In a slightly different format from Stoop Sports’ first edition of the column “Ready Set Debate,” Mason West and I discuss which European soccer league is better, the English Premier League or La Liga in Spain. Sit back and enjoy the first soccer installment of one of Stoop Sports’ most popular columns.
Kevin Israel: Today we are here to discuss one of the growing debates in world football: which league reigns supreme? Most would agree top football is being played in Europe, where the leagues have become a hot bed for nearly all the top talent of the world. Over the decades many leagues have been considered the cream of the cop whether it be Germany, Italy, England, Spain, France or Netherlands; every nation hopes their league will be considered the best, so the best talent will flood into their squads. Thanks in large part to financial capabilities of the teams and strong media outlets, many people consider the Premier League in England to be the greatest league in the world, however, I feel very strongly that La Liga in Spain is the world’s best league at the moment. This is where Mason and I strongly disagree.
Mason West: Hey Kevin, glad to be here and excited to get debating. As you said, Europe is certainly the hotbed for talent across the world, but the question that we can hopefully answer in this debate is whether the number one league in Europe is the mighty England or the silky Spain.
Kevin: Correct. Now for me the debate is simple, the best league must have the best talent and which league has the best talent? Spain. Every league is primarily comprised of players from their own nation (usually over 50%), so how can Spain not be the best league in the world? Their national team has been the best in the world for six years now. When guys leave La Liga, they don’t just flourish in other leagues, they simply dominate. Look at guys who have recently left Spain in the past few seasons. Juan Mata is Chelsea’s best player after leaving Valencia, David Silva is arguably Man City’s best player since leaving Valencia, Santi Cazorla has been nothing short of fantastic since leaving Malaga for Arsenal, Michu is currently fourth in goals in the EPL and he was relatively unknown in Spain. The point is players leave La Liga as quality players and enter the Premier League as some of the best. At the moment, soccers breeding ground is Spain and when you look across the 20-man rosters in La Liga the names may not be as well known as those in the EPL, but that is because of a lack of marketing. When you watch them play the skill set is far superior to the brute men playing old fashioned soccer for sides such as Stoke City.
Mason: Kevin everything you said is correct. I wholeheartedly agree that some of the best players comprising the EPL today have come from La Liga as you mentioned. The problem I have is that as tactically based and beautifully played as the spanish do in La Liga, taking a look at the overall league in terms of competition La Liga falls behind compared to the EPL.
We hear of the Barcelona’s, Real Madrid’s and even Atletico Madrid’s leading the way, but then after them you have a slew of average teams that can’t take out these dominant money splashing sides. The matches in La Liga can be argued as soft and predictable especially when its Barcelona against anyone, but when you have Arsenal vs. Everton or Swansea City vs. West Ham or Man City vs. Man U, we can’t predict the outcomes as easy as it is in La Liga due to the fact that the EPL, as you said, is built on its brute force, its culmination of the world’s best from all regions, and its sheer pace of game. I wouldn’t say that La Liga breeds the most for the EPL, but I’d agree they have bred some great talent that moves on. Simply put, La Liga is a minor league system that fosters the talent to make it to the major leagues which is the EPL where they then hone on their games even more, and achieve a higher status.
Kevin: Excellent point. No league plays at a higher pace than what is played in the EPL. Everything about the game is fast paced and of course the sides in England are light years ahead of Spain in terms of physicality, strength and size. But these are not the driving forces behind soccer anymore. Maybe at some previous point they once were more valued traits, but soccer has evolved immensely over the past decade. It is a technical game now, one that requires touch, precision, patience, awareness and intelligence. All traits the English game still is a step behind La Liga in understanding. La Liga has been the most dominant league over the past decade and European football proves my case.
In 2000, three of the four champions league semi finalists were from Spain and Real Madrid ended up defeating Valencia in the final that year. Since then the dominance has only continued. Spain is also ranked number 1 in UEFA’s league rankings based off yearly success in UEFA competitions. You mentioned that after the Real Madrid’s and Barcelona’s who is left? Have you heard of Valencia? Athletic Bilbao? Malaga? Levante? Osasuna? Sevilla? These clubs are excellent sides, but because they don’t have the budgets of Liverpool, Tottenham or Newcastle then they must stink. Well Malaga and Valencia are both still in Champions League, Atletico Madrid has won Europa League twice in three years and Bilbao made the final as well last season. The league is so deep in fact that Villarreal was relegated from La Liga after making Champions League the year prior.
Mason: Strong points and yes I have heard of them all but it’s arguable that those sides have been better in the past then they are now. I want to throw something out there that since the 2004-2005 Champions League Final in which Liverpool defeated AC milan, the EPL has been represented in every Champions League Final except the 2009-2010 season which Inter Milan defeated Bayern Munich. That is a staggering seven of the last eight finals. Spanish teams on the other hand, have only been in three of those finals since the 2004-2005 Champions League season and all three times have been represented by Barcelona. No other La Liga team has even touched a Champions League Final appearance. Also, of those seven appearances in the last eight for EPL teams, four different teams from the EPL have been in those finals: Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool.
The game certainly changes from year to year and a lot of these EPL teams have money but most act and spend way less than the likes of Real Madrid. The EPL is thrifty and adapts to the changes of the game. I will not argue against the fact that La Liga has the two best players in the world in Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. But Cristiano Ronaldo played in the EPL before he did La Liga, and since since being at Madrid has 130 goals in 120 appearances, that’s more than a goal per appearance while at Manchester United he only had 84 in 196. That tells me that the defense in the EPL is way above the likes of La Liga, that tells me that even the world’s best can be stopped, and that tells me that as good as someone like Lionel Messi is, and he certainly is the best, I like to think that if he ever left Barcelona and went to the Premier League, he would not single handidly dominate the same way he does against every player that isn’t named Ronaldo in La Liga.
