Our cliches and the changing European landscape: Why’s Spain doing this to us?

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A good number of assumptions about the European game have been undermined recently. Remember the concept of a Big Four in the Premier League? How about the big three leagues: England, Spain and … Italy? Or the idea that Spain is a two-team league?

The last assumption lingers, but for good reason. If your goal is to describe how many clubs are likely to win La Liga, the description is apt. However, many have co-opted the description as a way to describe the league’s overall quality when, as we’ve learned this year, more than Barcelona and Real Madrid are capable of competing against their European peers. Unfortunately, whenever ‘two-team league ‘ is evoked, it’s never to praise the big two. It’s always used as a pejorative.

There’s never been much substance behind to using ‘two-team league’ as a condemnation. While Spain only got Barcelona and Real Madrid into the knockout stage of this year’s Champions League, La Liga’s 2011-12 European returns have been historic thanks to the league’s depth. Even if you want to focus on Champions League the returns complement the Primera. The last time so few Spanish clubs got out of group stage was 2004-05. In each year since, at least one of Valencia, Sevilla, Atlético Madrid, or Villarreal. The Yellow Submarine even made the semifinals in 2006.

Care to guess how many different English clubs have gotten out of group since 2005? Fewer than Spain.1

Clearly, this lark of using two-team league as a pejorative isn’t rooted in recent history or results. Seemingly, its use has increased since the rise of Barcelona, when Pep Guardiola’s coaching tenure began with the Catalans rebounding from the third place league finish to become Spanish and European champions.

The Rise of Spain

Should Spain with this remaining games in Champions League and Europa (all of which they’ll be favored to win, when it’s teams are not playing each other), La Liga will leapfrog the English Premier League and assume the top spot in UEFA’s coefficient (more):

Rank League Potential
coefficient
CL+EL
places
1 Spain 85.758 4+3
2 England 83.785 4+3
3 Germany 74.519 4+3
4 Italy 59.981 3+3
5 Portugal 55.013 3+3
6 France 54.178 3+3

At that point, the Premier League didn’t have much to hang their hat on. For a long time it was implicitly acknowledged Spain had the higher technical quality, but as the results of Manchester United in Champions League showed, that didn’t necessarily dove tail with more successful soccer. As Graham Hunter recently noted to the BBC, this thought had also crept into Barcelona’s planning. But after Barça controlled United in Rome in 2009 (a United team that was being debated as amongst the best of all time), the inherit superiority of the Premier League’s best was undermined.

So the argument shifted. If England wasn’t better at the tip-top of the league, surely (and conveniently) it was better at spots three through 20. Yet as we look back on recent years and see the fade of Liverpool and, now, the rise of the Spanish middle class, it all looks like another lark.

This year, Spain’s going to pass England at the top of UEFA’s charts, ending the Premier League’s four-year stint in the cat bird’s seat. Will that be enough to convince people that Spain isn’t a two-team league? Probably not, as veracity was never a goal when that term was adopted as an insult.

Will that status be enough to convince people the Premier League isn’t the best circuit in the world? Again, I suspect not. If I had to put money on the table, I’d wager we hear more and more about the Prem’s entertainment value, less about the actual results. And when people notice that there’s a lot of spectacle to offer in the Primera, expect the crowds to become the most important thing in soccer. And expect the Big Two arguments to be recycled.


1 – Five: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur.