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Which European league is most competitive?

7 December 2012

By Andrew Brocker

The quality of the major leagues of Europe is undoubted. But as much as we may marvel at the weekly exploits of football’s elite, as fans we hope for something more. As fans we hope for competition.

As much as we may enjoy speculating as to who will win this coming weekend, what makes such speculation enjoyable is that at the end of the day, we don’t know. It’s the unpredictable nature of football that entices us week in, week out.

So which leagues offer the greatest intensity of competition, the greatest degree of unpredictability? There are any number of ways to assess this. We could look at the frequency of margins of victory from match to match, we could look at the upward mobility of clubs in each particular league.

Whatever your opinion of betting, match odds are perhaps one of the best means of assessing our expectations for individual sporting events. Within a small sample size, like even the most astute pundit, bookmakers can get it wrong. Just look at the last two weeks of football. We’ve seen Swansea upset Arsenal at the Emirates at odds of 7.50, meanwhile in Spain we saw Betis get the best of Real Madrid at the healthy odds of 11.00.

However despite the capacity for such week to week turbulence, over a larger sample size, bookmaker odds are as good an indication of what we can expect to see in a football match as any. A team that starts a match at odds of 1.50 is regarded as a 67% chance of winning that match. You will find that over a large enough sample size, teams starting at this price will win at roughly the expected rate.

So with this in mind, as means of assessing league by league competitive intensity, we will now take a look at the occurrence rates of matches that featured a team starting at odds of even money of shorter over the last five seasons. In particular, we will be looking at the following leagues:

⁃ English Premier League
⁃ English Championship
⁃ La Liga
⁃ Ligue Un
⁃ Bundesliga
⁃ Serie A
⁃ Eredivisie
⁃ Scottish Premier League

Even Money Or Shorter

The chart below displays the occurrence rates of matches featuring a team starting at odds of 2.00 or less for each of our seven leagues over the past five seasons. What we are looking at here are the number of matches in each league where a team was considered at least a 50% chance of winning.

The combined league occurrence rate has been just over 48% the last five seasons and we can see that four of our seven leagues, the Scottish Premier League, Serie A, Bundesliga and La Liga have shown occurrence rates within close proximity of the that average rate.

The two leagues that have shown significant variance from this average were the Eredivisie and the English Championship. The Eredivisie saw over 63% of their matches the last five seasons feature a team with an expected winning probability of 50% or greater, while the Championship saw just over 36% of its matches feature such teams.

Odds of 1.50 Or Shorter

So let’s then take a look at the occurrence rates of matches featuring a team starting at odds of 1.50 or less. Here we are looking at matches where a team was expected to win 67% of the time or greater. In other words, firm favourites.

The chart above shows the occurrence rates for matches featuring such teams over the last five seasons. The combined occurrence rate across our seven leagues during that time was just short of 15%. Unlike odds of even money or shorter, we start to see some significant variation between the leagues.

Again we see the Eredivisie lead with the highest occurrence rate, in this case, just short of 27% of its matches the last five seasons. We also see the English and Scottish Premier League not far behind, both seeing almost 22% of their matches over the last fives seasons feature a club with an expected winning probability of 67% or greater.

On the other end of the scale we find both Ligue Un which saw just short of 9% of its matches feature teams starting at odds of 1.50 or less and again the English Champiopnship, which saw almost 2% of its matches with teams in this odds range.

Odds of 1.30 or shorter

So let’s finally take a look at the occurrence rates in each league of matches that featured a club starting at odds of 1.30 or less. At these odds, the particular team is expected to win 77% of the time. In other words, we’re talking very short priced favourites, which would include matchups such as Manchester United hosting the likes of QPR.

The chart above shows such occurrence rates. The combined seven league occurrence rate of these lopsided matches over the last five seasons has been just over 5%, essentially 1 of every 20 matches played.

We can see four leagues significantly exceeding this rate, with the Eredivisie seeing almost 11% of its matches with such a forgone expectation, while the English Premier League, Scottish Premier League and La Liga, all seeing roughly 9% of their matches featuring a team with an expected winning probability of 77% or greater. Such occurrence rates would seem to corroborate the popular opinion that these leagues are amongst the most uneven in Europe.

On the other hand, we can see that the English Championship did not see one match over the last five seasons the featured a club with such an expectation of victory, while Ligue Un saw this disparity in just over 1% of its matches.

Final Thoughts

Given these numbers it’s easy to see that of the leagues we considered, the English Championship is by far the most competitive. Not once over the past five seasons did this league see a match where a team was considered a 77% or greater chance of victory, whereas the English Premier League, Scottish Premier League, La Liga and Eredivisie saw matches with such a lopsided expectation almost once in every ten matches played.

What the Championship may lack in terms of quality, it certainly makes up for in competition. This unpredictable nature of the league may go a long way to explain its popularity despite its inferior and often jeered standard of play. And while we may enjoy the craft of Europe’s elite performers in leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga, such displays of skill take place in matches where the result is typically a forgone conclusion.

As the gulf between football’s rich and poor continues to emerge, we can only expect to see an increase in the number of matches featuring clubs starting at odds of 1.30 or less. The impact of this on the popularity of leagues which see a high occurrence of such matches, will be intriguing. For bookmakers, enticing punters into betting on these matches will be an interesting exercise.

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