Thursday, July 24, 2014

La Liga - is Gareth Bale correct?

Times are good at Real Madrid, they have just lifted La Decima and over the Summer have added two of the shining stars from the World Cup.

First Toni Kroos and now the 80 odd million Euro capture of James Rodriguez. Barcelona too have added Luis Suarez to their already glittering array of attacking talent.

Gareth Bale, who himself joined Real last year for a world record fee has stated that this proves that La Liga is the best league in the world, such is the concentration of the world's elite players.

The question is, is he correct?

By several measures he most probably is. A straw poll of who global football fans think are the top few dozen players in the world would certainly include Messi and Ronaldo every time.

It is probably safe to say that a majority would also pick several from names such as Bale, Neymar Jr, Iniesta, Di Maria, Benzema, Khedira, Busquets, Ramos and now Kroos, Rodriguez and Suarez.

The names ooze quality, class and in most cases a whole lorry load of silverware to back up those claims.

The only issue with all of the above names is that they play only for two teams out of the twenty that contest La Liga.

Andy Whitelaw posed the question on Red Card Sports Radio this week as to whether La Liga was just a (far more) glamorous version of the Scottish League and it is a very valid question to ask.

Atletico of course pricked that bubble to a degree by winning La Liga this season. A collective sigh of relief was heard from all corners.

Many people - including myself - love the football on show in La Liga but find it slightly monotonous watching Real and Barca rack up huge wins week in week out. Atletico's triumph restored some faith in the product. But what happened next?

Barcelona have since recruited Luis Suarez and Real have snapped up Kroos and Rodriguez as they celebrate La Decima whilst Atletico have simply been decimated.

From 2010 until last season, the points totals for first second and third were '10 - 99, 96, 71, '11 - 96, 92, 71, '12 - 100, 91, 61, '13 - 100, 85, 76, '14 - 90, 87, 87.

If we are trying to argue that it is a competitive league then these are some pretty tough numbers to digest until last season when Atletico's presence put pressure on the big two as all three stumbled towards the line in the last few rounds of fixtures.

However, if you consider European success as a measure of a competitive league then Spain offers some more compelling numbers.

Barca (3) and Real (1) have won four of the last nine Champions Leagues. Had Real not won last year's final then Atletico would have done keeping the trophy in Spain and diversifying from these two serial winners.

A look at the Europa League however offers an even more compelling argument. Spanish clubs (Sevilla 3, Valencia 1, Atletico 2) have won six out of the last eleven finals. Spain's current European coefficient far surpasses that of anyone else.

Yes one can argue that English clubs do not always prioritise the Europa League but it is nevertheless a hugely impressive performance by the Spanish clubs showing that spending huge swathes of cash is not always a better way than sound coaching and shrewd scouting.

So where does all of this leave the English Premiership in comparison?

Well by several other measures it is of course the biggest and best league. It has unrivalled global television audiences, is awash with money throughout the game (with accompanying levels of debt to match the Spanish it should be noted) and often produces exciting football and close fought title battles involving several teams.

Or does it?

Since the inception of the Premiership, there has been one single dominant team, Manchester United. Blackburn and Newcastle offered resistance in the 90s before Arsenal again rose to their rightful place at the summit of the English game under the fresh stewardship of Arsene Wenger.

As Arsenal lost their way, new money arrived in the English game in the shape of Chelsea and then Manchester City. The emergence of this nouveau riche changed the face of English football as the two clubs short cut their way to success (as did Blackburn).

The establishment of course did not like this and one suspects that these upstarts (add PSG to the mix) are the ones responsible for the birth of FFP rather than the clubs that imploded such as Fiorentina, Leeds United and Glasgow Rangers.

The irony being Chelsea would have almost certainly joined that list had Abramovich not appeared on the scene.

The point to all this is that whilst the Premiership appears as a highly competitive league with frequent close title races, the reality is that in the absence of what many call 'financial doping' and with Arsenal distracted by building the Emirates, we may have faced a United procession for several seasons now.

