This season’s Champions League has developed into a shoot out between Spain’s La Liga and Germany’s Bundesliga, as the debate about the merits of Europe’s various domestic league rages on.
The English Premier League sides may not have dominated European competition as much as previous seasons, but its enduring popularity cannot be questioned. Sides from France’s Ligue 1 and Italy’s Serie A also made a huge impact in the Champions League this season, as both national leagues look to have had a resurgence lately.
But what are the strengths and attractions of the respective ‘big five’ European leagues? Does each league still have a strong identity despite the increased movement of players between countries and the increased television coverage of foreign football?
We caught up with Arsène Wenger to discuss the playing styles and assets of the biggest leagues on the continents.
SPAIN - LA LIGA
Dominated in recent years by Barcelona and Real Madrid, La Liga’s top two places have been filled by the ‘big two’ in each of the past four seasons, and they have won 53 titles between them over the last 83 years. Famed for a highly technical game, the Spanish league actually has the lowest passing accuracy (77.5 per cent) of the big five leagues, but it’s a style not focused on crossing: La Liga also has the fewest successful crosses per game on average (5.76).
But it’s a successful and popular league. For the third season in a row there are two La Liga sides in the semi-finals of the Champions League, and 13 different teams from the division have competed in the competition since its inception in 1992/93, more than any other country.
"I believe that the economic forces changed considerably when they started to sell the television rights individually, though. It destroyed the interest of the league a bit"
What are your overall impressions when thinking about the Spanish league?
Arsene Wenger: Spain is dominated by the big two clubs, and that is the first thing you think of when you mention La Liga. It wasn’t always this way, because teams like Valencia were fighting for the championship every year too. I believe that the economic forces changed considerably when they started to sell the television rights individually, though. It destroyed the interest of the league a bit because Barcelona and Real Madrid are too far above everybody else now.
Even teams that have tried to catch up with everybody else using foreign investment, like Malaga, have dropped again. It’s basically a two-horse race before the season even starts. At the start of the season you have only one question - who will win the league, Real Madrid or Barcelona? I don’t believe that’s a very good situation. We had it in Scotland for many years, and at least there they played each other four times a year. In Spain they only meet twice and basically the championship is decided by those two games.
Has the dominance of these two teams had an effect on the overall style of the league? Have the other clubs had to alter their approach?
AW: Well I still believe, and I find it fascinating, that despite the international exchange - the movement between countries of players and coaches - the desire to maintain the country’s own culture is very strong everywhere. What would you say first if I asked you what typifies the Spanish game? You would say the technique. The emphasis throughout the country is on technical ability.
Of course Real Madrid and Barcelona are stronger than the rest on that level, but every Spanish team you play will have a good technical level. To get in a Spanish team, you need to have a good technical level. That’s the brand of Spanish football, and it remains despite the fact that people have come in and out from different countries.
Has the success of the Spanish national team over the past 10 years or so had a knock-on effect to what we see in their domestic league?
AW: Of course, it’s had an impact on the confidence, the pride and the certainty that they are doing things the right way within the federation with regards to education of the players. People always want to copy the best, but the advantage the best have is that it’s not as easy as it looks. The other advantage is that they have a little added confidence and belief, which is vital in any team sport.
GERMANY - BUNDESLIGA
Bayern Munich continue to fly the flag for the Bundesliga. They have just wrapped up their 22nd title (17 more than any other club) and they are in third Champions League final in four years - where they will face Borussia Dortmund, last season’s domestic champions.
An exciting league, the Bundesliga has the most goals per game of the big five leagues (2.86) and the highest shooting accuracy (46.3 per cent). The league also has the most successful crosses from open play (7.11 per game). Conversely though the league is responsible for the most fouls per game (31.7) on average, and also the highest percentage of long passes (14.2 per cent) out of the five leagues highlighted here.
Interestingly, the Bundesliga also has the lowest average age per starting XI - 26 years and five days. Ten different German sides have Champions League experience.
If the first thing you think about when talking about Spanish football is technique, what comes to mind when thinking about the Bundesliga?
AW: Personally when I think about German football I think about movement, running and efficiency. Also team spirit. You know when you face a German team they will always try to work hard, to run properly and they always try to be efficient in the final third. That is the brand of German football and it’s a real team sport in Germany.
