What is the Best Football League in Europe?
An almost continuous debate amongst football fans is “What is the best league in Europe?” Is it La Liga (Spain) with Barcelona and Real Madrid battling it out in El Classico? The Bundesliga (Germany) with the master class of Bayern Munich’s dominant play? Or is it the Premier League (England) with an all out battle between at least six clubs for the title each year?
One of the prime indicators for most football fans is how competitive is the league in the fight for the championship. For the sake of a similar timeline the data used in this article will begin in 1992 with the start of the Premier League replacing Division One in England and two years after the Germany reunification, which created a larger number of teams in the Bundesliga (Though no team from the former E. Germany has ever won the Bundesliga).
Since 1992 following teams have won the title in what is seen as the three top leagues of Europe:
FC Bayern Munich (15), Borussia Dortmund (5), VfB Stuttgart (2), SV Werder Bremen (2) VfFC Kaiserslautern (1), and VfL Wolfsburg (1)
Barcelona(13), Real Madrid(8), Atletico Madrid(2), Valencia(2), Deportivo La Coruña(1)
Manchester United(13), Chelsea(5), Arsenal(3), Manchester City(2), Blackburn(1), Leicester City(1)
While its clear that FC Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Manchester United have a clear lead in Winners Medals the other factor it is important to note is how close were these teams to the 2nd place team or the teams in 2nd to 4th place (often seen as the top teams of a league) when they won their titles.
My first measurements for determining how competitive a league is will be are what is the points difference between 1st place and 2nd, what is the goal difference between 1st place and 2nd, and what is the points difference between 1st place and 4th place. For those unfamiliar with the points system per game in Football tables is as follows: 0 points = Loss, 1 point = Draw, 3 Points = Win.
The league with the smallest average gap between 1st and 2nd place is La Liga with an average of 5.29 points or less than a 2 game difference. However, La Liga also has the largest average gap between 1st and fourth place, 18.42 or 6 games. Indicating that though the battle for 1st place may be fierce there is not such veracity between the first and fourth place teams. In La Liga, more often then not, the two teams battling it out are Barcelona and Real Madrid with the occasional appearance by other teams like Atletico Madrid.
The league with the smallest gap between 1st and 4th place is, rather surprisingly, the Bundesliga with an average gap of 15.625, or just over 5 games. However, the German league finds itself in the opposite situation as La Liga where it has the largest gap between 1st and 2nd of 7.04, or 3 games. That number has largely increased because of the results of the last few seasons where the German Champion, Bayern Munich, has won by at least 10 points and at most 25 each year. In fact, between 2013 and 2017 the average point difference is 15.8(27.2 for 1st and 4th place) while the fifteen years prior the average differential is 5.25 points (12.95 for 1st and 4th place). From this we can infer that while the Bundesliga is an extremely competitive league in last five seasons it has become a one-team show from Bayern Munich.
Our other league, the Premier League, has nicely fallen almost directly in between the other two leagues with an average point differential between 1st and 2nd of 6.52 and an average 1st and 4th point differential of 16.72. Our third metric for measuring the competitive nature of the leagues is the goal difference between first and second place. In this category the Premier league is well ahead of its competitors. The leagues average is 6.88 while La Liga’s is 9.41 and the Bundesliga 12.00. This metric shows us that while the Premier Leagues point differential may not be at the forefront of our other two measurements they may only be that size because a team won or lost a game by a goal or two. I may look into the frequency of high scoring games across the three leagues at a later date, but I encourage others to look into the matter in the mean time.
Our other and final metric for measuring the “Greatness” of a European League against its competitors is how a countries team performs in the Champions and Europa League. For those unaware the Champions League is where each League in Europe sends the top 2–4 teams (depending on country and league) to compete against other best teams in Europe in a Group to Knockout Stage competition. While the Europa, formerly the UEFA cup, is compiled over 2–4 teams from each league that placed below those in the Champions League spot. We will be looking at the final and semi-final of both competitions to see what percentage of the time a participant from our three focus countries participated and the amount that each country has won in the since 1992.
In the Europa League it there is a clear front-runner for highest participation and highest number of victories. La Liga is the clear victor here winning 32%, 8, of the last 25 Champions Leagues and unsurprisingly has the highest participation rate at 44%. While the Premier League and Bundesliga are way behind with 20% of the victories split between the two. The Premier League teams have participated in slightly more finals than the Bundesliga with participation rates of 28 and 20 respectively. This trend does not fray when we go a stage back in the competition to the semi-finals where of the 100 teams who have participated in the 25 seasons 23% were Spanish, 14% German, and only 10% were English.
In Europe’s Premier competition, the Champions League, we see even bigger numbers showing support for La Liga. A team from La Liga has won the competition 44%, or 11, and participated in 64% of the finals. While the Premier League and Bundesliga have a matched participation rate of 32% each. However, with a Premier League team winning one more title (4) than a Bundesliga team (3) the English teams just barely edge out the Germans. A rarity for English Football on the international stage. La Liga continues to out participate the other nations in the semi-finals by making up almost 30% of the teams that have participated while teams from the Premier League and Bundesliga makes up 21% and 15%.
While it is clear that when it comes to performance against each other in the Europa and Champions League competitions that La Liga teams are vastly out performing their European compatriots it is not such a clear picture when comparing leagues side by side. Each league has its own merits to claim that it is the best league in Europe. La Liga can claim the lowest point difference between 1st and 2nd with Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid battling it out. The Bundesliga can claim the gap between its first and fourth place team is the least, but until Bayern Munich’s dominance over the League returns to previous levels I don’t believe it can be considered for most competitive. The Premier League can claim to have the smallest goal differential between 1st and 2nd and a larger variety of recent winners of the title. In the end, the argument is just banter between fans taking pride in the respective leagues. It appears this debate will continue until the final whistle is blown on the final match.