London – Juventus have won Serie A for the past six years and Bayern have picked up five straight Bundesliga titles but average attendances are stable and TV income up. The Guardian Sport assess the picture across Europe’s five biggest leagues.
There was something familiar about Gianluigi Buffon hoisting the Serie A trophy aloft after the game against Crotone at the end of May. Now, when had we last seen that? Ah, yes, in 2016. Oh, in 2015 as well. 2014? Yep, very much so. 2013 and 2012? Of course.
Juventus have racked up six consecutive Serie A titles. In those six seasons they have picked up nearly 200 points more than Internazionale. Their dominance has been spectacular.
It is very much the same story in Germany, where Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga five years in a row since Borussia Dortmund secured the double in 2012. In France, Paris St-Germain have won four of the past five league titles.
Where is the fun in that. True, England and Spain have had a slightly better spread of teams who have won the league and the main cup (six different teams over the past six years in England and three in Spain) but the dominance of a few clubs means that, at least in Italy and Germany, we pretty much know in August who is going to win the league.
So why do we still care? Why do we still watch? The Guardian Sport examines how the dominance of a few teams is affecting their league and whether there are signs of fans turning off their TVs or not going to the stadiums.
After Juventus won a record-breaking sixth consecutive Scudetto, it’s fair to say that things are getting repetitive at the top of Serie A. The problem is that they have pushed the bar so high.
Back in 2011-12 Juve claimed their first title in this sequence with 84 points. Roma and Napoli exceeded that number this season, and yet neither has looked close to dislodging the Bianconeri.
The standard of the league is decidedly uneven. Juventus have re-established themselves as one of the best teams on the planet, and to some extent have dragged the chasing pack up with them. Napoli play some of the most entertaining football in Europe, and acquitted themselves better against Real Madrid in the Champions League this season than the 6-2 aggregate defeat suggested. Roma, too, have improved.
But there is a significant gap between those teams and the next tier. Lazio and Atalanta – the latter especially impressive for their development of homegrown talent – were compelling, but neither truly threatened the top three. The Milan clubs seem to be trapped in permanent disarray – albeit both are expected to spend big under new Chinese owners this summer. Fiorentina remain frustratingly flaky.
And as you drift into the bottom half of the table, so talent levels fall steeply. Hardly surprising when you consider that 13 teams posted total revenues below €68m on their 2015-16 accounts.
Overall, it is a mixed picture. Juventus’s European exploits have restored some prestige to Serie A, but also highlight how far others have fallen behind. Calls for the division to be reduced back to 18 teams are growing louder but the Italian Football Federation’s president, Carlo Tavecchio, called them “pure utopia”.
Serie A’s TV deal works out at around €1.13bn per year. Predictability may have harmed the league’s marketability but Juventus’s strong performances in Europe are also a counterbalance. Half-empty stadiums, the poor performance of the Milan clubs and a struggling national economy are more tangible concerns.
The accusation is as relentlessly repetitive as it is tiresome, not to mention a little baffling. Who chants for a league rather than a team? And why get so wound up about it? Why does it occupy people so much, to the extent that any reference to Spain, however innocuous, is guaranteed to immediately get a least one “pub league” or similarly dismissive comment in reply? The accusation is flawed, too, but that doesn’t mean that it is entirely false.
Spanish football does have more than two clubs: Atlético Madrid won the title three years ago and have reached two of the past four Champions League finals. That underlines the fact that if Spain is a two-horse race – and there’s an element of that, Madrid and Barcelona having won all bar one of the past 10 titles – it is not because the rest are a bunch of donkeys. Sevilla, Athletic Bilbao, Celta Vigo and Villarreal have in recent years reached semi-finals or beyond in Europe, which Spanish football has dominated. Celta, 13th in La Liga, were one dreadful miss away from eliminating Manchester United and taking yet another Spanish team to yet another final in this season’s Europa League.
Meanwhile, this season has not lacked surprises. Madrid dropped points against Eibar and Las Palmas. Barcelona lost the title against Deportivo, Celta and Málaga. For much of the year, Sevilla looked as if they might challenge for the title. Teams did compete with Madrid, the champions, who needed goals in the last 10 minutes in a quarter of their games. It wasn’t a stroll – and if their “B Team” kept winning in the final weeks, just look at how good those reserves are. Few doubt that Madrid or Barcelona would win the Premier League too; they don’t just dominate domestically, they dominate Europe in this super club era.
And yet Sevilla fell away, were knocked out of the Champions League by Leicester (whom they had overrun in the last-16 first leg), and it is true that by the end of the domestic season it was a familiar duo competing on the final day, as they had been all season, and there were few real shifts: the same top four, same next three and same bottom three all year. It is also true that at the bottom some of the teams could not really compete (although Madrid needed a last-minute winner to defeat relegated Sporting Gijón, for example), and there simply is not the money that other leagues have – even if that is improving a little.