"Their clubs are well run, and they maintain their model very well. That’s why they are always efficient, and always bounce back because five million people play football in Germany"
They also have a big history of success. Their clubs are well run, and they maintain their model very well. That’s why they are always efficient, and always bounce back because five million people play football in Germany. That means you have many young players, and we are seeing at the moment they are producing many players again. So Germany is about efficiency, it’s about a positive attitude as well – they always try to play. They have the pride to play that way wherever they are in the world. They never hide and go only defensively. Their culture is to have a positive attitude and intelligent passing game.
How big a part of their identity is the incredible atmosphere the fans generate inside the stadiums?
AW: It plays a big part in their success and culture. The clubs really take care of their fans, and historically the fans have been behind the clubs from a very young age. On that side it’s a bit similar to England. They are very loud as well. What I also like is that in Germany they have managed to keep the Saturday afternoon sacred. That’s when most of the games are played still. They haven’t sacrificed that ritual - every Saturday afternoon everyone goes to the Bundesliga. It is a ceremony in Germany, and the history has been maintained without being disturbed too much.
ITALY - SERIE A
Known as the place to play during the 1990s especially, the continent’s star players invariably ended up plying their trade in Serie A. A host of controversies over recent years though - including the ‘calciopoli’ match-fixing affair in 2006 which led to Juventus’s demotion - have tarnished its reputation recently. Nowadays the league has the best passing accuracy of the big five (81.1 per cent) but the lowest shooting accuracy (43.4 per cent).
Perhaps contrary to expectation, it doesn’t have the highest average age, in fact at 26 years 78 days on average per starting XI, Serie A is the second youngest. Nine different teams have so far represented Serie A in the Champions League, including 2010 champions Inter Milan. Juventus won their 29th domestic title this season, extending their record.
"Because it was so competitive, it was the best championship in the world at that time. They destroyed that by moving up to 20 teams and by selling the television rights individually"
Do you think it’s fair to say Serie A has lost some of its lustre since the 1990s?
AW: Yes, in the 1990s Italy was the most attractive country of all for foreign players. Everyone wanted to play in Italy to be recognised as a top player. I would remind you that Maradona played in Naples, Gullit and van Basten in Milan - everywhere you had top players. Clubs were allowed three foreign players, and they all played in the top Italian clubs.
Serie A had an exceptionally competitive championship for one basic reason - there were only 16 clubs and four went down every year. That means that positions 13, 14, 15 and 16 were all relegated. On top of that, back then the top seven or eight teams also got into the UEFA Cup, so at times a team could be playing to avoid relegation and to get into Europe at the same time. That means that every game was an absolute drama, and was sensational.
If you lost two games on the trot, then you were playing not to go down. If you won two on the trot, you were playing for Europe. And because it was so competitive, it was the best championship in the world at that time. They destroyed that by moving up to 20 teams and by selling the television rights individually. That made the championship more uneven, and the third thing that harmed them of course were all the repeated scandals they have had in the league. The corruption, the doping; it combined to destroy the credibility of their sport.
Do you think these scandals continue to define the Italian game?
AW: Yes, it’s still damaging. The damage has been done not only locally but internationally as well. You are a bit reluctant now to copy Italy, because in people’s minds there are still suspicions. But I think they have cleaned it up now, and personally I don’t have any suspicion any more, but for a long time it was not completely clean.
How would you describe the playing style in the country currently?
AW: I would say it’s based on intelligent defending and fantastic efficiency in using their goal chances. That’s the history of Italian football: quality in their defending, not the most creative teams, but efficiency has always been their main brand. Defend well, and use the best of your chances on the counter attack to kill your opponent. That’s basically the culture of Italian football.
FRANCE - LIGUE 1
Only one Ligue 1 side has reached the Champions League final in the past 20 years (Monaco, beaten finalists in 2004) but the French league is one steeped in history. Not as popular as the other major European leagues currently, perhaps due to the fact Ligue 1 actually has the lowest average goals per game ratio of the big five (2.56).At 27 years and 82 days, the league also has the oldest average age.
The league has been unpredictable of late, though. All of Lyon’s seven titles came consecutively between 2002 and 2008 but since then there have been five different champions in five seasons. Last season Montpellier became the 30th different team to win the French title, and no side has won it more than 10 times. Ten French teams have played in the Champions League.
"France is looking for a new style and a new generation which is a mixture of physical strength and technical quality"
Do you think the French league struggles to create as much of an identity as the other main leagues?
