Most Competitive League in Europe

Competition (re)defined

Competition is a contest between individuals, groups, animals, etc. for territory, a niche, or a location of resources. It arises whenever two or more parties strive for a goal which cannot be shared.” Wikipedia defines competition this way. However, it is not so easy to define I guess. How do we classify competitiveness of a European football league? Surely, the most popular football league in the world need not necessarily be the most competitive one. Neither the Galacticos nor supposedly the best ever club team playing in the same league can ensure that.


English Premier League                             Spanish La Liga                                     Italian Serie A


German Bundesliga                           French Ligue 1                                           Dutch Eredivisie

Some may feel that the number of winners over the past few years is the best parameter to judge the ruthlessness of any league. But here’s a question. How many of us have heard of the Campionato Sammarinese di Calcio? Not many, in my opinion. It is the football league operated in San Marino. Since its inception in 1985, it has seen 10 different winners – 5 in the last decade. This league is ranked 53rd in Europe by UEFA. The Swedish Allsvenskan, top division football league in Sweden has seen the trophy taking a tour of as many as 7 different club locker rooms during the same period. There can be several leagues in Europe which do not feature highly in the UEFA league rankings, or are not watched by billions, but they are certainly competitive by this parameter. Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that EPL or La Liga is the most predictable league in Europe. There are other contenders. Last time the Scottish League was won by a club other than Celtic or Rangers, was way back in 1984/85 – the club was Aberdeen, managed by a certain (not Sir yet) Alex Ferguson. So, let’s not complicate things – just get on with some hard core facts and statistics.


In this research, we have made certain assumptions and here is a quick snapshot to start off.

Select Leagues from Europe

For this analysis, top 3 leagues from Europe have been shortlisted – English Premier League, Italian Serie A and Spanish La Liga. For the German Bundesliga, French League 1, Dutch Eredivisie fans, I seek an apology. The 3 leagues chosen had the maximum number (4) of clubs appearing in the UEFA Champions League for the past few years. Germany has overtaken Italy this year and will be having 4 teams in the Champions League season 2012-13, but for the time period considered – more on that later – Italy used to have more participants than Germany. Under the parameters considered, the French or German League could have come up with the honours if included, but we have taken into consideration the pedigree of the league also.

Finalize Parameters

Certain parameters have been shortlisted to take the analysis forward. They are:

  • No. of drawn games
  • No. of matches won with a victory margin of 3+
  • Difference in points across the league table
  • Point gap between the 1st and 5th placed teams
  • No. of Goals scored
  • No. of different  winners
  • No. of different Teams featuring in the top 4
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Mid table opponents
  • Points dropped by the top 4 teams against the Bottom 5 teams

Data Collection

For the analysis, 5 years of recent data has been collected from the respective league’s official website. There is no need for normalization as the league structure is the same for all the 3 leagues – 20 teams play in the home and away basis, at the end of which 3 teams get relegated. So number of teams, matches played, and the number of survivors in the league – are well synchronized to help our analysis. For the analysis, point deductions or any penalties imposed (most notably in Serie A 2006-07 season for the match fixing fiasco) have been ignored. Subsequently, the league standings have also been altered and updated. For example, Fiorentina was deducted 15 points at the start of the season and hence finished 6th in the League. Had they not been penalized, they would have finished 3rd and that is the place they have been put in for this piece’s analysis. We are dissecting the competitiveness in the field, so any off-the-field implications are best kept away with.


It is very difficult to rank the parameters or to decide which factor is to be given how much weightage. So, let us just assess the parameters individually as far as possible and see if we reach a coherent conclusion from there.

1.      Number of Drawn Games

A drawn game, more often than not, depicts the inability to win of either sides playing. Putting it in the colloquial lingo, “they have cancelled each other out… it’s a stalemate.”

La Liga has a lower number of drawn games historically and that too at a downward trend. EPL and Serie A seem to lock horns with each other with the former taking over the mantle from the latter in recent years. This is due to the fact that EPL has an upward trend in number of drawn games, whereas Serie A is quite the opposite. Overall the number of drawn games in these 3 leagues hover around the 25% mark, take one or two percent here and there. So, it means effectively 9-10 drawn games for each team in a season on an average basis. That is pretty high, show-casing the high level of competition in each of the leagues.

2.      Number. of Matches with Winning Margin 3+ 

These score lines have been few and far between in EPL & Serie A

Fiercely competitive teams, when playing against each other, will have a very narrow winning margin. As a thumb rule, a margin of anything over 2-0 or 3-1 or likewise can be termed as a stroll in the park. Agreed, results can be misleading; but in a wide horizon, these anomalies are likely to be ironed out. So, let us see how many thrashing we have witnessed in the recent past.

As expected, Serie A teams have lived up to their reputation of having a tight defence and thus have had fewer experiences of these thrashings. The teams from Italy on an average experience this kind of humiliation only once in the entire season. For the other 2 leagues, the number almost doubles. The number of such matches has, more or less, remained constant over the years for each individual league. La Liga & EPL are neck and neck, although the former is slightly ahead.

3.       Difference in points across the League

Let us now see by how much have the table toppers leapfrogged the last boys? To do that, we have categorized the 20 teams in any league under 3 broad subheads:

  • Top 4 teams – they are the Top teams as they go on to participate in the top tier of European Club Football, the Champions League.
  • Bottom 5 teams –3 of these teams were relegated eventually, whereas the rest are assumed to be involved in a dogfight for survival for the majority of the season. Hence, it makes perfect sense to categorize them in the same bracket.
  • The Mid tablers – rest 11 teams in the league.

