The Strongest League in Europe: Relationship between Spending and European Success
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.
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