Competitive inequality in Spanish football

This post analyses La Liga, 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, Italy and England, or the overall discussion of trends within Europe’s top leagues.

La Liga, the Spanish Primera Division, was founded in 1929, but the analysis below tracks performance across the period since its resumption after the end of the Spanish Civil War. The common perception of the league is that it is pretty much a duopoly between Real Madrid and Barcelona, who have recorded 35 and 27 titles respectively. Other prominent Spanish sides include Atletico Madrid, Valencia and Athletic Bilbao.

Spain also possesses the most success in the European Cup/Champions League, mainly due to Real Madrid’s 14 victories, with Barcelona also having lifted the trophy five times. These two clubs, as well as Atletico Madrid, were participants in the proposed European Super League, with Real’s president, Florentino Perez, slated to be the chairman of the new league. As of 6th June this year (when Juventus finally abandoned the project), Real and Barcelona remain the only clubs still publicly committed to the breakaway proposals.

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.)

The chart here displays a general upward trend. The initial period after the Civil War was one of real flux, including one season where finishing positions were negatively correlated: i.e. a team with a high finishing position the previous season was actually (slightly) more likely to subsequently finish in the lower parts of the league and vice versa. In general, the results vary widely from year to year, with some years of greater stability and others of greater variation. The past ten years mark something of a departure from this, with consistent figures of around 0.6 or higher. As a result, the rolling average has hit higher levels than any previous period. This points to a greater level of predictability of league finishing positions over this period.

Fig 2: turnover

(Lines here represent five-year rolling averages for the turnover measure, assessing levels of variation among clubs finishing in the top two, 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.)

As noted above, the perception of La Liga is that it is almost always simply about Real Madrid and Barcelona, so I’ve included a top two turnover calculation. In fact, what this shows is that is has rarely been the case that these two finish first and second season after season – it has only really been the case that this has occurred at all in the late 1950s/early 1960s and from the mid-2000s onwards. So, while these two clubs are the undoubted powerhouses of Spanish football, they have always faced a challenge from other clubs for absolute supremacy, with Atletico providing the most recent disrupting force.

There may, however, be the threat of a triopoly taking control at the top. The most notable recent trend here is a sharp decline over the past fifteen years in top four turnover. In fact, the last time any of the three Spanish clubs involved in the European Super League finished outside of the top three was in 2011-12, when Atletico finished fifth. This does represent a real worry for the state of competition in Spanish football.

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 displays three clear and prominent waves, corresponding to the eras of three great teams, with performance falling away in between. The first era is that of Real Madrid dominance in the 1950s and 60s, stretching from the Di Stefano/Puskas team that swept all before it in European football through to the Yé-yé team who claimed a sixth European Cup in 1966. The second, slightly lower wave corresponds to the era of Real’s excellent Quinta del Buitre team of the late 1980s who, while ultimately falling short in the European Cup, won five successive La Liga titles.

Then, the most recent – and highest – of the waves is that initiated by Pep Guardiola taking up the coaches position at Barcelona. Subsequently, that Barcelona team won eight of the next eleven titles. This era has also marked a predominance of Spain’s top two clubs in European football, winning seven out of ten Champions League trophies from 2009 to 2018. While the graph shows Spanish football is clearly on the down-slope from that peak of brilliance, present levels remain consistently higher than all but the highest performances from the past.

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.)

The same three wave formation is visible when looking at goal difference trends, yet with the first and third waves being even more prominent, attesting to the greatness of sides in those eras. It does become clear here how much the period that has just ended in Spain, of Messi at Barcelona and Ronaldo at Real Madrid, will come to be seen as a time of otherworldly prowess. Just take a second to reflect upon this: over the period Ronaldo was at Real (2009-2018), he and Messi made 601 La Liga appearances between them, scoring a total of 640 goals. That’s an average of 1.06 goals per game each. For a period of nine seasons. (For perspective Erling Haaland’s scoring exploits in this season’s Premier League actually fall short of that figure, with him averaging only (!) 1.03 goals per game.)

By the way, that dip right in the centre of the latest wave – that’s the season Atletico battled their way to the title in 2014. While they were far from playing a spoiling style, they were unable to match the extraterrestrial performance of their rivals.

The past five seasons have seen this measure return to those more typical of overall averages.

Summary

Although its history has witnessed several spectacularly brilliant teams, La Liga has probably been more competitive than many would imagine. Indeed the excessive prominence of its two biggest sides is something that has only really become a phenomenon in the 21st century. Even now, however, the worry for levels of domestic competition may be more about whether the top three sides are attaining levels that the rest of the league is increasing unable to match.

In respect to the status of Spanish teams in Europe, the recent era saw a period when Real Madrid and Barcelona were regarded as the ultimate club sides in the world. For any player with aspirations of being considered the world’s best, playing for one of these sides seemed to be non-negotiable. As financial might has shifted towards the Premier League in recent seasons, this currently no longer seems the case. It will be interesting to see whether this is simply a short-term lull in their fortunes, or whether they are in danger of being permanently eclipsed at the top of the club game. The ongoing financial woes of Barcelona and the persistence with which they and Real have clung to the wreck of the European Super League suggests the latter is a very real possibility.