AW: Yes, I agree with that. It’s because there is more immigration in their game, people coming from Africa and different countries. Traditionally French football was a bit weaker physically but strong technically. You remember the teams in 1982 in the Spain World Cup, in Euro 84, and the Mexico World Cup in 1986 with players like Michel Platini, Jean Tigana and Alain Giresse - they were very technical sides.
Afterwards they evolved a good mixture of new young talent in 1998 when we won the World Cup and in 2000 with the European Championship. That was the Thierry Henry, Zinedine Zidane, Patrick Vieira generation. They were physically stronger than the former generation but also technically outstanding.
Now those players have stopped, France is looking for a new style and a new generation which is a mixture of physical strength and technical quality. But at the moment the emphasis seems to be more on physical strength than technical quality. France is looking at their youth system now in order to rebalance in favour of technique. The culture in France can not be purely physical, because there is a history of technical quality.
It seems to be a competitive league though, a variety of French teams have competed in the Champions League...
AW: Yes, recently you never knew who would win the league. That might change now because PSG seem to be above everyone. But the other 19 teams are very similar. Montpellier won the league last year, but this season they are mid-table. That can happen to everybody. It’s a very competitive league but with a few dominant teams. Lyon had that for years, they have lost their supremacy a bit now because of financial problems, and now it looks as though Paris Saint Germain will play that role for a while.
ENGLAND - PREMIER LEAGUE
Our own league is perhaps the most popular in terms of worldwide appeal, the last television rights packages sold for a record £3 billion, with the global rights also now due for renewal. The top teams have been successful on the pitch too - only two of the past nine Champions League finals have not featured at least one Premier League side.
There’s no doubt that the Premier League is much more fashionable now than when Wenger first came to these shores in 1996. The long-ball image has been shed, and this season the Premier League has the lowest percentage of long passes (12.06 per cent) than any of the big five leagues. It also has the fewest fouls per game, by a considerable margin. Nine different English sides have qualified for the Champions League since it began in 1992, and this is the first season since 1995/96 that no Premier League teams reached the quarter-final stages.
"Every crowd in England plays every ball. That injects the pace into the game and the commitment and desire into the players"
What do you think the view of the Premier League is from the outside? What are their first impressions?
AW: Competitiveness, commitment and pace. The attractiveness of the English Premier League is down to the quality of the games, which is exceptional. But as well I think the success of the league is due to a few ingredients. The first is that every crowd in England plays every ball. That injects the pace into the game and the commitment and desire into the players. Every ball is so competitive and I think that comes from the crowd. That also helps to explain that despite having so many foreign players in the English Premier League, it is still very much an English game. The credit for that should go to the crowd. The passion of the crowd keeps the pace of the game very high and very competitive.
The second ingredient that helps to make the Premier League such a success is that it’s very well filmed. When I sometimes switch the television from an English game to a foreign game, the intensity of the game comes through the screen better in England than anywhere else. The intensity of the noise of the crowd is much higher than everywhere else. The loudness of crowd comes to you in your home, so it’s like they are transporting you to the game. The intensity of the game, the loudness of the game and the way it’s filmed makes it very, very attractive to every media and every fan outside of England. I speak a lot to foreign people, and to foreign TV people too, and they are all scared to lose the rights to the Premier League because so many people watch.
The English league also seems to have a lot of variety though, with teams like Swansea City and Stoke City maintaining their Premier League status after promotion from the Championship, adopting very different styles...
AW: That’s true, and I think it’s because in life sometimes the way to be successful is to be completely the opposite of what everybody else does, rather than being not quite as good at what the rest are doing. It’s good that a part of the league remains like that, because it’s part of the English game, but more and more in the lower divisions, the teams play the ball on the ground and there is a uniformity of teams playing a similar style everywhere, including the lower leagues..
Read the interview with Wenger and more in the latest edition
Finally, if there were five games of football live on television at the moment, one from each of the five leagues above, which would you watch?
AW: Honestly, the Premier League match without any hesitation, and that would be the same even if I weren’t working in England. Earlier this season, we were travelling back from the West Brom game, and the Real Madrid game was on the television against Levante. On the other side you had Watford against Cardiff. We had the Real Madrid game on on the coach, because it’s a top-level game, but the game was so easy for Real that after a while you move over to Watford v Cardiff because of the passion in the game and the competitiveness. So you do not only watch football for the technical quality of the games, but also because of the intensity, the uncertainty and the passion that’s in it.