Since We Want to Compare: La Liga and England Premier League

Do you know me?  You might, but do you follow my squad?

Do you know me? You might, but do you follow my squad?

I understand why most fans I know think that La Liga is two super teams and not much else. This opinion usually comes via a comparison to England, which has a Big Four® and two other high-quality clubs (Tottenham and Manchester City).

Of course, elsewhere in Europe they say similar things about England. With Liverpool and Arsenal showing pronounced weaknesses, Chelsea and Manchester United form a Big Two (trademark pending). Even amongst that pair you can say, like Barcelona’s relationship to Real Madrid in La Liga, there is one team that appears markedly stronger than the other.

If we were judging now, it would be difficult (though far from impossible) to suppose the English duo the equal to their Spanish counterparts. But league comparisons are not about one or two teams. We need to look deeper.

(At this point, you may want to read the insert, to the right, for context on how I am approaching these kinds of discussions.)

But before we do,

I want to mention a slight reticence on my part to engage in this kind of dialog. On my blog, it is something I can fire off without much of a thought. After all, that’s my blog. I can do what I want. Here, I’m under a different banner, and if I move these thoughts to another site, I might further try to downplay our need to compare leagues.

Truth is I think comparing leagues is incredibly interesting and helpful, though we always take the conversation in the wrong direction. We always try to come to some sweeping generalization as to which league is better, and implicit in our conclusions is a verdict on an entire culture’s football. Please, don’t act like this isn’t the case. In my experience, it is not only common but modal for people to blur the lines between domestic competition and national team quality.

Granted, before I went on this tangent, I did utter this comparison: “it would be difficult (though far from impossible) to suppose the English duo the equal to their Spanish counterparts.” Notice the word “better?”

Am I being a hypocrite? Perhaps, but I don’t think so. There is a fine line between making a judgment consistent with the purpose of Champions League, Copa Libertadores, et al, and a sweeping generalization.

In this piece, you won’t read anything like “and that’s why Spain is better than England.”

This is a fine, self-aggrandizing line that I’m drawing, but if we’re going to have this conversation, that’s the box I want to live in. I think it’s the only real context in which we can have these kinds of discussions.

Below the top two in La Liga, you have Sevilla, Valencia, and Atlético Madrid, all with varying talents and faults. Those who follow the Premier League – the English version – are not used to this group of clubs being compared with members of their Big Four®, but those clubs have names like Fabiano, Forlán, Villa, Silva, Agüero, Maxi, Kanouté, Simão, Assunção, Escudé, Mata, Squillaci … do I need to go on here? Because I could.

When you stack these teams up player-for-player with their English counterparts (say, Liverpool, Arsenal, and Manchester City), you see similarities. Two teams from each league are offensively adept but still suspect in defense. The other is a more well-rounded team (Liverpool, Sevilla), a major threat to the league’s top two, but dependent on big seasons from a few players to continue their ability to get results beyond their talent.

All of the players listed are prominent members of club, league and team. You could construct a similar list from the third through fifth best clubs in England, though it’s not going to be a decidedly better list. And that’s the whole point. Choosing a better or deeper amongst these two leagues is the kind of argument for which pin’s heads and angels are allegorically used. If you’re still not convinced, look at the next level of team: the Europa Cup-level.

At this level, I include Tottenham, though they could exceed expectations and end up in the upper group. But the same could be said for Villareal, who are in Europa League, have some notable players (to say the least: Senna, Cazorla, Capdevilla, Llorente, Rossi, Pirès, Godín), and are only one season removed from a second place finish. From England, you can also include Aston Villa and Everton at this level – teams that have finished in the top six each of the last two seasons – but last year’s Copa del Rey finalists Athletic Bilbao coupled with Deportivo La Coruña – who almost stole a point at Real Madrid on Matchday 1 – are comparable squads.

As you go down the tables, you can continue to draw these parallels, provided you know the squads. Very few do, however. We all have our favorite leagues, and there are few who stay up all hours of the day thinking about these types of questions. As somebody that has spent an inordinate amount of time over the last three months thinking about this question, I am convinced Spain’s top league is at least as deep as England’s top flight (I’m trying to be magnanimous).

England, Spain in Europe
Over the last five years, England has put more teams into the Champions League knock out stage, though each league has won the UEFA club crown twice. In the UEFA Cup, however, Spain has more Round of 16 appearances and titles.

Since the 2004-05 season:

Spain England
Competition R16 Apps Champs R16 Apps Champs
UCL 15 2 19 2
UEFA Cup 10 2 8 0

And though I can’t articulate it well enough to base unqualified conclusions on it, my gut tells me that Spain’s teams in the lower half of the table are superior to their English counterparts, but since there is no continental tournament for teams at that depth of the table, this argument has more conjecture than my already nebulous conclusions (above). But as conjecture, I think the lower table teams in La Liga would have as much relative success as Spain’s UEFA Cup clubs have had compared to their English equivalents.

But I will let that sit until I have given it more thought. If I go into it now, that will end up being this post’s take home message. Instead, I want to throw out my completely unoriginal explanation as to why these perceptions exist:

Beyond the two elite clubs from Spain, people who get their football news from English-language sources know very little about Spanish clubs. How Unai Emery is adjusting to the loss of Raúl Albiol is not likely to be discussed on Match of the Day.

And it’s the same for people who don’t follow the U.K. press, only in reverse. People in Madrid don’t care about Sunderland. Nor should they.

There is, however, a step between not knowing about a league and assuming it’s inferior. It’s a step that should be made with great caution.

I’m not above such steps. I’ve never seen an A-League match, yet I assume its quality of play is not up to La Liga’s standards. But I don’t feel comfortable comparing the A-League to MLS, and that seems the better analogy for the England-Spain comparison.

You don’t have to apologize for loving the English Premier League and wanting to know all about it (and sacrificing your knowledge of other leagues to do so). In fact, you don’t even have to stop from saying things like “I think Sunderland’s a much better club than Racing Santander.” We all love a good opinion, but be open-minded. Familiarity does not mean superiority.

Is La Liga’s play of better quality than, say, the Eredivisie? Clearly. Is the English Premier League better than its Scottish counterpart? Only slightly (and by slightly, I mean enormously). Whether your pro-comparisons or not, it would be intellectually dishonest to say otherwise. But when comparing England and Spain, there are valid viewpoints on either side, and the most we can do with any degree of certainty is acknowledge that decisive judgments to either league’s side are hastily made.

Richard Farley/The Kartik Report