This lasted until the mid 1980′s when before a brief return of English football to the tip of European club football, it would be the Serie A, which would go on to dominate for over a decade, almost without interruption, until the early 2000′s. La Liga would then return to the top of the performance charts for the first time in forty years, until the Premier League got its heyday near the end of the decade. At the moment, the balance is poised between the Premier League and La Liga. Whilst we have just described overall European performances, it is clear that this closely correlates to people’s perception of the strongest football leagues during those eras as well.
Money has come to play a huge role in European football during the last twenty years. Serie A dominated continental competitions during the 1990′s when they spent more than they had. It came back to hurt the Italians and they have yet to recover from it, even though signs are there that as money and players begin to pour into Serie A again, Italian football may begin to play a more key role in continental competitions in the near future. The English Premier League has been the biggest spenders over the last decade, however, the level of success attained is probably less than what the kind of money should have warranted. As top English sides begin to stall in Europe this season, there is talk of spending sprees for Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City in the coming summer, but is there money to spend, with the Financial Fair Play rules coming into play next season? Considering the fact that the Premier League sides taste more success as they spend more, this could be an obstacle that may allow Italian football back into the equation and turn the two-way tussle between La Liga and the EPL into a three-way.
It is clear that league spending plays an integral role in bringing “relative” success for its clubs in continental competition. However, there are two important ceilings to consider. Firstly, unless a certain financial threshold is broken, thought to be approximately €200 million, it is difficult to surpass certain levels of “success”. However, at the same time, on the flip side, spending more and investing in players, will likely move a nation’s clubs only up to the next level in terms of “relative success”. Looking at the previous table, leagues that spent between €400 million and €600 million largely fell into a central zone gaining between 10 and 16 co-efficient points per season. Moving past that level depends on a number of other factors which seem to have been more prevalent in La Liga.
This could imply that a model which is a hybrid between continuity and transfer expenditure may be the best strategy in ensuring “further” success past a certain point. Squads are retained for a longer period in La Liga, as sporting directors play a key role in player recruitment. The transfer policy does not change from manager to manager, unlike what happens in the Premier League. There is more emphasis on coaching than management. There is a far more significant turn-over of players in the EPL than any of the other leagues discussed whilst their most successful sides during the past decade have been Manchester United and Chelsea, who, notably, retained a strong nucleus of the same players over a long period of time. As the EPL re-examines its financial prowess at the end of the season, it may be worthwhile for the clubs to take a closer look at the Spanish model in order to create more consistent European performances across a wider range of clubs.
A special thanks to Mahdi Rahimi, whose help in compiling some of the analysis/graphs was immense. We hope to be seeing some work from Mahdi in the near future. If you would like to get acquainted with him please follow him on Twitter @liaBIGPUNnov. Majority of raw transfer data has been collated due to the great work from the people at Transfermarkt.
If you like the authors work please Follow @BabakGolriz
Looking back over the years you would find it difficult to recall when was the last time that Real Madrid and Spain captain Iker Casillas was not “number 1″ whenever he’s been available for selection. Since making his club debut in 1999, he’s effectively been first choice at Real Madrid, from the tender age of 18. He went on to make his international debut only a few days after representing Real Madrid in the successful 2000 Champions League Final, having just 19 years of age. It would be the summer of 2002 that he would be promoted to first choice in the national side, starting off at the World Cup in Japan/Korea. He hasn’t looked back since. He’s set himself up as a constant in the ever-evolving institution at Real Madrid.
At international level, though, a few talented keepers have been around the team over the years, including Santiago Canizarez, the man who he’d displaced, Diego Lopez, Pepe Reina, and Victor Valdes, Barcelona’s number one. Valdes only began getting called up to the national side, when contrary to popular belief, also known as speculation in the Madrid press, it was proven that he would not be a bad influence in the dressing room of the national side even when he knew he would rarely get a start, just like Pepe Reina had accepted before him. Valdes, like Reina, has gone on to improve team harmony and add to the spirit that exists between the team-mates, although it must be said that the national side players, namely the Barcelona and Real Madrid contingent have yet to share three or four weeks together in tournament mode since Jose Mourinho arrived in Spain to take the competitive nature of “El Clasico” to another level.
Now, only 30 years old, Casillas, practically a baby in goalkeeper years, has amassed over 600 matches for Real Madrid and 127 caps for Spain. He’s also won every major club and international trophy before he turned 30. His clean cut image in the media as well as his undoubted ability and talent in goal has meant that he’s virtually never had any competition in the Real Madrid goal.
