By now, everyone has heard the argument that La Liga is a two-horse race, especially from the press outside of Spain. While there is no denying that fact, the more interesting questions are: ’Is La Liga is the ONLY two-horse race among the top leagues of Europe?’ and ‘What is the most competitive league at the top of the table?’
We analyzed the points gaps between the League champion and the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th places teams in La Liga, Bundesliga, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the English Premier league from the year 2006 through 2011.
What we saw was a mixture of expected and unexpected trends.
The most competitive leagues at the top are the French and German leagues. A coincidence (or may be not) is that these two leagues also happen to have some of the more stringent financial controls and accountability rules.
1. La Liga
As expected, the gap between the top two is very low and stayed flat. This despite Barcelona dominating the league over the past three years, Barça never really put a lot of distance between them and their eternal rival
The gap between #1 & #3 has increased from 5 points in 2006 to 28 in 2009-10 and 25 in 2010-11, respectively, a 5X increase.
Similarly the gap between the top team and the 4th, 5th and 6th positions have dramatically jumped. In fact in the last two years the points gap has doubled and far exceeds the other top leagues in Europe. This is a very disturbing trend.
2. Serie A
At the outset, Serie A looks like a mirror image of La Liga’s chart.
The high points difference in 2006-7 is attributed to the ramifications of the Calciopoli scandal. Juventus was relegated and deducted points, along with Fiorentina -15, Milan -8 and Lazio -3.
The numbers quickly come down for the season 2007-08 and remain stable from there on. Note that 1 Vs 6 gap in Serie A is 19 points, half of La Liga’s 1 vs 6 gap of 38 points.
3. English Premier League
The gap between 1, 2 & 3, 4 and the gap between 3, 4, 5,& 6 is very interesting. It is as if the EPL top 6 can ben divided into 3 groups.
2010-11 bucked that trend a bit when #3 Manchester City and #2 Chelsea finished with the same number of points in the league.
If anything, EPL has become a bit more competitive at the top since 2006-7. Although only two teams Man United or Chelsea have won the competition, since then, there is no question that it got progressively tougher for them to win the title. Take for instance the 2008-9 when Liverpool came a close 2nd.
Teams placing 5th & 6th seem to be getting closer to 4th place teams above them. Maybe the equitable distribution of TV revenue is allowing those teams like Everton and Tottenham to hold on to their good players for a bit longer.
The weird thing about the Bundesliga chart is that teams are separated by a uniform margin every year except for #6 in 2011.
Some gaps like 1 v 2 , 1 v 3 have increased over the years.
Germany saw Stuttgart, Wolfsburg and Borussia Dortmund alternate with Bayern Munich as Champions in the past 6 years.
1 v 2 gap hit an all time peak last year, Bayern had a down year and Dortmund was very impressive. But Dortmund are struggling this year and there is a sense that Bundesliga 2011-12 is Bayern’s to lose.
5. Ligue 1
Ever since 2006-7 when Lyon ran away with the title, the gaps have reduced on a whole. Though it does appear they are creeping up again, this could be a minor blip or the affect of the continuous selling of top players to the bigger European leagues. France also saw a three different champions in past 5-6 years in Bordeaux, Lille, Marseille apart from Lyon.
Now let us take a different look at the data. Compare 1 vs 2 , 1 vs 3 and 1 vs 6 in the top 5 leagues. (Blue: La Liga, Purple: Serie A, EPL: Red, Bundesliga: Green, Ligue 1: Aqua)
The above three charts underline the point made in the earlier graphs.
La Liga is the most competitive between 1 vs 2 but the gap between 1 vs 3 and 1 vs 6 has drastically increased a lot in the past 4-5 years.
1 vs 6 has increased from 10 points to 28 points in Bundesliga in the last 3 years, but still it is less compared to La Liga.
1 v 3 in EPL, Serie A, Ligue 1 and Bundesliga has converged over this period of time. Cue that there is more fight at the top.
Only two teams have won La Liga (Barça, Real Madrid), Serie A (Milan, Inter) and the EPL (Chelsea, Manchester United) over the past 5 years. In that sense La Liga is not the only two-horse race.
However both in Serie A and EPL, the top two had much more competition from the rest and in general it is trending that 3rd and 4th place teams are more competitive and closer to the top two. In this aspect, La Liga is truly the only two-horse race where they the gap between the top two and the rest has risen dramatically in the past 5 years.
Why things are the way they are in La Liga?
- There are multiple factors contributing to the widening gap in La Liga. a lopsided TV revenue distribution model, the top two are arguably the two best teams in Europe and financial mismanagement at some of the clubs in La Liga during the past 5 odd years.
- Real Madrid & Barca annual budget has gone up from the 100mil euro range in 2000-01 to 500mil euro range in 2010-11. The budgets at other La Liga clubs have shrunk during this period barring the odd exception like Málaga’s spending this past summer.
- The league is not marketed collectively. It is always marketed as Barça, Madrid and 18 others. This is a serious problem that greatly affects the value of the overall TV contract they can get. Currently La Liga TV contract is worth about 600mil euros almost half of that of EPL 1.1billion euros and Serie A about 900mil euros.
- Based on the activity surrounding this topic over the past month or so, a few things are clear. The big two aren't ready to fore go their huge share of the pie (RM & Barça both get about 140mil each out of the 600mil) for the greater good.
- The rest of the clubs are unable to come together to put a united front and bargain collectively with the top two. Del Nido tried to unite the teams but his attempt has been overrun by the coercion and pressure tactics of the Big two. While there is still some hope, teams need to realize that fighting together for a common cause is the only way to get to a better situation. Otherwise with no end in sight for the financial crisis and a lot of teams already under administration, things can only get worse in the next few years.
- La Liga is unlikely to get a significantly bigger pie when the TV contract comes up for renewal in 2014-15 because for this to happen the LFP has to get its act together in terms even basic organization issues like scheduling, advanced announcement of kick-off times, some sort of marketing strategy to give exposure to the 20 clubs and not just 2 out of the 20.
- The LFP also needs to start enforcing the rules. It is no good having great laws and stringent rules if they are not enforced. It is not a good policy to allow teams in administration to sign more players by hook or crook. It only worsens the situation for the club and the league as a whole. The phrase “La Liga is played by genius and run by idiots” was never more true than now.
- The financial crisis in Spain.