The Under-21 European Championships is about to kick off in the Czech Republic. 8 teams will battle it out for the crown. Some familiar names will also be participating and they include established players such as Marc-André ter Stegen, who recently lifted the treble with Barcelona, Harry Kane, John Stones, Bayern Munich’s Pierre Højbjerg, and Portugal’s Bernardo Silva.
Historically, future world class players first made their mark on the European game at this tournament. Luis Figo, Andrea Pirlo, Mesut Ozil and Fabio Cannavaro are among some of the graduates.
Here are our picks for 5 players to keep an eye out for:
Pavel Kadeřábek (Czech Republic)
The hosts will go into the tournament as outsiders to qualify from Group A where they face Germany and dark-horses Denmark, as well as Serbia. If they are to cause an upset then a lot will depend on right-back Pavel Kadeřábek. Already an established full-international, the 23 year old is considered the country’s best full back since the days of Marek Jankulovski and Zdenek Grygera.
He is expected to move this summer, with Hoffenheim touted as a likely destination. The Sparta Prague star man is also adept lining up further ahead on the pitch if required.
Pione Sisto (Denmark)
Pione Sisto Ifolo Emirmija is a name that encompasses everything about modern football. He was born in Uganda to Southern Sudanese parents who immigrated to Denmark with the toddler.
Now 20, he only recently received his Danish citizenship, almost 20 years after moving to the country. The process was “fast-tracked” by the senior national team manager, Morten Olsen.
The dimunitive 5’7 wide attacking midfielder has just played a key role in leading FC Midtjylland to the Danish Superliga title and has interested scouts from a number of major European clubs. He is equally adept on both wings but is predominantly right-footed.
He is pacy, boasts a lot of flair and creativity as well as impressive accuracy when bearing down on goal.
Max Meyer (Germany)
Germany will start the tournament as arguably one of the two favourites to lift the trophy. They are helped by the fact that 6 of their players have already been exposed to a senior debut under Joachim Loew.
One of those players is Schalke’s Max Meyer. His close and pacy dribbling style has been likened to Lionel Messi’s. Meyer puts that down to his schooling in Futsal. Currently an established player in Schalke’s starting line-up he has already played almost 70 matches over the past two seasons, scoring 13 times in the process.
The two-footed attacking midfielder can play anywhere down the middle of the pitch, switching between central midfield and a more advanced role a little further up where he is more of a direct goal threat. Now 19, his reputation has risen so much that he’s already on the radar of a number of “bigger” clubs and it is likely that a transfer will take place sooner rather than later.
Daniele Rugani (Italy)
Daniele Rugani is a name quite familiar to Italian football fans. The strong center-back led Empoli to promotion in 2013/14 and cemented his reputation by helping keep the club up in Serie A this season.
He is strong in the air and is impressively focused during matches, showing the maturity of players much older. He does not dive into tackles and prefers to read the game elegantly in the mould of legendary defender Alessandro Nesta.
It was never likely that he would remain with Empoli for too long, especially as Juventus co-owned him. The Champions League finalists wasted no time in buying out the remaining 50% of his contract from Empoli and have already stated that he would start next season in Turin.
Ruben Neves (Portugal)
Porto’s Ruben Neves has been consistently fast-tracked at all levels of Portuguese football. Already on Fernando Santos’ radar, he is now an established member of Rui Jorge’s U-21 side despite being only 18.
He has been compared to Joao Moutinho already and is likely to be his heir in the national side eventually. He’s already a regular in Porto’s line-up during his debut season, starting 11 matches and making over a dozen appearances off the bench. He has also appeared in the Champions League.
Neves likes to get hold of the ball, and dictate play from a deeper position but is not shy to maraud forward and get into dangerous positions either. Although his goal-scoring output is something that will surely improve as he gets older.
La Liga will have 5 teams participating in the Champions League next season thanks to Sevilla’s success in the Europa League. Premier League clubs, though, continue to, publicly at least, shun their involvement in Europe’s second major club competition. Managers at clubs, as big as Spurs and Liverpool, constantly bemoan their potential participation on Thursday nights. As a result, by this time next year, Serie A could, potentially, regain its 4th Champions League spot, at the expense of the PL, largely due to poor performances by the latter’s clubs in the Europa League. This is facilitated by England losing its highest co-efficient points (2010/11) from the calculation period next season. The question is why is there such a disdain by PL clubs in taking the competition seriously?