Valdes is a talented keeper in his own right, with some believing that in recent years he’s played at a higher, more consistent, level than Casillas. Whilst this may be tantamount to blasphemy in Spain, we’ve found the holy ground where we could analyze this assertion without the fear for our lives. Before comparing the respective keepers performances over the past three seasons, you’d be forgiven if you had forgotten that VV, as he’s know in some quarters, has been around for almost as long as Casillas. A product of La Masia, Valdes made his debut under Raddy Antic during the 2002/3 season at the age of 21. He would go on to displace Roberto Bonano (remember him?), and establish himself as regular first choice by the start of the next season. He would win the league title by the age of 23, Barcelona’s first in 6 years. He’s also won every club trophy that there is on offer before the age of 30. He’s won the World Cup in 2010 but is yet to pick up the European Championships trophy, although he may well change that this summer.
Victor has also won more Zamora trophies than his counterpart Iker. For those of you who don’t know, the Zamora is an award given to the goalkeeper in La Liga with the lowest goals to games ratio. VV has picked it up 4 times as opposed to the solitary success of Casillas. Valdes, however, has always fallen short in international recognition and plaudits when compared to Iker. Be it reputation, popularity, the memory of early promise, or a stronger, more influential press behind him, Iker Casillas excels on that front. It was as late as last season, in the midst of Arsenal’s Champions League clash with Barcelona, when sections of the broadcast British media highlighted Victor Valdes as a weak link and an average keeper who Arsenal can take advantage of. It was obvious they hadn’t watched VV closely since his floppy-hair years.
Voices from Barcelona have been saying for a while now that Victor Valdes deserves to be Spain’s first choice goalkeeper. It’s our purpose here to highlight and compare the performances of both keepers largely over the last 2 and a half seasons, including the on-going campaign, in order to draw certain conclusions and not to express a matter of opinion. We will compare and contrast both keepers performances, across a range of categories including shot stopping, passing skills, types of goals conceded, clean sheets as well as having a brief look at their respective records in the Champions League, in the hope of making concrete assertions in answering the question at hand.
It’s widely accepted that both goalkeepers are excellent shot stoppers, possibly outside England, where Iker Casillas was once called a “lucky goalkeeper who is always in the right position” by Ron Atkinson. Regardless, statistics prove that both keepers are among the best in Europe and have been for a long time. It has probably taken VV a little longer to receive acknowledgement for his ability though. Valdes has really emerged with a reputation under Pep Guardiola’s reign where he has become an integral part of the way Barcelona play in his position of sweeper keeper, a role from the Dutch Total Football philosophy.
When it comes to pure shot stopping, both keepers have saved over 75% of the shots taken against them through out their La Liga careers. With close to 750 matches between them, it proves a level of consistency and longevity beyond their years. Casillas has saved a staggering 80%-plus in 3 of his seasons including his breakthrough year in 1999/2000, however the last of which had been in 2007/8. VV, on the other hand, has achieved an 80%-plus save ratio twice, but once as recently as last season. Valdes has only averaged more than a goal a game against a season once in his career and that was in his debut season. Casillas, on the other hand, has averaged less than a goal a game against a season only 5 times during his 12 full seasons. A staggering difference, but arguably inconclusive, as Casillas has been “blessed” with less than adept defences over the years. If anything, though, it brought out the best in him, as he was peppered with shots against. Last season, Iker had the least amount of shots against him over his career. Between the two of them, they’ve had close to 300 clean sheets with VV edging it despite having played significantly less matches.
Since 2009/10, VV has gone on from strength to strength, just as his club has, and has a save ratio of at least 77%, winning two Zamoras (with the current season on-going, although VV currently leads again), Casillas has seen his save ratio drop year by year, currently standing at 70% this season. One last interesting fact is that Valdes has never had more than 147 shots against him in a league campaign, whilst Casillas has had at least 159 shots against him in 8 of his 12 campaigns and has definitely been the busier of the two during his career. On the flip side, as most goalkeepers will tell you, remaining switched on and being focused when you have less to do is sometimes more difficult than being busy for 90 minutes when you are not allowed to switch off for a second.
“You give the ball to me”. That’s simply what Victor Valdes is suggested to say in the infamous Youtube video circulated all over the Internet last year. He is considered by some to be among the best if not the best keeper in the world when it comes to passing a football. Barcelona would probably not look much weaker if VV turned up somewhere in the outfield for them. That is why his momentary lapse at the Santiago Bernabéu inside the first minute of the game when he gave the ball away to be punished by Karim Benzema to the fullest extent was such a surprise. His composure and confidence to keep on attempting to play the short pass subsequently was praiseworthy. VV has had the most successful passes by a goalkeeper in Spain in recent seasons (823 and 617 complete passes in the last two seasons). After 21 games during the current campaign he’s had 447 successful passes and is on route to potentially breaking his own pass record. What is more telling is that his success ratio is something a central midfielder would be proud of. He has averaged 82.3%, 86.4% and 86.5% respectively during the last two full seasons as well as the on-going campaign. He has not hit more than 23 long passes in a single season during any of that time either. That is an extraordinary feat. Just to put it in context, 257 out of the 368 passes Joe Hart has made this season have been long passes.
