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.
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
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
It was May 22, 2010. Santiago Bernebau. Howard Webb puts the whistle to his lips a little before midnight local time. Massimo Moratti goes ecstatic in the stands. It had cost him almost €600 million and 15 years to finally get his hands on the Champions League. But the wait was over. Jose Mourinho had delivered on what he had promised. All was rosy in Milan, at least at the blue and black end. But that final whistle also heralded the beginning of the end of Mourinho’s tenure. For weeks it had been speculated that Mourinho’s visit to the Bernebau that night would be the first of many from then on. Moratti didnt really stand in his way and Inter had to begin a new era, post-Mourinho. How hard could it be for the treble winners, riding the wave of their most successful era in Italian football since Helenio Herrera’s reign?
Cue forward 19 months. December 3, 2011. The final whistle blows at the San Siro as surprise package Udinese win 1-0 against a glum looking Claudio Ranieri’s Inter side. Inter find themselves a couple of points outside the relegation zone in what has turned into a disastrous season which had already seen them change managers. Ranieri was now the fourth manager hired during the 19 months since Mourinho had left. The post-Mourinho curse had hit again. Just ask Chelsea. But this time it was even more severe than at Stamford Bridge. Let’s look at some of the factors that have put Inter where they’re at.
Mourinho’s Transfer Dealings
Whilst Inter fans still hold Mourinho in legendary status and would have him back in a heartbeat, the Portuguese manager’s tenure at whatever club he has been usually leaves a difficult set of circumstances (not for him) for the succeeding manager. No one can accuse Mourinho of not delivering on the promised glories he speaks of at every club he’s been till date. But at what price? His short-term thinking, especially in transfer dealings means that he is dead-set on creating a team that hits its peak immediately rather than building a project that may take 4-5 years to come to fruition. He is also an expert at walking away before the stormy clouds gather.
In his first transfer window, Mourinho signed Sulley Muntari, Ricardo Quaresma, Roma’s highly-rated Brazilian winger Mancini and an unknown young Portuguese midfielder whose success at the club matched the prediction skills of his namesake, Pele. None of those players figure at the club anymore and none really did by the start of Mourinho’s second season, except for Muntari who played a bit part role. By the summer of 2009, having won the league title, but coming short on Moratti’s ultimate dream of European success, Inter forayed into the transfer market and signed Genoa’s Diego Milito, 30, and Thiago Motta, 27, Real Madrid’s Wesley Sneijder, and also, arguably, took part in one of the greatest daylight robberies in modern football when they somehow convinced Barcelona to part with Samuel Eto’o, 28, and 35 million pounds for Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Ibra had been part of multiple league titles with the Nerazzurri but the feeling had always been that he had held back the team, especially when it came to the Champions League. Mourinho rounded up his transfer dealings by signing Brazilian center back Lucio, 30, for a bargain reported fee of €5 million. Goran Pandev and Mcdonald Mariga also joined the club in January. Pandev played a crucial role in the last 6 months of the season but neither player remains at the club today.
Since the Champion’s League success, Samuel Eto’o has joined Oil-rich Anzhi in Russia, Milito who scored 30 goals that season has managed only 12 in one and a half seasons since. Lucio, now almost 33, still forms a key part of the Inter starting line-up and Motta,now 29, still figures too.
An Aging Squad
Having already discussed Jose Mourinho’s signings during his two year reign, its clear that most of them were geared towards delivering immediate success, especially during his last summer transfer window activity.
In short, Mourinho’s last Inter Milan line-up had 5 players who were at least 30 and only 2 players under 28 when they lined up with Julio Cesar 30, Maicon 28, Lucio 31, Samuel 32, Chivu 29, Zanetti 36, Cambiasso 29, Sneijder 25, Eto’o 29, Pandev 27, and Milito 30. A number of the players had their birthdays coming up within 2 months of the Champions League Final. Marco Materazzi 36, Stankovic 31 and Muntari 26 came on as subs.
Interestingly, most of those players who played that night still figure centrally for Inter Milan this season. Julio Cesar, now 32 and criticized in recent months for mixed form but not under much pressure from reserve keeper Castelazzi, who is 36, is still the starting keeper. Maicon, 30, still starts if fit but has fallen from the height of the best season of his career and lost his starting berth with the national side. Lucio and Samuel, both 33, still form the first choice central defence partnership. Andrea Ranocchia, who joined under Leonardo, is 23 and offers cover in that area but has yet to convince. Chivu, 31, still starts when fit but has been experiencing poor form in recent times. Yuto Nagatomo, 25, is a Japan international who has been one of Inter’s better signings in the post-Mourinho era and is a regular and can play in either full back position or on either wing in midfield if asked to. Zanetti, 38, Cambiasso, 31, have started more games than anyone else for Inter in the Serie A this season. Sneijder, 27, is an important player for Inter more in reputation than performance now due to a cluster of injuries that have hampered the last year or so of his career. He continues to be linked to a move to England, which may still materialize either in January or next summer. Milito, 32, has regained his starting place this season after an ineffective and injury prone season last year, but has only scored twice in the Serie A this season. Giampaulo Pazzini, 27, partners the Argentine international, having joined the club under Leonardo. Stankovic, 33 and Motta, 29, still figure for Inter. At the same time, Diego Forlan, 32, joined this summer and plays when not injured.
Other than Ranocchia and Nagatomo, only Zarate, 24, on loan from Lazio, Alvarez, 23, Obi, 20, Jonathan, 25 and Coutinho, 19, figure in Inter’s usual squad lists. However, none of them come close to being regulars and Zarate’s 6 starts is the highest between them this season.
To top it all off, Inter became the oldest side to line-up in Champions League history against Lille this season in a match they won 2-1. They averaged 31 years and 317 days old.
How Come They’re Still There?
Who is to blame for Inter’s aging squad? Mourinho has certainly played a role but 3 managers have come in since. Only two players, Castelazzi and Forlan, over-30 years of age, have signed in the post-Mourinho era when the focus has often been on youth.
The reality is, however, that most of the younger players have not lit the San Siro largely due to one of three reasons. Either they have been unable to prove to have the necessary quality to succeed at Inter (Mariga, and Kharja come to mind), or be able to displace the influential strong-knit starters (only Nagatomo has really broken into the starting line-up post Mourinho), or be given the time to gel themselves into starters at the club (Obi, Coutinho, Castaignos, and Ranocchia). At the same time, as Benitez, Leonardo and Gasperini can testify, the President, Massimo Moratti and the supporters continue to demand a title challenge on the domestic front and reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League too. That left all 3 managers with a huge burden in terms of getting instant results. That makes it all the more difficult to take the risk of introducing younger players when results are paramount. The Champions League winning side have largely seen their best days behind them, other than Sneijder arguably, and may also be suffering with a lack of motivation be it intentional or unintentional in the wake of a treble winning season of which dreams were made of.
All three managers arguably harshly suffered due to those unrealistic expectations, with none more so than Rafa Benitez who joined at a time when the dust had yet to settle from the Champions League success to realize the cracks that clearly existed. Benitez wanted time and money to bring in his own players but probably chose the wrong Italian to play Russian Roulette with after the Club World Cup in the UAE in December 2010. Had he kept quiet he may have had both. His record as Inter manager saw his side win 48% of their matches, losing 7 times in 25 games. Mourinho had won 63% of his matches and Inter only lost 8 more games under him but during 83 more matches.
Leonardo came in and had an instant impact, even as Inter continued to be linked with other long-term appointments on a regular basis. His signing of Pazzini proved to be a masterstroke. Inter won 70% of their matches under him (14 in 20), finishing in the Champions League spots and lifting the Coppa Italia. He left to become PSG Director of Football in the summer. Gianpiero Gasperini joined from Genoa and immediately instilled a fresh approach. Gasperini has for long been known as a tactician who favors the 3-4-3 formation, with a fast-break being a key component. He brought a growing reputation to Inter, having had a winning record at both Crotone and more impressively at Genoa, even though he was sacked there in November 2010. It was clear that a lot would change at Inter under Gasperini. A number of the players wouldnt fit the system and one was going to be Sneijder, unless he was moved to a position as an inside forward. Samuel Eto’o on the other other hand was a player perfectly suited to a front 3 until an unexpected bid from Anzhi forced Moratti’s hand and left Gasperini without a player he wanted and with a player he probably did not. The high defensive line needed pace to succeed and Ranocchia was drafted in under Gasperini, who had managed him at Genoa previously. Motta and Milito also received new leases of life under their former coach. Moratti must have known that it would take time for Gasperini’s principles to succeed. However, 5 games into the season, on the back of a 3-1 loss to Novara forced Moratti to sack the winless manager and hire the “tinkerman” Claudio Ranieri.
The Role of Massimo Moratti
No one can doubt the love and devotion of Morrati to the Inter cause. He has put his money where his mouth is but sometimes he may be too much of a supporter rather than owner for his own good. Had he had a closer look at the squad and on-goings after Mourinho left he would have known that Inter are bound to hit a transitional period sooner rather than later. With that in mind, time, money and patience would have been necessary for the next manager or 3 in Inter’s case.
Moratti has only now since the summer began to come to the realization that Inter are going through a transitional period, both on the pitch and off it, in terms of Financial Fair Play. He seems to be putting a lot of eggs in that basket and feels that if Inter curb their spending and work within their resources, they will be favorably placed when UEFA enforces FFF in the near future and clubs such as Manchester City, Chelsea and others suffer.
Since sacking Gasperini he has put the club in the trusted hands of Ranieri. Ranieri has no doubt stabilized the ship, playing the role of a band-aid perfectly. He has a 53% winning record, but the side have lost 5 times in his 15 games in charge. Only 2 losses fewer than Benitez but with 10 games fewer games played. Not much has changed under Ranieri, other than reverting to a 4-man defence. He continues to largely favor the same veteran stalwarts who have regularly featured for the club in recent times. Younger players such as Alvarez, Obi and Zarate figure here and there. But does Ranieri have the ruthlessness to overhaul an aging squad, stand tall to Moratti and quell pressure from the stands all the while remaining competitive on the field?
It’s unlikely that those targets are attainable simultaneously. Ranieri is more a pharmacist than a surgeon. He is perfect for prescribing the medication that will hold things together until long-term solutions are found. He did it at Chelsea where he is still most fondly remembered. He kept Parma up winning 7 of the last 16 games of the season, having joined with 3 and a half months of the season remaining. At Juventus he stabilized a ship and probably helped it punch above its weight finishing 3rd and 2nd but never looked like really pushing on for the title. He then joined Roma and in fact led the Serie A until surrendering the lead to Inter and also losing the Coppa Italia Final to Mourinho’s side. He resigned at the half-way mark of the next season after poor results. During most of his career Ranieri has injected an immediate spark into the side that he joins, but finds it difficult to build on early promise and push on from there. What you get instantly is usually the best that you will get with the Tinkerman. Fans of Juventus and Roma are happy to see the back of him, despite having led those clubs to their best results in recent years. One of the subtle introductions he has made at Inter has been that of Marco Faraoni who has started Inter’s last three matches and has been quietly getting good reviews on the right side of the team.
Moratti must take a lot of the responsibility for not seeing what was going on under his nose in terms of the make-up of the squad, for not accepting that change was/is needed and for hiring a man he would not keep any faith in Gasperini.
What Happens Next?
Inter, Moratti and their supporters probably still hold hopes that the club will somehow turn around the season and finish at least 3rd and qualify for the Champions League. Whilst it is possible, they would need to have consistency till the end of a season where Udinese, Milan and Juventus have been impressive. They are currently 7th, 8 points off Lazio who are in 4th place, outside the Champions League spots. Inter have yet to record 3 wins in a row all season. No one has scored more than 3 goals for them this season. Their defence is suspect through the center with pacey players running in behind them. Chivu and Maicon have not been earning any rave reviews from defending in the full back positions either. It may be wishful thinking for them to end the season back in the Champions League. In fact, it may be the worst thing that can happen for the club. As long as they still harbor such hopes, however faint, it becomes difficult for the manager to make drastic changes to the side, bringing in younger players. A season outside the Champions League may be just what the doctor ordered for Inter, unless Moratti and the supporters begin to accept the transitional phase that is currently well and truly underway. Living in denial will only make the reality harsher when it does hit.