Spurs, Liverpool, and Everton are sides who have experienced Champions League action due to their league position on an inconsistent basis over the past decade. The gap between the “Big Four”, which includes Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United and other clubs is arguably greater than ever (with the caveat of Manchester United’s out of character last couple of seasons). Three spots are probably etched in stone whilst a 4th CL may be open to a challenge, at some point during the season, before the CL regular pulls away. It is a vicious cycle as the financial benefits gained from the CL allow the respective sides to build and develop a playing squad that is able to “compete” on two fronts – without necessarily challenging for a trophy on either. Clubs who miss regular participation in Europe’s elite competition arguably do not have the squad depth to similarly compete in a balanced way.
Considering that the league is a 38-game slug-fest, it’s difficult to understand why some clubs prefer to prioritize the league route (not even a title challenge) to the CL over a Europa League one especially with the knowledge that victory there would guarantee a CL spot. Winning the Europa League would include a, approximately, 17-match journey for PL clubs, less than half the games of the league season. In reality, a side could gain the CL spot by winning as little as 6 or 7 matches during the campaign. Surely by mid-February, the start of the knock-out rounds, clubs would be in a good position to strategize the rest of their season’s assault rationally. History suggests that they are far likelier to reap the rewards by prioritizing winning the Europa League over a futile 4th spot race, unless they are already comfortably ahead in that race. In the age of projections and statistic models, it would not take much for clubs to have a clear indication of where they should put their focus on and it’s hard to conclude that it would be pointing towards the league.
Instead, PL clubs such as Spurs, this season, find their seasons fizzling out towards the end of March when it’s clear that the CL assault through the league is over, following their exit from the Europa League, had they been in it in the first place. For others, such as Everton, their assault is usually over far earlier in the season.
Next season, Liverpool and West Ham should be joining Spurs and possibly Southampton in the Europa League. For at least 2 if not 3 of those sides the mathematical likelihood of finishing 4th is slim to none. It would be good to hear a more re-conciliatory approach by their managers when it comes to targeting the Europa League. There is no logical reason for there not to be one as long as they have secured their club’s position in the league, away from relegation. There is no reason why these clubs cannot target a more realistic Europa League-placing through the league whilst challenging for a CL spot through the European competition itself. If they don’t, sooner than later, there is a real risk that the PL will surrender the coveted fourth position to Serie A, as quickly as in 12 months time.
Jose Mourinho is known for stirring the pot during interviews and press conferences. He has gone on record on numerous occasions to state that the Premier League is the toughest league in Europe. His argument is that there are more teams that compete to win the title than in the other major leagues. He has also emphasized that on any given day any side from the bottom of the league can beat one from the top and that is what makes the league the most exciting. In fact, that’s the theme of major marketing used by most of the major television networks that broadcast Premier League football. Mourinho’s statements seemed convenient last season during a difficult period when Chelsea lost to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland, whilst being held to a draw against Norwich. His assertions are usually acknowledged as fact by the mainstream press and audience and never really put under the microscope for analysis.
We will undertake analysis, which will compare how the top 5 sides in the Premier League, Bundesliga and La Liga, arguably the 3 strongest leagues in Europe today, have fared against the bottom 5 in their respective leagues since the 2012/13 season. We will then go on to analyze the race for the Champions League in the respective leagues and the gap in points between the title winners and the final Champions League qualifier (4th placed side), during the past 5 seasons. We will also analyze the number of different sides that have won the aforementioned leagues and qualified for the Champions League over the last decade. This would illustrate how open the race for the “top 4” has been in reality. Finally, we will analyze the points per game averages over final league position for the 2013/14 season in all three leagues. Through this four-pronged exercise we will aim to either solidify Mourinho’s claims or debunk the theory that had been put forward. Let’s not forget that we are not attempting to prove which league is the “strongest” but rather the toughest for the bigger sides, because the former does not directly reflect the league’s standing but rather the strength of individual sides who may have extraordinary prowess above the league capability.
The Top 5 vs The Bottom 5
Looking at the Premier League’s top five’s results against their counterparts from the bottom of the table, one will notice that since the 2012/13 campaign the win percentage for the top 5 has dropped from 78% to 74% and currently stands at 72.5% for the current campaign. Matches against the bottom 5 are arguably becoming a little bit tougher for the top sides if the figures above are an indication. However, it is important to note that in terms of getting results (wins or draws) the ratio has improved from 90% in the 2012/13 campaign, to 96% the next season and currently stands at 94% (illustrating that the top 5 lose only 6% of their matches against the bottom 5). Interestingly, the Champions League sides (top 4) have an even more impressive win percentage since 2012/13 (77%), not losing in 93.4% of their matches against the bottom 5.
