Competitive inequality in Italian football

This post analyses Serie A, as part of ITMH’s competitive inequality project, tracking the impact of financial inequality upon football. The introductory post explains the measures that are used in the analysis. See the other posts in this series for commentary on top flight football in Germany, Spain and England, or the overall discussion of trends within Europe’s top leagues.

Serie A has formed the single top national league in Italy since the 1929-30 season. The analysis below tracks performance across the period since its resumption after WWII. Over this period, three teams have consistently claimed most success: Juventus (36 championships in total, 29 of which are post-war); Internazionale (19 championships – 14 post-war); Milan (19 championships – 16 post-war). Other major contending teams include the two Rome clubs (Roma and Lazio), Napoli and Fiorentina.

The three dominant Italian clubs have also won 12 European Cup/Champions League trophies between them (Milan 7, Inter 3, Juventus 2). All three participated in the European Super League proposal, with the Juventus chairman, Andrea Agnelli, being thought to be one of the prime protagonists behind the plans. Indeed, Juventus only signalled their intention to pull out of the enterprise in recent days (6th June 2023).

Methodological mithering: in keeping with the national talent for Machiavellian subterfuge, Italian football has frequently descended into scandal, resulting in much greater use of points deductions than in other major leagues. This leaves a choice to be made when assessing league finishing positions between what has been determined by performance on the field and that subsequent to the application of penalties. E.g. in 2005-6, Juventus finished at the top of the Serie A table, but were subsequently penalised for their involvement in the Calciopoli scandal by being officially placed bottom of the table and relegated to Serie B. For the sake of this exercise, should their finishing position be recorded as 1 or 20; should it be their record, or that of the team subsequently awarded the title (Inter) that counts to points per game and GD per game calculations? My choice has been to, throughout the Italian results, use a raw league table based upon finishing positions as if there were no deductions, as this feels truer to the purpose of the assessment by reducing any artificial volatility.

Fig 1: correlation

(Bars here represent the individual correlation value between each season’s finishing positions and those in the preceding season. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

Of the four leagues I’m looking at as part of this exercise, Serie A generally exhibits the highest average correlation between finishing positions from year to year. While the individual bars show great variation, the rolling average is typically operating at a slightly higher level than other leagues. This suggests that Italian football may possibly have developed an established order of clubs at an earlier stage, and have maintained this more thoroughly than other countries. It certainly is pronounced that Italian football is dominated by teams from its largest (and in the case of its three dominating clubs, its most affluent) cities, with fewer provincial upstarts than elsewhere. This lends credence to the idea that finance has mattered more, for longer, in the Italian league than with other major European leagues. Further support for this idea would come from the fact that, while the overall trend for this measure is upwards, the increase is less pronounced than that seen in some other leagues, suggesting that the effects of money are already baked into Italian football to a greater degree.

Also of note is the fact that recent years (since 2011) have been characterised by sustained higher levels of correlation, which have driven the averages up steadily.

Fig 2: turnover

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for the turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top four, top six and top ten (in seasons with a 20+ team league) of the league. NB – since the calculation of this measurement relies upon future finishing positions, the current season’s figure can only be known in three year’s time. The latest figure, therefore, is for the 2019-20 season. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

There is little in the way of overall trend for the turnover measurements for both top four and top six finishing positions in Serie A. With each, there is fluctuation between periods of greater or lesser turnover, yet it tends to consistently regress towards a mean of around 70% for top four turnover and 55% for top six turnover. The fact that top six turnover is in this range in a league with three dominant clubs suggests that, in most years, it is highly likely that these three finish in the top six, although they have not been able to colonise the top four, as evidenced by higher turnover at this level.

The measure for top ten turnover is only calculated following the expansion of the league to 20 teams in 2004-5 – it does not seem particularly worthwhile to calculate earlier than this for a group that would comprise more than half of the league. Yet, the short period in which this has been tracked sees a rapid decline in turnover levels, suggesting some degree of consolidation among more successful clubs that will be worth watching in future.

Fig 3: points per game

(Bars here represent the average points won per game by the team that finished champions that season. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

The rolling average here traces a loose upward sloping u-shape, being higher in the immediate post-war, lower through the 1970s, 80s and 90s (with odd exceptional higher performance such as from Juventus in 1976-77 and Inter in 1988-89), then generally higher levels of performance in the 21st century, capped by Juventus’s romp to 102 points in 2013-14.

Fig 4: goal difference per game

(Bars here represent the average goal difference per game recorded by each season’s title winners. The red line is a five-year rolling average to pick up on trends in the medium term. The dotted line is an overall trendline representing the overall direction of travel for this measure across the results. See the introductory post to this series for an explanation of the choice of measurements.)

Italian football is all about tight, stifling defensive tactics, right? Well, yes, but it wasn’t always like that. You can clearly see the period in which Catenaccio fully emerged and became the defining Italian football mindset from the chart’s results – Helenio Herrara’s Inter team, who deployed it effectively the dominant force in both Italian and European football in the mid-1960s, became a model for much of what was to follow.

Prior to that, however, the immediate post-war period featured some incredible free-scoring performances from Italian champions. In 1950-51, Juventus, Inter and the eventual champions – a Milan side led by their Gre-No-Li Swedish attacking trio – each scored more than 100 goals in a 38-game season. But, the absolute pinnacle of post-war Serie A were the exploits of the dominant but ill-fated Grande Torino team who won five titles over the period of the war and its immediate aftermath. Their finest performance came in 1947-48, a season in which they scored 125 goals in 40 games, recording five or more strikes in half of their home matches, which included a 10-0 victory over Alessandria.

Unfortunately, tragedy would strike that team. In May 1949, in poor visibility from adverse weather conditions, the plane carrying them home from a friendly with Benfica in Lisbon crashed into one of the walls of the Basilica of Superga, which stands on a hill over Turin. None of the 31 on board, including team players and coaches survived the crash. Unlike Manchester United, who were able to return to prominence after a similarly tragic crash in the following decade, Torino have never again been a force in Italian football – they managed a solitary title in 1975-76, but have also had spells in Serie B and currently are a resolutely mid-table Serie A club.

In recent years, Italian title winners have been recording higher goal difference levels than the 1960s-1990s period. They have not, however, been able to get close to the incredible performance of that legendary Torino side.

Summary

This project is primarily interested in the impact of recent flows of money into football, and how this might be making the game more unequal and less competitive. The Serie A results show some evidence for this, with slight upward trends in correlation, reduced turnover in higher league positions and stronger performance from champions. However, it is also clear that Italian football has always displayed signs of stratification of clubs, making these trends less pronounced than they are elsewhere.

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