Iker Casillas, has hit 580, 474 and 318 successful passes over the past two and a half campaigns. His pass success ratio stands at 68.1%, 75% and 76.4% over that period. It is clear that his passing has “improved” under Jose Mourinho. However, it may be more explanatory that under Mourinho, Real Madrid tend to pass the ball out of the back far more than previously when long goal kicks and long passes from deep were far more profound. In 2009/10 when VV attempted 23 long passes, Casillas had attempted 102, but had better success at it with 24 reaching its destination as opposed to only 3 by VV. In fact, VV has not had more than 3 successful long passes during any of the past two and a half seasons. This season, Casillas has had 49 long passes attempted with 12 reaching their target. In terms of long goal kicks, VV only attempts less than half the amount of times Casillas decides to go long, with only 85 attempts from 2010/11 onwards to Iker’s 224, again indicative of the style each prefers.
Domination of Penalty Area and Beyond
As an extension of their shot-stopping skills, both keepers possess a great domination of their penalty areas especially off set plays. Casillas has not conceded a goal off a corner kick from 2010/11 onwards. Valdes has conceded a solitary goal during each of the last campaign and the current one. When it comes to shots from 6 yards out both save more than they let in. Casillas has improved his goalkeeping from long range shots too, having now only conceded 2 off 30 shots this season, as opposed to a combined 8 goals from 76 shots during the past two league seasons. VV has conceded 7 goals from 94 long range shots since 2009/10, thus providing slightly more secure hands behind the gloves from distance.
Both keepers are on their toes constantly and there is little to choose from when it comes to clearing the ball from danger, usually getting there before the attacker. In 2010/11, Iker cleared the ball 115 times to VV’s 100 times, whilst this season, VV has done so 72 times to Iker’s 67.
Blanking the Opposition
Ask any keeper and they will tell you that the most important thing for them is the clean sheet, whether they have any work to do or not. Championships are won based on good defences. When it comes to keeping a clean sheet, Victor Valdes is in a league of his own in La Liga. With a career total of 150 clean sheets in only 316 games, he has 10 more clean sheets than Casillas, having played 125 less matches. He’s had at least 15 clean sheets in a full league campaign in 6 of the 8 seasons which he has started. Casillas has only done so 3 times out of the 12 full league campaigns he’s been a part of.
The Holy Grail AKA Champions League
Europe’s elite competition is probably revered as highly as the World Cup and European Championships when it comes to quality of football on offer. It has taken football to the next level. Players who dominate their respective league competitions may fall short on Europe’s Tuesday and Wednesday nights and thus create question marks over whether they actually are as good as they had been billed previously. Today, its difficult to label someone as “world class” unless they’ve shown their qualities in the Champions League.
Once again, Victor Valdes has a better ratio when it comes to goals conceded per game, just as he has had in La Liga. Interestingly, he has also won more Champions League medals than his counterpart too. He also has more clean sheets despite playing less matches and has a better career save ratio too.
The Bottom Line
As illustrated above, Iker Casillas and Victor Valdes have the track record and caliber to back their reputations, although VV probably does not get the credit which his performances and ability deserve, especially outside Spain. He has broken numerous records at domestic level, including a record number of consecutive shut outs at home and is tied first for most Zamora trophies. He is on route to potentially breaking Andoni Zubizaretta’s record of clean sheets if he continues performing at his level. He broke his club’s record for the longest amount of minutes without conceding a goal when he went 896 minutes without conceding earlier this season.
Casillas’ individual and collective honors are impressive enough even if he retires today. He’s surely Real Madrid and Spain’s most successful goalkeeper in history. He’s recently become his nation’s most capped player too. Considering his larger than life reputation, it’s not surprising that he escapes criticism or open comparison with pretenders to his thrown. Victor Valdes may surpass Casillas in many departments, with performances and statistics over the years certainly backing that argument, but he is unfortunate that his counterpart has such an established persona and reputation in world football.
With thanks to the good people at Opta Spain for their unconditional help in providing in-depth statistics that were used in compiling this article. A special thanks also for Aaron Nielsen for his help in providing statistics tracking back into the 1990′s. You can follow him on twitter @enbsports
If you like the authors work then Follow @BabakGolriz