Whilst La Liga’s top sides have a significant winning record against the bottom sides, the slope is quite different to that of the PL. In 2012/13, they had a 70% winning percentage and followed this up with 76% in the subsequent season. During the on-going campaign this winning percentage currently stands at a staggering 87%. Games against the bottom 5 are moving more and more in the direction of the top 5. In terms of not losing, the top 5 stayed unbeaten in 96% of their games in 2012/13, 94% in 2013/14 and currently hold a 97% non-losing percentage against the bottom 5. The Champions League sides hold a 78% winning percentage against the bottom 5, not losing 95% of their matches against them.
In the Bundesliga, during the 2012/13 season, the top 5 had a 78% winning percentage, and followed that up with a 70% winning percentage in the 2013/14 season. In the ongoing campaign, the winning percentage stands at 72.4%. This illustrates that the bottom sides are proving to be more formidable opponents for the top 5 than they were a few seasons ago. In terms of not losing against the bottom 5 then the percentages stood at 90% in 2012/13, 88% in 2013/14 and 86% during the current campaign. The Bundesliga proves to be the only league where the bottom 5 get results against the top 5 on more than 10% of the times they face each other. Overall the top 5 “only” have an 89% unbeaten record against the bottom 5 (losing 11% of their match-ups).
The Top 2 vs Bottom 5 Sides in All 3 Leagues
It is widely accepted that there have arguably been at least 2 major challengers for the title during the last 3 campaigns within the leagues in question. This may have changed slightly in the Bundesliga over the last few months as Dortmund have fallen by the wayside. In La Liga, Real Madrid and Barcelona had dominated until Atletico won the title last season. Currently, the three sides have won all 18 matches against the bottom 5 this season and have created a pyramid structure at the top of the table. In the Premier League, Chelsea and Manchester City have been the two major challengers over the last few seasons although Manchester United did win the title in 2012/13. The records in question are exhibited below.
The Race for the Champions League
Looking at the numbers above it is clear that one side has largely dominated each of the three major leagues over the past decade. A form of cartel has formed at the top of the leagues and in the cases of the Premier League and La Liga only 3 sides have won the trophy during the period in question. Whilst the Bundesliga was a little bit more inviting at the top of the pyramid, it has begun to solidify only two viable candidates for the title over the last few years too.
However, more interestingly, the race for Champions League spots is worth inspecting. In that case, the Premier League is the most “closed” of the leagues with only 7 different sides qualifying for Europe’s elite competition during the past 10 years. The Bundesliga has had 8 different sides qualify and that’s despite having only 3 spots a season until the 2011/12 season. La Liga remains the most open in terms of Champions League qualification as illustrated by the fact that 12 different sides have qualified for the tournament despite the undoubted dominance of two clubs at the top of the table. One must remember that TV and sponsorship packages are relatively balanced in Spain as long as one ignores the big two. In Germany, there’s also a more conservative financial spread between clubs. In the Premier League, however, there’s, arguably, a wider gap between 5-6 clubs and the rest of the league making it extremely difficult to break into the top 4.
Analyzing the Points Gap in CL Race
During the past 5 seasons, the gap between the Bundesliga winners and the lowest placed Champions League qualifier has been getting wider. However, it is also clear that the race for the final Champions League spot has largely been open and headed to the last couple of games of the season at the very least. This season, Augsburg, for instance, is aspiring to qualify for the CL. Wolfsburg will also be looking to return to the competition after a few years absence. Dortmund finds itself languishing well outside the qualification spots and is almost certainly going to miss out on next season’s edition unless it wins the trophy in May.
The data on La Liga confirms that Barcelona and Real Madrid were in a league of their own over recent years until Atletico Madrid broke their stranglehold. Last season’s race was the closest in terms of 1st – 4th spot that it has been in a long time, no doubt aided by Atletico’s introduction into the equation.
The Premier League provides interesting figures for analysis. It is probably the closest in terms of a group of 4 or 5 or so sides compared to the other leagues. In fact, only 7 points separated the top 4 last season. This is a record low and even betters the Bundesliga’s 9 points for 3 three sides during the 2009/10 season. Furthermore, one deduces that in the Premier League, the dominance is more in terms of Champions League than just the title, unlike the other leagues. A pack of sides have cemented their positions towards the top of the table. Even if there is a hierarchy within the sides in question, there is certainly an even wider gap with the rest of the league, who arguably have the priority of staving off relegation.
Points Per Game / Final League Positions for the 2013/14 Season
Some of the observations that are made above include a significant “break” occurring in the Premier League after 7th position. This is signified by a larger than 10% distance between any two adjacent sides in terms of points per game. This cements the thesis that the Premier League is divided into two sub-leagues, one that runs down to 7th spot and the rest which goes down from 8th all the way to the bottom spot.
Secondly, La Liga has the least sides averaging less than 1 point per game (2). The Premier League had 5 sides under the average whilst the Bundesliga had 4. Only two sides succeeded in crossing 2 PPG in the Bundesliga but it has the highest number of sides averaging over 1.5 PPG (8). This illustrates a strong top half but a relatively weaker bottom one, similar to the Premier League in many ways. La Liga has the tightest bottom half between the three leagues with only 13 points dividing 8th spot until 19th. The league averages in terms of PPG are 1.397 (PL) with 8 sides averaging above that figure, 1.395 (Bundesliga) where 8 sides (out of 18) sit above that average and 1.387 (La Liga) where only 7 sides sit above the average.
Firstly, when it comes to analyzing results between the top 5 and bottom 5 in the 3 leagues it becomes clear that the Bundesliga is the “tougher” league. The bottom 5 are more often than ever getting results against the teams in the race for the Champions League. However, one must not lose sight of the fact that Bayern Munich, the reigning champions and arguably the best club in Europe currently, have a 25 win, 1 draw and no loss record against the bottom five since 2012/13. Real Madrid is the only other side in the study that has not lost to any side in the bottom 5. They have a 22/4/0 record. In La Liga, the top sides are winning more now than they had been in 2012/13. In the Premier League, though, the top 5 are winning less than in 2012/13 but the occasions on which they lose to sides in the bottom 5 are now lower than ever. Draws are the new wins for sides near the bottom of the table in the PL.
Secondly, in the race for the Champions League spots, the Premier League proves to be a closed shop, so to speak. Fewer sides have experienced CL football from the PL than within any of the other two leagues. La Liga is the most open as 4th spot seems to be open season with a number of teams historically capable of finishing there. Whether this trend continues, with clubs like Valencia and Villareal back on financial track after a few years of turmoil, is yet to be seen.
From the perspective of CL qualification, La Liga is far more open than either of the other two leagues due to the strength and proximity of most of the sides from 4th all the way down towards the bottom. This, though, also means that in terms of a genuine title challenge it is unlikely than anyone outside the top 3 has a chance. But is it any different in the other leagues? As competitive as the PL is in the top 4, only 3 sides have won the trophy over the last decade and only 5 since its inception in 1992/93.
The Bundesliga is where the bottom 5 fare the best against sides in the top 5. This is largely precipitated by the fact that outside Bayern Munich and Dortmund (at least until this season), a number of sides were in genuine contention of CL football in recent seasons. Its the only league in which the top 5 are unbeaten in under 90% of their games against their counterparts from the bottom of the table.
Throughout the article, different tools have been utilized in the hope of unanimously confirming which of the major leagues is the “toughest”. However, it is our assessment that the only way to conclusively answer that question is to take a point of view relative. From the perspective of the top 5 then the Premier League is probably the most closed league when it comes to how the top of the table is laid out. This is cemented by evidence including the fact that far less sides have qualified for the CL from the PL than either of the other two leagues. Furthermore, it is now rarer than ever for a side in the bottom 5 to beat one in the top 5 of the PL and Mourinho’s assertions are probably undermined through this. Any results to the contrary usually bore out of the under-performance of the top sides. One must remember that PL sides have failed to dominate in European football over recent seasons, unlike La Liga sides or even the top German Bundesliga sides. Whilst Mourinho’s argument includes stating that sides in Spain know that they will lose to Barcelona or Real Madrid and therefore don’t put up enough of a fight at times might be valid to a degree, it is no indication of the weakness of the bottom sides as much as it is of the strength of those sides. The terrain is not far more different in the Premier League as our findings have illustrated.
In the aftermath of the 2014 World Cup Finals, there have been two topics on everyone’s lips. Needless to say, the first of these is hailing the German triumph over Argentina in what proved to be a tense and close match-up pitting the tournament’s best two sides. That topic has covered most of the front pages of newspapers and online media alike, and rightly so. However, there has been a second topic, and one that has taken a life of its own. This one has focused on undermining Lionel Messi’s World Cup and general standing in the history of the world’s most popular sport.
To add context to the subject, it is fair to suggest that a large number of experts and non-experts alike (social media has given a voice to the voiceless) had always claimed that to be considered the greatest footballer ever, Messi would have to shine at the World Cup. Most of these people fall into the generation that grew up watching another Argentine legend, Diego Maradona, rather than one which grew up idolizing Pele. Legend has it that Maradona single-handedly, excuse the pun, led the Argentine’s to the trophy in 1986 without the help of a decent set of players around him which included Pumpido, Batista, Burruchaga, Valdano and Ruggeri among others.
