I have explained a simple method of comparing the success of top European teams: points are given to clubs that reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League, with the number of points depending on which round of the Champions League they reach. This can also be applied to leagues to work out which European leagues are the strongest (or at least have the strongest top sides) by adding up the amount of points all the clubs from a particular league get.
Working out the score from a five-year period gives a long-term, more reliable score, as the factor of chance present in a cup competition is reduced. The following graph shows the changes in the scores of the six highest-scoring leagues: in order Spain, England, Germany, Italy, France and Portugal.
The Spanish league had the best clubs at the beginning of the century, with Madrid winning the competition in 2000 and 2002 and Valencia reaching two consecutive finals at the beginning of the century. However, during most of the decade the Premier League dominated. An English side reached the final in every year from 2005 to 2009, with Liverpool winning in 2005 and Manchester United winning in 2008. In 2008 and 2009 three of the four semi-finalists were English, and in 2005, 2007, 2008 and 2009 Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool all made the knockout stages.
However, since then Premier League hegemony has disappeared under the attack of Barcelona and Real Madrid. Florentino Pérez became the president of Real Madrid again in June 2009 and bought a new wave of galacticos: Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo and Karim Benzema all joined that summer. José Mourinho became manager the summer afterwards. Although Madrid have not won the competition since 2002, they have reached the semi-finals in three consecutive seasons. Meanwhile, Barcelona developed their acclaimed team and style of play under Pep Guardiola. Barcelona have got to at least the semi-final in every season since 2008. Since 2009 the players finishing first, second and third in the annual Ballon d’Or award have all played for Madrid or Barça.
Italian teams were at the peak of their power in the 2003-07 period. Milan won the competition twice and reached a final in this period. Since then however they have not performed as well. Inter’s win in 2010 is the only time an Italian team has reached the semi-final since 2008. German teams were fairly weak for much of the decade, with no team getting as far as the semi-finals from 2003 to 2009. Since then, however, Bayern Munich have won it and reached two finals, Borussia Dortmund have reached a final and Schalke have reached a semi final. This has propelled Germany above Italy in the chart and means it is threatening England – since 2010 it has a higher score than England.
So what accounts for this decline in the quality of the Premiership elite in comparison to other countries? In the past few years the best players in the world have been playing in Spain instead of England. This is partly because of direct transfers to Madrid and Barça. In the past four seasons Javier Mascherano (from Liverpool) and Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal) joined Barcelona while Xabi Alonso (Liverpool), Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United), Luka Modric (Tottenham) and Gareth Bale (Tottenham) joined Real Madrid. Premiership clubs have been unable to attract the likes of Messi, Kaka, Ronaldo and Fabregas to come (in some cases to come back).
Not all of this is due to spending power, however. Across the four seasons before this one, Real Madrid’s net transfer spend was £264 million and Barcelona’s was £135 million. While Manchester United only had a net spend of £32 million and Arsenal actually earned £35 million in transfer fees across that time period, Manchester City and Chelsea both spent enormous amounts, with a net spend of £303 million and £262 million respectively. Manchester City needed to spend this money to quickly establish a squad capable of reaching and doing well in Champions League (however they went out in the group stages in the last two seasons) but whether Chelsea have spent effectively is highly debatable. Barcelona’s best players like Xavi, Iniesta and Messi have emerged out of La Masia. In Germany, Bayern Munich has assembled a strong team which in large part is bought from other German clubs or home-grown. Their total net transfer spend over the past four seasons was £156 million.
Going into this season’s Champions League, the poor performance of English sides in the past two seasons could be anomalous: on paper the English clubs underperformed. This season Chelsea, with the experience of José Mourinho, are like to do better, and few would bet against Manchester City failing to progress from the group stages for a third season running. However, Bayern Munich, Barcelona and Real Madrid still look stronger than any English side.
This summer eyes were on two high-spending French clubs: PSG (who I wrote about last year) and Monaco. According to the chart the French league has been fairly consistently the fifth best in Europe. Lyon reached the knock-out stages every year from 2004 to 2012 with six other clubs also reaching the knock-out stages this century. PSG will want to better last season’s quarter-final appearance; however it is difficult to see them doing so unless they have a relatively easy draw. Monaco are not in this year’s competition, so it will be a while before the French league can challenge the top three of Spain, England and Germany.
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