It is not Scotland in the sun but there are problems, even if the last couple of years have seen them mitigated a little, not as bad as it was six or seven seasons ago. Spain’s “other” clubs cannot compete economically and are a long way off Premier League teams in that regard. Another thing: fans are treated horribly in Spain, with kick-off times decided late and dictated entirely by TV (whose coverage is poor) and subject to change, with supporters criminalized and utterly voiceless.
Madrid’s and Barcelona’s enormity does eclipse everyone else and however brilliant they are – and they are brilliant – that can be discouraging. It is impossible to imagine it ending, too. But, then, everyone thought that the season that Atlético ended up as champions – a colossal, almost miraculous success that was rightly celebrated but might have hidden a deeper, troubling reality.
There are different ways of being predictable, and following what everyone thought was a refreshing intervention by Leicester City last season the Premier League’s big six clubs have quickly closed ranks to keep the major prizes between themselves. Six is quite a high number of course, and not many thought at the start of the season that Arsenal and Manchester United would be the ones missing out on top-four places, or that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City would end empty-handed. The same six into four situation will pertain next season too, and anyone who feels English football is always the same old story is advised to pick their 2018 top four in August and see how their guesswork looks nine months later.
England must be doing something right if clubs of the stature of Manchester United cannot always get their own way, and half a dozen potential title candidates is a lot healthier than the situation we used to have when the top four was set in stone and only Arsenal or Chelsea would take it in turns to challenge United’s dominance. Yet though this has been a reasonably lively and absorbing contest at the top of the table the big six are not the whole story.
Beneath the top six this season are Everton, seemingly stuck in a permanent no man’s land between the achievers and those with relegation concerns, followed by a long gap and then Southampton in eighth place with 46 points. To put that in perspective, 46 points is less than half of what Chelsea accrued and only five points more than Swansea and Crystal Palace managed after seasons haunted by fears of dropping into the Championship. Although entertainment might by sparkling in the upper echelon, the league as a whole cannot be considered healthy if two-thirds of it has no real purpose except ensuring survival.
Has the league’s TV deal suffered? No. The Premier League’s present TV deal is worth a monster £5.136bn over three years. Money is pouring into English football, and owners are no longer flaky types seeking self-promotion but investors who know how to turn a profit. The English top flight is divided into haves and have-nots, certainly, but remains watchable through being unpredictable at both ends.
That Bayern Munich have just sealed a fifth successive Bundesliga title – and by a margin of 15 points despite looking under-par for much of the campaign – is undoubtedly a concern. It’s only the second time that German football’s behemoth has managed such a run. The truth is, though, that Bayern’s dominance is partly a result of competitiveness, with Borussia Dortmund’s successive title wins in 2011 and 2012 almost provoking them to become their best-ever.
The other part of the equation is the club adopting a more internationalist strategy. Despite the image of Bayern’s approach being to take away their competitors’ best players, and signings such as Robert Lewandowski and Mats Hummels accentuating that feeling, they have been more adventurous in the transfer market in recent years, buoyed by profits from the Champions League and the Allianz Arena, which they now fully own.
Bayern’s dominance does drive international interest to the Bundesliga, and discovering the full picture often keeps people glued. Even if the title race was a non-event this year, there was drama throughout the rest of the table, in terms of the European places and at the bottom. On the season’s final day, almost half of the teams still had something to play for. The success of Europe-bound Freiburg, and the struggles of giants such as Hamburg, show it’s not always about money correlating to success.
Attendances are reassuringly stable – this season’s slight dip should be wiped out in 2017-18 with modest Darmstadt and Ingolstadt relegated and replaced by the better-supported Stuttgart and Hannover.
Back in August it looked like the same old Ligue 1. PSG, despite changing their manager and losing Zlatan Ibrahimovic, were going to win a fifth league title in a row and probably a third domestic treble in a row too. Only a few weeks before, this great Paris side were crowned champions with a record 96 points and a 31-point gap on second-placed Lyon. Predictability had hit French football as in the nineties with Marseille and the noughties with Lyon.
Then, Monaco had a freak season where they exceeded all expectations but deserved to win their first league title in 17 years. Nice pushed PSG all the way for second place and for the first time the top three teams finished the campaign with 78 points (for Nice) or more (87 for PSG and 95 for Monaco).
Marseille have started their American revolution since the takeover of Frank McCourt and will invest up to €200m in the summer to compete for the title. Lyon, thanks to some investment from China, will also be ready to splash some cash, especially if they lose their two best players Alexandre Lacazette and Corentin Tolisso, which is looking likely.
Bordeaux are going in the right direction under their bright manager, Jocelyn Gourvennec. It will be fascinating to see Lille’s progress under Marcelo Bielsa next season, and Sérgio Conceição has worked wonders at Nantes since taking over in December.
Overall, PSG have been the perfect driving force for Ligue 1, with the other historic clubs trying to catch them up. The Parisians are still the richest and most powerful but Monaco showed this season that winning Ligue 1 is not a given any more.
The Guardian Sport