Whilst Messi has been the single most dominant player in world football during the last 5 or 6 years, his success both individually and as part of a team has almost entirely happened with his club, Barcelona. The question mark would always hover over the debate as long as Messi did not win the World Cup. Needless to say, Pele largely doesn’t figure in this debate because either “he didn’t play in European football” or he wasn’t alone in leading Brazil to those World Cup titles. Selective criteria does wonders to carve out the results that one is looking for.
So the stage was set for Messi to lead Argentina to the World Cup title in Brazil and cement his position as the undisputed greatest. In the early stages, he did not disappoint. A crucial goal against Bosnia in a tense 2-1 victory, a 90th minute winner against a resilient Iran and a brace against Nigeria in his side’s final group stage game gave Messi 4 goals and the key man behind Argentina’s progress at that stage. In the second round, Messi laid off the assist for Angel Di Maria to score against Switzerland in the last minutes before a potential penalty shoot-out. Against Belgium in the Quarter Finals, Messi produced a tactically astute performance which kept the Belgian defence on their heels throughout the match. However, there was no goal or assist. By the end of the semi-final, the criteria for immortality had been shifted by those posing them. Instead of simply winning the World Cup, Messi now had to do something special, something that I, and many others, were under the impression that he had been doing throughout the World Cup, more or less.
There are two explanations for the goal-posts shifting. Firstly, the generational obsession with forwarding one’s own as the greatest of all time poses an insurmountable obstacle. As time passes, legend grows with it too. The emotional connection that is created between idol and object of idolization lasts a lifetime. Secondly, Leo Messi has raised the standards of measurement and analysis to previously unseen levels. Its no longer enough to score a goal, but necessary to put out performances like the famous 4-goal haul in the Champions League against Arsenal regularly. Its no longer sufficient to score 40 goals a season, even though some of the world’s greatest players have never reached that tally, as it would be considered an average or poor season. Those are the criticisms thrown at Messi. Those or simplistic arguments like those put forward, last night during commentary, by BeIN Sports Andy Gray when he stated that he wants to see Messi “move more” and “he doesn’t look happy on the pitch” and “needs to help his defence out”.
Waking up this morning, had you had not watched any of the matches at this summer’s World Cup then you’d be inclined to think that Messi incurred an atrocious World Cup. To add context to the debate, Messi had 4 goals, 3rd in the list after Colombia’s James Rodriguez and Germany’s Thomas Muller. He added 3.3 key passes per game (via WhoScored), only behind Kevin De Bruyne from players who made it past the group stage, equating to 23 clear cut opportunities for teammates, more than any other player, and a World Cup leading 6.6 successful dribbles per game. Despite passing the ball less than Manuel Neuer, a fact widely informed to us today by Castrol Index, he still had more completed passes than either of Arjen Robben or Thomas Muller and averaged more than James Rodriguez or Neymar too. So did Messi have a poor World Cup, like Andy Gray reiterated on numerous occasions during the final? Absolutely not. Was Messi the best player of the tournament? That is probably open to debate, although Robben and Muller definitely had strong cases. James Rodriguez was arguably the type of breakthrough star that the World Cup has had in the past a la Toto Schillachi but his side failed to progress past the Quarter Finals. Neymar may have had a claim if his World Cup had not ended prematurely. Any number of German players could be considered contenders for that pointless award too, but what this World Cup, more than most others in the past, illustrated was the triumph of team over individual. Does it matter who wins the player of the tournament? Does it change anything when all is said and done? Should Messi have been embarrassed, like Gray said he should be, having been selected as the player of the tournament?
All in all, I would like to ask Mr. Gray what criteria he uses to assess players. He’s known to have stated on many occasions in the past that Cristiano Ronaldo is a better player than Leo Messi. To him, I’d like to say that the debate is no longer about Messi or Cristiano, as that train passed a long time ago. It is about Messi or Maradona or Pele. Its unlikely a unanimous or objective conclusion can be reached on this topic. If one factors the importance of the World Cup then Pele is arguably the best player of all time. Winning the World Cup once is one thing but it is not a coincidence that he won it thrice. Maradona’s generation of followers would probably limit the need of winning the World Cup to just one. Messi’s would probably negate it altogether and claim that the Champions League is played at a higher quality each and every season. It may well be. Unfortunately football does not have an easy way of making individuals stand apart from the team. As good as a single player can be, he cannot succeed without the right teammates and manager. This is undebatable. What is certain, though, is that there has never been as much scrutiny, cameras, technology, or analysis involved in football in the history of the game and to stand tall at the end of it all is a feat on its own.
