The influx of money may well be making European football better. By barcelonizing it
One of the main complaints about the modern European top-league football is that the recent influx of funding into the sport is changing it for the worst. People who make this point draw attention to enormous sums of money payed for players nowadays (to the point when a team that had just qualified for playing in the Premier League for the first time in its history pays £10 million (!) for Benik Afobe), point at the incidence of simulation on the pitch and other things and conclude that this may but have a negative impact at least on the football clubs that are not rich as Real Madrid, Manchester United, Barcelona and others.
But what is usually absent in such claims is actual evidence that things have been heading south lately. Moreover, there are signs that at first glance would suggest that football has reached an unprecedented level of quality. Two of these signs are worth mentioning. First, there is the phenomenal duo of Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Already in 2012, according to a WSJ analysis, their achievements were truly unique:
For a historical perspective, consider only league totals. In the past 60 years, excluding Ronaldo and Messi, the 30-goal mark has been passed on eight occasions by seven different players. Today’s dynamic duo has scored more than 30 Liga goals five times in the past three seasons.
And there are reasons to hope that new giants are about to burst on the scene as the dominance of Ronaldo and Messi subsides. Players like Neymar Jr. and Luis Suarez (Barcelona) Gareth Bale (Real Madrid), Robert Lewandowsky (Bayern) and Gonzalo Higuain (Napoli) are perhaps just a bit behind, and Philippe Coutinho (Liverpool) and Anthony Martial (Manchester United) may well soon reach it.
In addition to the attacking giants, there is the Premier League in which the first place is occupied by Leicester City (that barely escaped relegation last season) and clubs like West Ham, Southampton, Everton and Watford have a better shot at playing in Europe in the next season than the defending champions, Chelsea.
But certainly, it is possible to dismiss these two observations, therefore, more detailed evidence on the quality of top-league European football is needed to make conclusions.
Probably almost everyone will agree that goals are the most important aspect of football. They are surely not sufficient in themselves but if the overall goalscoring is going down, it is a serious reason to sound the alarm. If we look at the data for five top European leagues from Footstats.co.uk and compare the results of the 2006/2007 season and the latest completed season of 2014/15, we may notice improvements for all the leagues. The average goal total for the Premier League and Serie A increased by around 5%. For Bundesliga, it stayed almost flat but La Liga and Ligue 1 stand out, registering increases of 11% and 16%, respectively. If we look at the level of clubs within leagues, we will notice that the magnitude of the changes in Spain is disproportionately related to the special form of the two best clubs but even if their tallies are kept unchanged for calculation, La Liga’s average tally increases by 5%. French Ligue 1, however, has had the goalscoring increase across the board.
Over the same time interval, teams in the five major championships, have on average also increased the total number of shots by 12%. The only league in which this indicator slightly decreased is Bundesliga but it had it at a very high level from the start. For the Premier League, Ligue 1 and Serie A, the growth reached impressive figures of 15%, 19% and 25%, respectively.
The most significant improvement, however, concerns passing because it took place over an even shorter period of time. According to the data collected from Whoscored.com, between the 2009/2010 (the earliest season for which I managed to find the data) and the current season the average number of short passes and long balls per game in the five leagues rose by 9%. In individual leagues, it increased by 7–15%, with the Ligue 1 again distingushing itself. All the five leagues now have this indicator within the 426–446 range, with La Liga surprisingly occupying the lowest place. The increase has mostly been due to short passes.
There is, however, one major indicator that undertook a large decrease between 2006/2007 and 2014/15 — the total number of shots on target. However, as will be explained below, this change may actually have been for the better (although at this stage it is difficult to say for sure). The average total number for five leagues fell by 35%, however, English Premier League and Bundesliga were disproportionately affected. In the 2006/2007 season, they were far ahead of the other three championships in terms of shots on target. Bundesliga had the number at 263 while the lowest-placed La Liga registered just 149, an astonishing difference. Now all the five leagues have converged to the range between 152 and 164.