Whilst so much has changed at the club, so little has changed too in terms of the makeup of the side. Until that side of things is drastically effected, Inter will continue to underachieve. That is something that the club had been used to until the Calciopoli scandal lifted them to the summit of Italian football, as they had been effectively the only top Italian side not hampered by it.
Mourinho usually walks away at the right time, and he knew that he had probably squeezed the best out of that Inter squad and wanted a new challenge when he joined Real Madrid. He continues to refer to staying at Chelsea for the beginning of his last season in charge as his biggest regret in football. Chelsea were also arguably hitting the wall, so to speak, but to a lesser degree than Inter has. All subsequent managers that have joined the club have had to deliver instant results with largely the same aging squad that had been assembled under Mourinho. Benitez probably knew what had to be done, but his ego and contempt for Mourinho as well as the squad’s hangover from its previous season went against him from day one. Importantly, Moratti was not ready to accept that anything major had to be changed within a winning formula. Leonardo never looked like being a long-term choice and Gasperini probably tried to change too much too quickly. Ranieri will probably not change enough to be at the forefront of a revolution at Inter either.
If you were a betting man, you’d put your money where it says the worst is yet to come for Internazionale. Missing out on the Champions League this season may be the beginning of major changes at the club, and it may yet be a couple of seasons, considering UEFA’s FFF before the side begin challenging on the domestic front again. You can be sure that no one at Juventus or Milan will be shedding a tear for a side who they believe has had it coming since Calciopoli.
As the dust settles on the first league Clasico of the season, one would urge caution before suggesting that Barcelona had dealt a knockout blow to Real Madrid’s title challenge. Nevertheless, Pep Guardiola tactically out-maneuvered the grim-faced Jose Mourinho, who lamented the lack of luck at key points of the match-up last night. Yes, at 1-0, Cristiano Ronaldo had time & space to slot home a shot, when he instead miscued a shot well wide & over the bar. Early in the second half, Ronaldo headed wide from a poor Barcelona attempt at an off-side trap off a cross. We’ve seen Ronaldo finish those opportunities with eyes closed, when the opposition isnt Barcelona. But it would be a dis-service to the Liga champions to suggest that Real Madrid’s misses handed Barcelona the victory.
Whilst Mourinho was brave to select Ozil to play in the 4-2-3-1 that he set up (when Karanka had suggested that RM would definitely play with a 4-3-3), the selection backfired. Ozil was rarely in the game, and could not get the better of Busquets who played an integral role both as a forward-moving center back, having started off in his usual anchor role. Even when Busquets dropped into CB, Ozil failed to take advantage. How much of a difference would Khedira have made from the start? That leads us to the second factor that helped Barcelona and that was the movement of Lionel Messi. He was not picked up by Real Madrid players & had no man-marker. When Barcelona were still finding their feet in the first half, Messi dropped deeper & deeper began to carry the ball forward & that helped his side settle. One of those mazy runs saw him slip through Alexis Sanchez who scored with what was a much more difficult finish than you would think.
Another interesting decision was the selection of Coentrao at right back. The idea was a left-sided player going up against a Barcelona attacker turning in-field. Initially it looked to be paying off, but Coentrao’s lack of familiarity with the role may have meant he played Alexis Sanchez onside for Barcelona’s first goal. Even though he had the better of Iniesta in the first half that was a crucial mistake. As the game wore on, Iniesta took on & beat Coentrao at will & was arguably Barcelona’s most impressive offensive player.