What this summer’s World Cup did more than anything else is to have re-ignited the passion for the international game. The World Cup does matter. It matters a lot. It is the pinnacle of football. Ask any German footballer if they’d trade last night’s trophy in exchange for multiple Champions Leagues and league titles till the end of their career and the answer would be no. But what that means is that the debate over the greatest footballer of all time will probably remain inconclusive – for now. Simply put, there are far too many variables involved that makes it difficult to conclusively provide a single objective answer. Messi is great. Without a doubt. There will be a generation (this one) that will strongly put forward his case to be the greatest of all time when another contender to the tag comes along in 30 years time. By then, its likely that noises emanating from the Maradona camp would have died down just as had been the case with Pele’s. What we can’t argue about is that we are lucky to be witnessing someone of that caliber play right in front of our eyes, week after week, sometimes twice weekly. Its questionable that even Maradona or Pele’s greatest proponents had the privilege to watch and observe their hero play so often in an era with limited television coverage. Just to be having this debate right now is a testament to Messi’s greatness, barely at the age of 27.
When Ruben Rochina joined Blackburn Rovers at the end of the winter transfer window in 2011, Rovers were still a Premier League outfit. Lots of hype surrounded the young Spaniard’s move from Barcelona B. Three years down the line and Rochina has just made a second temporary move away from the club, in the form of a loan move to Spanish outfit Rayo Vallecano. If he impresses, the club hold an option to purchase him from Rovers. The move has been met by a split reaction from the Rovers faithful. Some feel Rochina has never had a fair chance and produces more than he’s given credit for, whilst others feel he is not needed by Rovers. This article will look to inspect his performances for Rovers and compare them to some of his colleagues during the period at the club.
Having made only 1 start in the half season that followed, its best to begin analyzing Rochina’s performances from the beginning of the 2011/12 season, his first full season at the club. However, we will present statistics that oversee his whole time at the club. Firstly, let’s look at his overall career stats at the club.
What becomes clear is that during the 3 years he has spent at the club, he’s only started 29 matches, during which he scored 11 times and made 3 assists. These are acceptable numbers for a second forward, and in reality better than any other player currently at the club except for Jordan Rhodes. His shooting ratio sees him hit a total of 110 shots, keeping 45 on target. Once again, the conversion rates, whilst not up to par for a top striker (which is not his role in the side nor the argument in question here) are acceptable for a second forward, an attacking midfielder or inside forward, all roles which he has played in for the side.
In order to analyze closer the impact that Rochina had during the games he took part in (and those which he did not) it makes sense to look at how the club fared during the period. With that in mind, the following table has been formulated:
Strikingly, what jumps out first is the fact that Rovers have had a winning record (or at the very least an on par one if one is technical) in each competition that Rochina has started in more than 2 matches. He only started one match during the second half of the season after he joined the club in 2011. Even in the relegation campaign of 2011/12, Rovers had an acceptable 12 points from the 9 games which he started in, losing only three times. Based on that record, Rovers would have had 51 points throughout a 38 match campaign and needless to say would have stayed up that season. In short, Blackburn took twice as many points that season when Ruben Rochina started than when he did not. Coincidence? It is inconclusive to directly correlate Rovers plight with Rochina’s appearances. However, it is one factor that should be kept in mind as one continues to assess the situation.
In 2012/13, during the club’s return to the Championship, Rovers best form “coincided” with Rochina starting games again. The club only lost 3 times when he started and the run included 5 wins. His starts formed more than one third of the club’s total league wins that season. Based on that ratio, the club would have had 75 points by the end of the season, enough for a play-off spot. Critics will again argue that this is coincidental and inconclusive.
Going further, Rochina appeared from the substitutes bench on countless occasions during his 3 years at the club. The table below describes the state of the match the moment Rochina stepped onto the pitch (from the 2011/12 season onwards) and compares the end result at the full time whistle.
Ruben Rochina came off the bench a total of 22 times during this period. The team was in a winning position twice before he was subbed in and continued to hold on for the result. The team was drawing matches 8 times when he was subbed on and turned the result to victory on 4 occasions, drew another 2 and lost the last 2 games. Finally, when subbed in during losing positions, Rochina helped turn 1 of the losses into a draw. However, to be fair, 7 of those losses were in the Premier League.
In the 2011/12 relegation campaign of the Premier League, Rochina scored 6 times from 13 starts in all competition (2 goals in the Premier League). Yakubu was top scorer that season with 18 and Junior Hoilett was next on 7 goals. The Spaniards 6 goals came from only 13 shots on target, on the back of a 35% shots on target ratio. On the other hand, Hoilett scored his 7 goals from 23 shots on target, which had emanated on the back of 69 shots in total. There is nothing outstanding about Rochina’s performances that season however nevertheless he had a respectable record which still stood out among his team-mates. That coupled with the fact that Rovers did better when he started matches adds food for thought. Keep in mind that Rochina was 21 for the majority of that campaign.
