After Knockouts in Europe, is the Premier League Really the Best League?.
*Below is the original, full, version of the piece.
Results in the first knockout rounds of the UEFA Champions League and Europa League show that the perception of leagues matter little.
Let’s start by saying this.
Since 2000, teams from La Liga, the Premier League, the Bundesliga, Serie A and Ligue 1 have won 21 out of 28 European titles across both of Europe’s top competitions. Another three of those titles went to Portugal’s Porto FC.
These leagues are generally considered the best in football, and therefore Europe, so that comes as no surprise. There are, as with any sport, peaks and troughs for teams and leagues but we seem to have come across a general consensus about the order of these leagues. The Premier League and La Liga are always in the debate for the first and second spots, with the Bundesliga, Serie A(once considered the mightiest of them all) and Ligue 1 shuffling around the other spots.
This 2014/15 season has again seen a large number of participants from these leagues and that’s partly down to how UEFA’s coefficient ranks their leagues overall.
Those rankings may not be as hotly contested as the FIFA rankings are on a regular basis but there is still some debate. Spain and England have been the only countries top the rankings since they began in 2003, with Spain coming first eight times to England’s five.
Going by the country of each league Spain leads the way, followed by England, Germany, Italy and Portugal actually ahead of France. Those results are switched even further when this season’s results alone are calculated in each round. Spain is still front with Italy, Germany, England and then France.
While the Champions League and Europa League tournaments provide an example of the strength of various leagues, it is the knockout rounds, especially in the Europa League, where the real business begins.
The Champions League is still in the midst of its first knockout round but the Europa League has already completed its Round of 32. The first thing that will jump out at many, which is a prime example of the perceived importance of the leagues, is the fact that only one of four British clubs remain after that round. Two out of three Premier League teams, Tottenham and Liverpool, were dumped out while the less fancied side, Everton, marches on. *Tottenham has a valid excuse with the Capital One Cup final coming just two days after their tie, though a better display may have led to a positive result. The fourth British club Celtic, from Scotland, went out against Inter Milan.
There’s been lots of talk in recent years about whether the “best” league in the world is pulling its weight in European football. Judging by those results, and UEFA’s coefficient rankings, it isn’t the best league. The first legs of the UEFA Champions League doesn’t help the case either as two of the remaining three clubs, Manchester City and, quite embarrassingly for them to be honest, Arsenal, are almost out of their respective ties while Chelsea is walking on thin ice. All of that has happened despite the signing of a new £5.1 billion TV deal that’s indicative of the riches available to those in England.
In step two well-respected managers from those losing sides to offer reasons, read excuses, for the Premier League clubs. Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger’s press conference comments reported by the Guardian’s Paul Doyle show just a hint of arrogance about the English league.
“It may be due to how very hard the English league is. The teams expend too much energy in matches and there is no protection in terms of preparing for matches and they pay for that in European competition against teams who are better protected in their domestic leagues and can prepare with less demands in their matches. For us, there is no difference physically between a European match and a domestic one.”
Manuel Pellegrini followed suit in his own press conference with similar commentary about the leagues difficulty while also adding a somewhat valid point about the Premier League’s participation in games during Christmas.
But we’re not here to do an all Premier League inquest.
The UEFA rankings show Spain first in both the overall and this season’s rankings and it’s not hard to see why. Two of their three Europa League knockout teams have progressed and, at the very least, they are on track for the same result in the Champions League.
Germany, third in both rankings currently, has one remaining Europa League participant from a possible two and are uncertain of how their three Champions League teams will fare. Italy, fourth overall and second in the seasonal rankings, has seen the progression of all five of its Europa League sides and has a good chance in the Champions League with Juventus. France, sixth overall and fifth in the seasonal rankings, has no one left in the Europa League and may have the same occur in the Champions League.
So what does all this mean?
The first thing, again, that comes to mind concerns the Premier League. These clubs are generally considered overrated despite all the money in their coffers, and this season is proving that theory again. There still isn’t a consensus as to why it’s happening whether it’s tactical, a difference in attitude or approach, or simply a matter of skill but it’s happening all the same. What’s even more surprising is the success of the Serie A.
Italy may well see a boost in their coefficient at the beginning of next season should the positive results continue. The Serie was once considered the dominant league in Europe but various issues of mismanagement and corruption has seen a dramatic fall in the perception of the league. Still, only Italy has the honor of having all of their clubs progressing, and all six still in the knockout stages. So, maybe the Serie A isn’t dead after all.
And what about other leagues or, rather, countries? Portugal was ranked fifth, ahead of France, in the overall rankings and are now eighth in the seasonal ranking with only Porto, in the Champions League, representing the Iberian nation. The Champions League still also has representatives from Switzerland and Ukraine in the form of Basel and Shakhtar Donetsk. The Europa League still has representatives from the Netherlands, Russia, Ukraine(again), Turkey and Belgium.
All of those nations are in the top 15 of the overall coefficient rankings so UEFA isn’t too far off the mark there either.
What it does show is that these top leagues are still the leading lights but not, as they once were, all-powerful. That is to say that “smaller” teams are still finding a way to compete despite the growing disparity in income between them and the European elite. Some, like Ajax, and Shakhtar Donetsk have formulated different ways of doing this while others, like Torino, pop up and surprise pretty much everyone.
A look at the Europa League Round of 16 ties and the possibilities in the second leg of the Champions League present some interesting thoughts. It is very likely that there won’t be any Premier League clubs when the Round of 16 concludes for both tournaments. *Everton, the leagues only remaining Europa League representative, face a tough tie in a Dynamo Kiev side boasting a good mixture of experienced players like Miguel Veloso and talents like Andriy Yarmolenko. All of the other “big five” leagues will have, at the very least, one participant in either competition along with possible representatives from Portugal, Ukraine, Turkey, Russia, Belgium, Switzerland or the Netherlands.
This isn’t particularly enlightening news.
Clubs in the top five leagues have had varying success in the competitions in recent years. Spain and Germany have arguably been the most consistent in getting clubs into the latter stages of the competitions while Italy have had decent success in the Europa League since the 2011/12 season. English clubs have been particularly poor in the latter stages of these competitions, especially in the Europa League, while France has lagged behind all. And, of course, there are always others.
None of this is meant to assert that the top five leagues are worse than rankings or perception suggest. It does go to show, though, that it isn’t all about reputation, or money, in football.