Now average points earned by each of these 3 groups have been taken up for calculating standard deviation – a statistical parameter, to measure the proximity of variables under consideration – of points in the league. This gives us a fair idea of how closely the teams, or rather cluster of teams, are finishing the league.

EPL is showing steady decrease in this, meaning the teams are getting ever closer. The figures are more or less constant for Serie A, although with a decreasing trend. La Liga is just the opposite in this regard – the teams are finishing with some considerable point gap among them. This was the scenario in EPL a few years back, but they have become quite competitive over the years. The case of La Liga is simply opposite.

4.      Point Gap between 1st & 5th placed teams

The team to finish 5th in these leagues are given a pat at the back with consolation. They nearly miss out to an elusive Champions League Football spot. So, let us see how the gap between the Champion and this unfortunate side has evolved over the years.

In sync with the previous stat, the gap seems to get more and more widened in La Liga. This is expected, as their champion team is a certain Barcelona. Also, the spread between the 2nd and the 3rd placed teams are widening quite alarmingly – 5, 10, 8, 21 and 25 points over the last 5 years. Just to put it into perspective, the 21 or 25 points gap is by far the biggest gap between any two consecutive placed teams for these 3 leagues over the last 5 years. In fact 25 point gap encompassed all the teams baring the top 5 in year 2010-11 in EPL. People do not call this league a 2-horse race just for fun. For Serie A and EPL, there is a downward trend in this regard. So it shows there is an increasing competition towards the business end of the league.

Udinese edging out Lazio for the last Champions League spot by goal difference in 2010-11

5.         Points dropped by the Top 4 against Mid-tablers

Depth of any league is measured by the skill, tactics and determination applied on the field by the mid-tablers – teams finishing 6th to 15th in the final standing. More often than not, they fancy their chances against the big boys, especially playing at home, and are capable of getting a point, sometimes even 3. Teams like Sunderland, Mallorca and Palermo have often played a significant part in deciding the fate of the league winner. Stronger these teams, more cut-throat is guaranteed in the league.

In La Liga, the mid-tablers are losing the ground steadily to the front runners – there is a steady decline in the points dropped. EPL demonstrates just the reverse trend, the mid-table toddlers are going from strength to strength. However, Serie A has been the leader by far in this respect over the years. EPL, though, has a sharper trend and may overtake Serie A if the pattern continues. Overall, the top teams drop one-third of points against the mid-table opponents across these 3 leagues. This is quite a hefty proportion – 1 draw every 2 matches.

Mid Table teams look to set the scores straight

6.      Points dropped by the Top 4 against Bottom 5 Teams

The relegation contenders often play a spoil sport. The top teams are expected to win against them, that too handsomely. However, they can sometime cause an upset to the joy of other title contenders. A Fulham can upset Arsenal’s plans of automatic qualification to the Champions League. A Livorno can snatch away the title from Roma. So, let us see how the stats stack up over the years.

Like the previous section, La Liga table toppers are improving year after year against the minnows. On the other hand, the other two leagues are finding it more and more difficult to walk away with the honours against the bottom clubs. EPL though, in spite of this trend, has a lower average points dropped – there the top 4 teams are doing fairly well against the less fancied opponents. Serie A teams have been the front runner in this stat – they are way ahead of the competition and are steadily increasing the gap. Overall, the top 4 teams are performing well enough against the lower clubs – they concede only 10% points in these encounters. However, the position of the league table, the time of the season when they are dropping points – these factors are more important. Like the bottom most team in the league table, Wolves were the first team in the EPL 2010-11 season to beat the eventual champions Manchester United. The defeat set the Red Devils on a poor run of form and Chelsea had the opportunity to cash in.

David v/s Goliath is not always a foregone conclusion


So many statistics and analysis! So where are we now? Can we reach any conclusion? Let us try to recapitulate the results in a nutshell.

In the above analysis, the most competitive league based on each parameter has been given rank 1. The arrow’s direction represents the trend, whereas its colour depicts the competitiveness – green for more cut-throat, red for the opposite and yellow for middle-of-the-road competitiveness. For example, a green downward arrow means that the league has a downward trend as far as the parameter (say, Point gap between the 1st & the 5th placed Teams) is concerned, and that fact (the arrow being green) will make the league more competitive in the coming years.

It is quite evident from our analysis that Serie A is by far the most competitive League. EPL may be just edging out La Liga for the period under consideration. So, what about the hue and cry about EPL being the most competitive league in Europe? What does their dominance in the Champions League (i.e. number of teams featuring in quarters or semis) mean?

One thing going in favour of EPL is the number of goals scored. Serie A, being a defence dominated league, logically has less number of goals. EPL, though not as competitive as Serie A, scores over in this aspect.

A definitive answer lies in the trend analysis of our findings. While La Liga is finding it difficult to remain competitive as per the parameters provided here, EPL is fast catching up with the Serie A. In recent 2-3 years, they have surely leapfrogged Serie A in every aspect of competitiveness. Moreover, number of goals scored in Seria A is shrinking. EPL is quite the opposite – far more goals are scored there and the rate is even better than La Liga. It is not surprising, since the top English clubs are now massive sports franchises which can lure the top players to the Premier league. So, EPL apart from being quite competitive is a fairly entertaining league (after all, a goal is what every football lover wants to see, isn’t it!). If the trend continues for the coming years, EPL fans’ claim will be hard to turn down.


Debojyoti Chakraborty is a hardcore Manchester United and East Bengal (India) fan. He can be reached at