The 2012/13 campaign is the one which is bitter for proponents of Rochina. He had a stop-start campaign under a number of managers and found himself out of favor yet again towards the end of the season as he was loaned out to Real Zaragoza. However, his performances and numbers probably did not warrant that treatment. Despite featuring for only a part of the campaign, starting only 11 times in the league, he was the club’s joint second top scorer with Colin Kazim-Richards on 5 goals. His 3 assists were also the second highest in the whole squad. He also suffered 48 fouls in the league campaign which was second only to Kazim (50) despite the latter starting almost twice as many games (25). This illustrates that Rochina was a threat to opposition defenders who targeted him by fouling him when they could not stop him fairly. Unfortunately comprehensive passing stats were not compiled for the Championship until the current 2013/14 season so one cannot undertake further intensive analysis and comparison with him teammates. However, his performances in 2012/13 at Championship level do at the very least justify calls by supporters who believed Rochina should have played more games and did not receive the chances he probably deserved over the course of a full campaign in order to silence his critics.
A section of Rochina’s critics argue that he gives the ball away too much. However, in the 2013/14 season, his passing success ratio which stood at 83% is still higher than fan favorite David Dunn who had a 74% success ratio. At the same time, Rochina had a total of 1.6 key passes per game, 3rd highest in the side after Tom Cairney (2.6) and Alan Judge (1.7). David Dunn makes 1.2 key passes per game (WhoScored). Whilst the data is not conclusive due to the number of matches played, it still adds unbiased context to the overall conclusions that have to be drawn.
Ruben Rochina is probably unlikely to play for Blackburn Rovers again. His legacy will pose questions of “what if” from whichever perspective you look at it. His supporters will argue that he offered something different from within the Rovers squad, at the very least at Championship level, and that his performances warranted more opportunities. His critics will admit that although talented, he frustrated them with the lack of end product. The statistics presented today undermine parts of the latter’s argument. It is almost certain that Rochina could have provided more to the club, such is his potential. However, when a young 22 year old foreign player who has been part of the most tumultuous period in the club’s modern history has not been given the opportunity to play more than 5 consecutive matches at any given time, it is difficult to criticize him, when a number of his teammates have been given far more opportunities to cement a place in the side despite far less end product. Looking at his performances and the club’s results during the period, at different levels, critics would surely be harsh to argue that he did not deserve more opportunities in an unsettled Rovers side.
Other criticisms include the fact that he failed to cement a place in the side under most of the managers at the club. The flip side of the argument is which of those managers has been a success? Other than Gary Bowyer, who whilst generally supported by most sections of the fans largely due to a new long-term patient vision that most have taken up after the roller-coaster recent past, all the previous managers were unanimous failures. Even Bowyer has enough critics over a number of aspects of his reign that should at the very least undermine this argument as definitive.
Games are won by goals. Rochina has had a direct impact on wins through his goals and assists during his time at the club. Whilst there was room for improvement, critics would be hard pressed to name a replacement who took Rochina’s spot in the side and contributed to more either directly or indirectly where the club fared better. At the same time, how many times can facts be called “coincidental” within the realms of one argument?
As another pre-season draws to a close, Europe’s major leagues are on the brink of relaunching again. France and Germany have kicked off already. England, Italy and Spain will do so shortly. The summer saw inflated transfer-fees and arguably as little value for money in the transfer market as one can remember. A number of major players changed leagues too. Alvaro Negredo, Jesus Navas, and Gonzalo Higuain led the La Liga exodus. The Spanish league was arguably the biggest loser when it came to talent. It also lost Jose Mourinho and Marcelo Pellegrini to the Premier League. The Premier League saw an influx of talent from all over Europe. They included some of the above names as well as Fernandinho, Bony, Guy Medel, and Andre Schurrle. Looking at Europe’s top leagues, what can one expect from the season ahead?
The Premier League is the big winner of the summer transfer window on many levels. Its gained a couple of household names in the managerial merry-go-around. Its also seen an influx of talent from abroad. The biggest loss will be that of Sir Alex Ferguson. However, Manchester United’s loss could be the Premier League’s gain (in a competition way). Its thrown the title race wide open. The margins between the top sides are as close as ever. Three sides go into the season with little between them (Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United). Tottenham will have title aspirations if they keep hold of Gareth Bale. Arsenal, well the less said about their summer activity the better. Its hard to see how they can strengthen the side now although buying Julio Cesar would be a start even with his high wages. Arsenal has missed out on many players that would have improved their side. The list is endless and could include Medel who joined Cardiff City recently. This illustrates that Arsene Wenger has not only lost players to rivals but to sides that are below Arsenal in the reputation table. Liverpool will be aiming to break into the top four and keeping Luis Suarez away from Arsenal makes sense on many levels as that would be the side they would be challenging for that spot.
