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