Were you to tune into an English-based football provider showing a top-flight match from the country, the phrase, “and that’s why the Premier League is the best league in the world” would be periodically thrusted into your ears. However, is it?
One of the arguments pundits tend to throw up is the Premier League’s ‘superior’ scorelines. Recalling this season’s opening weekend, an exciting game for the neutral was played as Arsenal suffered the fate of a 4-3 defeat to a visiting Liverpool side. A stunning scoreline for sure; however, just six days later in Spain’s opening top-flight fixtures, Jorge Sampaoli’s first league game for Sevilla ended with a 6-4 win against Catalonian underdogs Espanyol. Six goals were scored in the first half alone.
Of course, these are just comparisons of individual fixtures from the two leagues. However, surprise scorelines from Spain are often underreported in our homeland. Perhaps it is due to the huge emphasis on our own division.
Typically, media outlets use these English fixtures to boost the profile of their league as the best in the world. It is exactly here where we find the problem of resolving this debate—how do we define the word “best” in this context?
If you consider the most competitive league to be the “best” then naturally the Premier League would be thought of as champion by many. However, is this just another English cliché deflecting us from the truth?
‘Anyone can beat anyone’—another commentary staple frequently uttered to boost the league’s ego. Yet I find it interesting that when I sit down to watch Match of the Day during the late hours, presenter Gary Lineker will often mention that “team x hasn’t beaten team y since (insert year here)” in introducing a fixture. A rather… contradictory statement.
I am not going to waste words enhancing a similar but inferior example for the Spanish League. However, there is this stigma that it is a ‘two-team league’ and therefore very predictable. This is completely false—a league is not defined solely by its winner, and there are 19 other competing teams (in the cases of England and Spain). Granted, Barcelona and Real Madrid have dominated the accolade of winners for several seasons, but the rise of Real’s city rivals Atletico has shown that it is possible for other teams to rise up to the challenge. To emphasise this point further, at the time of writing, Sevilla currently sit in third, one point off Barcelona.
Furthermore, this season alone has already seen some wonderful stories blossom. Lowly Eibar, the Basque underdogs overshadowed by Athletic Bilbao and Real Sociedad, currently sit eighth in the league, three points off a European place. Real Sociedad themselves, a club that has been trapped in the midst of mid-table, now sit in fifth—a point above former title holders Atletico—having been reborn under manager Eusabio Sacristana. Newly-promoted side Deportivo Alaves went to Camp Nou and won. 2001/02 and 2003/04 La Liga winners Valencia are currently embroiled in a survival battle, above the relegation zone only by goal difference. The list goes on and on.
It is often said that there are five or six teams that can win the Premier League every year. I don’t dispute this, however English title races are often overhyped and, were you to believe the stigma, similar to Spain in that it usually comes down to a fight between two teams. And looking back, it appears that typically there isn’t a fight at all. Leicester won the league last season by a storming 10 points; Barcelona won the Spanish league, inching it by a single point. The year before, Chelsea won the Premier League by a considerable eight points; in Spain, Barcelona were crowned champions in far more convincing fashion… a two-point gap. The year before, the Premier League was a tighter contest, with Manchester City tipping Liverpool to the title by two points. Spain couldn’t match the competitiveness that year, the winners creating a three-point chasm between themselves and their rivals. However, it wasn’t Barcelona or Real Madrid to lift it, but Atletico—interesting for a ‘2-team league.’
Granted, the gap between the title rivals and the teams chasing a Champions League place in Spain may be considerable come May. However, could this be because Spain’s top clubs are simply far superior to their fellow competitors? Yes, definitely, and this is where the misconception arises. By not looking at the league through the broader scope, the quality of other top-flight clubs is completely misrepresented. The likes of Celta Vigo, Athletic Bilbao, Sevilla, Villarreal and, up until recently, Valencia, were competitive and successful clubs across Europe. Sevilla have been the holders of the Europa League for the last three seasons, and it took an all-Spanish tie in the quarter-finals to finally knock a Spanish side out of Europe’s 2015/16 competitions, with Bilbao besting Valencia on away goals. Liverpool saw an unfamiliar sight in Europe for an English club—a European semi-final, in which they knocked out Villarreal after coming off of a 1-0 away defeat at El Madrigal. Sevilla bested Bilbao on penalties before beating the ‘Merseysiders’ convincingly in an impressive second half.
Meanwhile, the Champions League has been held, identically to the Europa League, by a Spanish club for the past three seasons (Real Madrid 2013/14, 2015/16 & Barcelona 2014/15). This is not at all surprising when looking at a broader context. Since 2000, Spanish clubs have won 8 Champions Leagues (Real Madrid  Barcelona ) and 8 Europa Leagues (Sevilla  Atletico Madrid  Valencia ). Meanwhile, since 2000, English clubs have won 3 Champions Leagues (Liverpool  Manchester United  Chelsea ) and 2 Europa Leagues (Liverpool  Chelsea ). There is a clear difference in quality between the top clubs in both leagues, skewed significantly in favour of the Primera Division.
Spanish clubs have also achieved dominance in a far more patriotic style. The current Premier League top four—Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City & Arsenal—have an average of just over two English players in their most regularly used eleven this season. Meanwhile, the Spanish top four—Real Madrid, Barcelona, Sevilla & Villarreal—have an average of just over 5 Spaniards in their most regularly used elevens.
This points towards a more successful youth development system throughout the country. La Liga sides do not rely on bringing in foreign talent to improve their squads to the extent of Premier League clubs. Further evidence can be derived from the success of the national team, as three straight international titles between 2008 and 2012 saw a dominance in both the UEFA and FIFA competitions.
Not that I feel the need to turn the knife any further, but I simply cannot let this “entertainment factor” lie. When you go to see any sort of show, the bottom line is that the most quality acts will put on the most entertaining performances, hence why they are the “best in the business.” So why doesn’t the same apply to football?
The Guardian recently published their top 100 players of 2016 list. The first six players (Ronaldo, Messi, Suarez, Griezmann, Neymar & Bale) are all from La Liga, while seventh and eighth (Lewandowski & Aubameyang) go to the Bundesliga. The Premier League does not have any representatives until Alexis Sanchez and Riyad Mahrez fill the ninth and tenth slots. Of the top 50, La Liga represents 38% of the list and the Premier League 34%. It is a fact that the highest quality players in the world are from La Liga. Therefore, the footballers providing the “best quality” output to viewers play in Spain.
I’ll leave you with one final stat, one final check of the pulse. The UEFA country coefficient rankings for European leagues collates data from the previous five European club competitions. The Premier League is not first; it is not even second. The English top flight’s high pedestal sits third, over three points off the German Bundesliga and a staggering 24 points behind… well, I’ll let you guess.