Champion – Chelsea
Rest of Top 4 – Manchester City, Manchester United, Spurs
Bottom 3 – Stoke, Hull, Crystal Palace
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Swansea to finish in top 6 / Southampton to finish in top 8
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Bony
If one had to sum up what has gone on in Spain this summer, then it would be simple. The top 2 arguably got stronger whilst the rest of the pack fell further away. Valencia, Real Sociedad, Malaga, Sevilla and Atletico Madrid each lost some of their best players and in some cases more than one. Did they replace them adequately? Not likely. What this means is that you can expect Barcelona and Real Madrid to be approximately 30 points away from the rest of the pack but it also means that one should keep an eye on the battle for the rest of the Champions League and Europa League spots. The summer’s biggest saga involves Barcelona’s pursuit of a center back. As the transfer window draws to a close it remains to be seen who they draft into the squad in a position that has hampered them over the past 2 seasons.
Champion – Real Madrid
Rest of the Top 4 – Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Athletic
Bottom 3 – Elche, Almeria, Valladolid
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Sevilla in bottom 6
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Morata
The biggest action was off-the-field this summer in Germany. Bayern Munich replaced treble-winning manager Jupp Heynckes with former Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola. When it was announced some critics argued that the Spaniard took the easy way out by choosing a side that’s already on top, making it “easier” to add trophies to his already impressive haul. However, as the season started, signs suggested that it would not be as clear sailing as they had thought. Firstly, Guardiola has tried to stamp his authority on the team’s tactics as one would have expected. He has experimented with Lahm in midfield and going with a 4-1-4-1 which has seen Muller play as the main striker more than Croat Mandzukic. At the same time some question marks have been raised about his preference of Thiago in the hole which means that main-stay Schweinsteiger may not be an automatic choice. Whilst its still early days, there are sure to be some fireworks around the side that worked hard to lose the label of FC Hollywood in recent years. Meanwhile, Jurgen Klopp has arguably strengthened his side far more than one could have imagined. Having lost Mario Gotze, Dortmund fought tooth and nail to resist the sale of Pole Lewandowski, instead choosing to lose him on a free transfer next summer. They brought in Sokratis to add cover in defence with Mkhitaryan and Aubameyang in the more advanced roles. The latter scored a hat-trick on his debut and adds immense pace to the Dortmund attack. Mkhitaryan is not only a goal threat but is considered one of Europe’s most exciting up and coming players.
Champion – Dortmund
Rest of the Top 4 – Bayern Munich, Schalke, Leverkusen
Bottom 3 – Braunschweig, Augsburg, Frankfurt
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Hamburg to break into top 6 finally
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Max Kruse & Son
Juventus finally brought in the striker they had been aiming for the past couple of seasons. In fact, they purchased two this summer. Fernando Llorente and Carlos Teves. On paper they have all the credentials to form a lethal partnership but the team has not gelled as quickly as one would have expected in pre-season. Question marks already hang over Llorente’s long-term future at the club. As a new season begins, a lot of pundits are tying Juve’s chances with Andrea Pirlo’s form and ability at the winter stage of his career. That is also what Milan fans are being driven by. They expect Pirlo to wane sooner rather than later and allow their side to close the gap. The most interesting project seems to be the one at Napoli. Rafa Benitez has a winning track record however tactically it will be a lot of work to get things smoothed out quickly as Napoli aim to successfully convert a back 3 to a back 4. Question marks exist over Maggio and Zuniga’s ability to slot into full back positions. However, the most exciting signing of the summer is at the other end for Napoli. Gonzalo Higuain is Europe’s most lethal finisher and he will help the Naples faithful forget the name of Edinson Cavani sooner rather than later. If Benitez is successful expect Napoli to push Juventus as close as they have been pushed in recent years. Inter Milan continue their rebuilding phase under Walter Mazzarri. It remains to be seen whether they can get back into the Champions League positions this summer, as the top 3 are likely to remain the same top 3 of the past season.
Champion – Milan
Rest of the Top 3 – Juventus, Napoli
Bottom 3 – Sassuolo, Verona, Chievo
Biggest Surprise (Team) – Fiorentina
Biggest Surprise (Player) – Martens
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.