The fact that the Premier League and Bundesliga were leaders in this regard, that all top championships have converged now, that the total number of shots and passes has risen, and the number of goals slightly increased, taken together, strongly suggest that it was attempted headers that took the cut and reduced the number of shots on target. While I do not have statistical evidence, it would seem that headers are normally more precise but have lower odds of resulting in goals. The English and German championships in the past were strongly associated with the style of play that favours headers. Teams in all leagues seems to have converged on a style of football with more emphasis on short passing and kick shots.
Which leads us to a larger point.
The evolution led by Barcelona
Of all the top-league teams, one epitomizes the direction in which European football seems to be evolving perhaps the best. This team is Barcelona. In the 2009/2010 season, this team had by far the highest number of short passes and long balls per game (627), followed by Bayern with 543 and its arch-rival Real Madrid with 525. In the 2012/13 season, Barcelona completed an astonishing 752 short passes and long balls per match but has since then reverted to the 2009/2010 level. The mantle of Guardiola’s Barcelona has been taken by… Guardiola’s Bayern with 723 and PSG with 718. It may be argued, however, that Barcelona’s current style is somewhat more healthy than the extreme tika-taka, which bolsters the conjecture that Barcelona is spearheading the evolution.
Barcelona also produces the second highest number of shots (623), trailing only the extreme of Real Madrid (688) and Manchester City (668). In terms of shots on target, Barcelona and Real Madrid are outliers (due largely to the unprecedented quality of their squads) but they are significantly behind the level of the three top teams by shots on target of the 2006/2007 season.
Is Barcelonization an obvious good?
At this point, a sceptic may question the idea that the convergence of European football to the style perfected by Barcelona is a positive development. However, the Barcelonization thesis of course does not mean that we are moving towards the future of 98 clones of the Catalan super-club.
It just means a faster, more watchable football with more goals, shots and passes in general but leaves a lot of space for teams to develop their individual styles. And perhaps, the most important feature of the process is that it may well be affecting the teams that are not global superclubs the most. Which means improved experience for fans across the board.
Certainly, some die-hard fans of the style of football perhaps best exemplified by the teams in which Gerd Muller played will never agree but the factthat top-league European football is becoming more and more popular suggests that the vast majority of the fans hold a different opinion.
How money helps
Of course, proving the causal link between the influx of money into European football and the recent improvements in its quality is not a simple task, and I am not pretending to be able to definitively do that in a non-academic article. Nonetheless, there are some serious arguments in favour of this position.
Despite the romantic aversion of football fans to being considered as customers, professional football is a serious business, and the role of entrepreneurial firms in this business is no different from that of their counterparts in other domains. It consists in finding factors of production (in this case, mostly footballers and coaches) that are not utilized in the best way for creating value, and paying to reallocate them to more promising activities. In this sense, money has contributed to this entrepreneurial process in football in at least two major ways: the internationalization of players and coaches and better scouting.
Top-league European football has never been so internationalized. For instance, the Premier League non-super-clubs like Leicester or West Ham did not use to be coached by foreign managers like Ranieri and Bilic. More impressively, a 2013 analysis of CIES Football Laboratory concluded that non0native players were at all-time high levels in the 31 European football top leagues analyzed. The share of foreign players in the Premier League in early 2014, according to the same organization, was 60.4%. And there are no reasons to believe that a process that is widely considered by economists as beneficial in other domains should be harful or neutral when it comes to football.
At the same time, it is almost certain that without a large influx of money, such runaway globalization would not have been possible. Beside the obvious idea that a lot of resources are needed for monitoring players in other countries, negotiations and assisting the adaptation for other leagues, there is also the issue of motivating players and coaches to leave the familiar environments. Especially for clubs that do not have the stature of Barcelona or Manchester United.
Globalization does not only improve allocation, it also leads to the diffusion of ideas, strategies and tactics. The already menioned coach Josep Guardiola is perhaps especially illustrative of this observation. He has already had a strong impact outside of his native La Liga with Bayern, and in the next season, he is in for transforming Manchester City.
The second major way the money injection works is through improved scouting across the board. The most dramatic story in this regard is the incredible career chnage of the current Premier Legue top scorer Jamie Vardy. When he was scouted by Leicester City in May 2012, he was playing for the fifth-level league in England. He was not even a professional footballer. Now, he may well be spearheading Leicester to the top finish.
A more detailed look into the causes of the improving quality, though, is a matter for a future academic paper.