All of this of course has been played out at a time when the overall quality in the Premiership looks to be on the decline with arguably its' best players being cherry picked by either Real or Madrid several times over, Ronaldo, Bale and Suarez have all headed South.

Manchester United supposedly dropped their interest in Toni Kroos or so we are told. Here is a team with almost limitless resources (we are again told) in desperate need of a top quality midfield general of which a stand out performer (and World Cup winning one) in that very position is available for around 20M.

Can someone tell me why exactly they dropped their interest?

One could of course come to the conclusion that Kroos' agent told United that he didn't fancy the Britannia on Wednesday night in January and fancied hooking up with Bale and Ronaldo with a bit of Champions League action thrown in.

United are a huge draw and arguably the biggest club in the world, but it appears that the likes of Ronaldo, Bale and Kroos prefer Madrid and the weather can only be part of that equation.

Where the Premiership does trump La Liga soundly is in the incredible marketing of its' product and in its' massive advantage in Asia of the English language.

Throw in Spanish stubbornness on kick off times and you have a huge TV audience paying handsomely to tune in to see Danny Wellbeck instead of Neymar with revenues far outweighing the paying audiences in the Americas.

Real and Barca of course compensate for this disparity in television revenues by creating their own imbalance by taking the lions' share of Spain's media revenues.

A more equitable split would ensure a more competitive league by bringing up the rest and hampering the big two's ability to hoard the world's very best. Or would it?

Spain's Europa League results and the success of Atletico in the Champions League last year would indicate that the quality of team on offer in La Liga is anything but inferior, just ask Chelsea who were seen off by Atletico and have looked to dismantle them for their own benefit this Summer.

Is it just that the big two in Spain in these days of globalisation are simply too hot to handle for the Premiership? It is of course not United's fault that they have Mancunian weather and not that of Madrid or Catalonia.

Spain's big two have for the most always been dominant domestically and have regularly employed the world's best, Di Stefano, Puskas, Maradona, Michael Laudrup, Romario, (the real) Ronaldo, Zidane, the list is too long to even contemplate.

They and Spain however had endured a seriously lean period in the previously known European Cup. After Real won it in '66 it would be another 26 years before Spain triumphed again when Barcelona won their first title. In that period, a single Spanish team (Barcelona) only once even made the final.

During that period, there was a huge English dominance preceded by periods of both Dutch and German lordship. Heysel ended the English period as Serie A became the dominant league accompanied by the rise of one of the great AC Milan teams.

All of this proves that football moves in cycles of course and even in the face of rising globalisation that should always be the case.

The Bundesliga is not often mentioned when discussing which country has the best league yet it boasts economically viable clubs. Full, vibrant and modern stadia and a league that can boast no less than five separate winners in the past eleven seasons.

Yet, other than Bayern and the odd season from Dortmund, progress in European terms has proven tough for the German clubs.

The fact that Bayern have been able to take so simply both Mario Gotze and Lewandowski from its' closest rivals in the past two seasons also renders the competition poorer.

Again however you could point to the same happening in England where Arsenal have lost several high profile players to both the Manchester clubs. Most Spanish clubs are also rendered impotent when Real or Barca come knocking.

None of which really helps us decide on whether Gareth Bale is right or wrong.

For the time being, nothing looks to be able to stop Barca and Real collecting the world's very best players. The Premiership in turn will continue to pay huge salaries and transfer fees sometimes indiscriminately - are Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana really worth a combined 55M?

This season's La Liga looks to be almost certainly a two horse race whereas whilst both Chelsea and City look very strong in the Premiership, Liverpool, Arsenal and possibly even a resurgent Man Utd will wish to have a strong say in matters.

The Premiership may have the greater overall marketing glitz and saturation television coverage but one thing is for sure, record numbers will be turning in for El Classico this season - No Nonsense.