Saturday’s Champions League final between Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspurs is the culmination of a long season and the showpiece event in club football. Its glamour comes, in part, from the grit needed to get there. This year’s finalists, in particular, have taken a path of brinkmanship – enduring between them a relentless title race, injuries and several near-knockouts – to reach the final.
Regardless of the outcome, the final marks the beginning of a potential new cycle in European football. For the last five years, Europe has been the fiefdom of the Spanish. Clubs from Spain have swept 9 of the 10 major European trophies on offer (the Champions League and the Europa League). This week that changes. Between them, English teams will have won 13 Champions Leagues (including the erstwhile European Cup) and 9 Europa Leagues (including the UEFA Cup) and will overtake Italy as the second-most successful nation in European football.
The English renaissance is both a function of money and managerial nous. The league’s global popularity has generated riches for its clubs through the burgeoning value of television rights and commercial revenues. Of the 20 richest clubs in the world, 9 are English, according to Deloitte, and, taken together the league outspent all its European counterparts in 2017-18. With managers like Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, all this money is now being marshaled to potent effect.
How a league’s clubs fares against the best of Europe, though, is just one barometer of a league’s quality. A league’s greatness is also defined by how fiercely contested it is. Much of sport’s charm lies in the uncertainty of outcome – yet in leagues across Europe outcomes are becoming increasingly certain.
Season-long title races are being replaced by season-long title processions. In Italy, Juventus now have won eight consecutive titles; in Germany, Bayern Munich have won seven; and in France, Paris Saint-Germain have won six. In these leagues, winning is no longer just a habit but a well-drilled routine where financial clout, partly a result from regular forays into the Champions League, allows clubs to hoover up talent from domestic rivals to further cement their domestic supremacy.
As a result, clubs are finding it harder to break into the elite. In Italy, the Serie A saw 6 different winners in the 1970s, this decade there have just been 2. Similarly, in England’s Premier League, there have been 5 different winners over the last twenty years; between 1950 and 1970, there were 11. Some countries, though, always have had historically uncompetitive leagues. For instance, Spain’s league has always been an eternal battle between Barcelona and Real Madrid who together account for two-thirds of all championships.
Monotony at the top though can mask intense competition below it. This season Juventus won its league by 11 points but only six points separated the 10th place club from the 18th. A more accurate measure of league competitiveness, then, is to examine how all clubs fare in relation to each other. One common way to do this is to examine variation in winning percentages across clubs. In a completely unbalanced league, the top team would win all its matches while the worst team would lose all its matches. Conversely, in a perfectly balanced league, every team would have an equal winning percentage. The higher the variation in winning percentage, then, the worse the competitive balance.
In Europe’s three biggest leagues (England, Spain, and Italy), variation in winning percentages (calculated as deviations from the average), though volatile season-by-season, has broadly increased in recent years. For instance, the variation in the Premier League’s winning percentage, even after the epic title race between Liverpool and Manchester City, was 40% more than the equivalent variation twenty years ago. This was driven by extremes at both ends of the table: the relentless dominance of Manchester City, whose winning percentage 84% is the highest in English football since 1950, and hapless Huddersfield who only won 7% of their matches.
By this measure, the Premier League’s most competitive season was actually its inaugural season in 1992-93 when the variation in winning was 8 percentage points. More generally, in both Italy and the Premier League, the 90s were the halcyon days for competition. In Spain, the league enjoyed spurt of competitiveness in the early 2000s when Deportivo La Coruna and Valencia briefly broke the Real Madrid and Barcelona duopoly.
Across Europe, clubs are benefiting from a virtuous cycle that comes with football victories: they earn more, spend more and so win even more. Though this relationship between money and football success is as old as football itself, the extent of earning, spending and winning is now unprecedented – and distorting the competition domestically.