Real Madrid had set up to play a high intensity pressing game & that was evident from the first minute. Despite being a factor in their first goal, Barcelona remained patient at the back & continued to play what looked like risky passes to mere human viewers. They stuck to their philosophy when our inner voice was shouting out “hoof it, hoof it”. Victor Valdes got a lot of praise from Guardiola for showing “balls” & continuing to play short passes even after his mistakes in the first half. Despite giving up possession a few times due to the pressure, the Barcelona defence settled just as Real Madrid conceded the first goal, which came right at the time when Barcelona was turning the tide. Real Madrid began to reduce the intensity of their pressing, seemingly as part of their tactical plan for the match. Who could keep that pace up for 90 minutes without tiring? But one tactical reshuffle aided in getting Barcelona’s foot back into the game & alleviating a little bit of pressure on the Catalan side’s defence. Guardiola switched what looked like a back-4 to a back-3 plus Busquets who would drop into the center back role, pushing Pique to the right-sided center back, & returning captain Puyol to right back. This meant Dani Alves moved ahead into a right-wing position. The consequences of this were multi-fold.
Firstly, Puyol would face Ronaldo in one-on-one positions and he would get the better of him on every single occassion, stifling Ronaldo & frustrating him into a disillusioned figure. With Dani Alves moving forward, it forced the Real Madrid “attack” to think more about defending & dropping a little back. It was largely in the second half that the value of this tactical change provided an offensive result & that was when spaces opened up & Alves began sending delicious crosses towards the far post, one of which resulted in a Barcelona goal. Secondly, Busquets would drop into the center back role & have more time/space to spray the ball around. Initially, the move had defensive fruits as he was more disciplined & restricted in his movement but as Barcelona got their equalizer, Busquets began to position himself a little higher too. In the second half, he was virtually back to his original position as Barcelona almost exclusively looked like they had been playing with a back-3. Finally, the move allowed Fabregas to actually get into the game by dropping in as more of an orthodox central midfielder next to Xavi. Consequently, Xavi found himself moving forward, providing more of the forward runs which we are more accustomed to from Iniesta.
So what have we learnt from El Clasico?
- Mourinho probably second-guessed himself once again & this was evident in the tactics he set up
- Real Madrid cannot integrate the high-intensity pressing game for as long as they need to
- One step ahead, two steps back…Did Real Madrid look “closer” to Barcelona during the early season Super Cup? It’s quite likely that they looked more dangerous & could have easily won that title, but then again that was a Barcelona team that was physically about 2 weeks behind the RM preparations
- Pep Guardiola loves to change things on the go. The amount of times Barcelona’s movement & shaped changed during the game, whilst RM remained rigid & disciplined defines both the respective coaches approaches & styles. Pique said after the game that Barcelona were supposed to play with 3 at the back but RM’s pressure meant they werent able to until the 10th minute of the match
- Cristiano Ronaldo does not perform in big games as much as he should for someone of his stature. Messi brings much more than goals to this Barcelona team. Once again he played a crucial role just as he did last season during the Clasico series
- Puyol is a rock at the back of the defence & Barcelona never lose with him in the side. Well, almost never. He produced a defensive masterclass reminiscent of Fabio Cannavaro, the 2006 WC version & not the Real Madrid one. He stifled Ronaldo in every 1 on 1 situation, cleared crosses into the box, cleared the ball with his head, organized & disciplined Pique when he had to, & didnt give a foul away in the process & all this with lingering doubts over his fitness & future. What is clear is that Barcelona is a different side with him at the back. Had he not been playing last night, despite all the tactical talk above, it would not be far fetched to say Barcelona would not have won. A 10/10 performance for the captain
What happens next?
Well if you are Barcelona, you head to Japan to win the World Club Cup. But if you are Jose Mourinho, you have to pick up a dejected-looking set of players & re-inject self belief into them. But that will be easier said than done. RM were driven by the belief that they were as close to Barcelona as they had ever been & privately may have thought that they were, on form, the better side going into the Santiago Bernebau. But being walked off the park at home, especially in the second half, how do you tell those players that they are not inferior to their Barcelona counterparts? Whilst the defeat cost RM 3 points (arguably 4 with the head to head rules & away win for Barcelona), the real decisive factors in determining the champions will be who slips up in “other” games. Luckily for RM, they only have 1 league game before the winter break. Unfortunately, its at Sevilla, one of the harder grounds to go to. Failure to win that game & the sucker punch from last night could be turned into something much bigger.