Kevin: Seven of the last eight is hard to argue from the only tournament that sports sides from both leagues, but as you said I was looking too far in the past, you might be too. Since 2009, the finals were Barcelona vs. Man U, Inter vs. Bayern, Barcelona vs. Man U and Chelsea vs. Bayern, so when you really look at the leagues over more recent history now the score is only two teams to one (a much closer score). Not to mention Real Madrid was knocked out in the Semi-Finals one season by non other than their own league-mates, Barcelona (final score 2-2).
My next point was going to pertain to the best players in the world, so thank you for transitioning beautifully. Messi and Ronaldo are the best and everyone knows it, but did you know that the entire squad for the 2012 team of the year came from La Liga. While I will tell you RVP, Yaya Toure, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Vincent Kompany may have deserved a spot, it is hard to argue against any of the guys on the team. Your point about Ronaldo’s goal increase since joining Real Madrid although accurate is invalid in my eyes and may in fact help my argument.
First off, Ronaldo played for United from ages 18-24 years old. Everyone would agree a soccer players prime is 25-29. Ronaldo progression has been a steady rise since his first season, with only injuries as a set back. Not to mention in his first three seasons primarily as a teenager he scored 4, 5 and 9 goals (is it fair to compare teenage Ronaldo to the Ronaldo of now?). If he were back in England he would produce roughly around the numbers he has in La Liga the past season or two. The only reason why he might be down slightly would be due to the tactical approaches of the two leagues, but that has more to do with style than anything.
In Spain teams attack, does that make them bad? No, if anything it makes them more interesting and fun to watch. If you look at soccer history the teams who attack the best (aside from the Italians) usually win (Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Germany, France). Mid to low table English sides play soccer scared. Tight 4-4-2 formations or 4-5-1 formations, focused around organized defensive pack the box and hold on for dear life football. While this often produces draws and wins against top sides, this is due to nothing more than bad coaching and uncreative players of the EPL. The reason why Real Madrid and Barcelona are so dominant is because they are hands down the two most talented teams in the world. So talented in fact, that when put against inferior competition, competition that packs in the box, 11 behind the ball, their players creativity coupled with the technical and tactical skill of each player breaks down teams in the tightest of spaces.
EPL teams aren’t capable of this, and it’s the reason why the top sides drop points. When Fulham beats Man City, it is rarely because they dominated the game, it is normally because City’s inability to create quality chances or finish the ones they had. But if you want to hear about bad sides beating good ones, then here is a fun fact: the 20th ranked team has taken points from the 1st place team each of the last three seasons in La Liga. People see the disparity between Barcelona and Madrid over the rest of the pack and say well the league stinks, but the league does not stink. If the league stunk would Atletico Madrid have been able to hammer Chelsea 4-1 in the UEFA Super Cup? Would Real Madrid have outdone Man City in Champions League? Would Athletic Bilbao have been able to wipe your beloved Man U off the carpet last year in Europa League? Before you go there, yes, Chelsea defeated Barcelona last season and I have no argument for that, so I’ll save you the trouble of even mentioning one of my biggest nightmares of 2012.
Mason: Characteristically, we could argue about this thrilling discussion for days on end because there is simply so many points that could make us teeter between both as the best. I will finish in my vouching for the EPL as the best league in the world for this reason: the league boasts players who might not be one and two in the world but make up a majority of the remaining elite; Robin Van Persie, Sergio Aguero, Carlos Tevez, Wayne Rooney, Eden Hazard, Theo Walcott, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Bale, and the list goes on. The EPL is single handedly like the United Nations. It has players of every country represented on the field in many different kits, and these guys come because they know its the best league to play for.
Countless times where players make the move from the other leagues to the EPL when they are wanted because they know these chances don’t come at a whim for all. I will also say in the recent days that Barcelona’s prized goal keeper in Victor Valdes, one that has been there since 1997, has said not only will he not be remaining at Barcelona past his contract which expires in 2014 but he wants to take his talents to the EPL. I don’t know if that better showcases what I mean but players want challenges they haven’t previously had and if that means having to break through brute defenses and bask in the spotlight not off of their offensive creation but pure strength, speed down the wing, and ability to hold their own in the box, then that just screams the EPL.
Kevin: There is something beautiful about the EPL, something that draws players from around the world, that being money and media. No league does a better job of marketing than the EPL and that is a huge card for bringing in international players. Playing in the EPL even for sides like Fulham, Everton and Aston Villa, means everyone in the world will be watching you at one point or another, and it also means you’ll get paid double to play the sport you love in front of twice as big an audience. The over hype of the stars in the EPL is a by product of this.
How good is Theo Walcott really? Not good enough to succeed Internationally we know that. Is Eden Hazard better than Isco? Last year, 99% of the world would have told you that the former Lille star was the more talented player, now people might feel differently. The EPL is one big media sensation, one that has put down their brothers from La Liga, fully aware that the talent being pumped out of the world’s most talented league! Might one day soon draw the attention of the major TV contracts and world investors needed for a league like LA Liga to take down the EPL from a marketing standpoint? Although I will defend La Liga until the bitter end, until the money pours into Spain, I guess I’ll have to accept the EPL’s title as the best league in the world for now.
Mason: To conclude, whether we are talking EPL vs la liga or any other league we cannot argue against the fact that Europe is the best in the world at what they do. And what they do is soccer. We are all aware of the talent across this continent specifically. We are less aware of leagues such as the MLS, or the Australian League, and so on. But I think what’s beautiful about this game is that maybe not in our lifetimes but one day, the world will be a battlefield for soccer in general. Everyone level against anyone, beaten on any day, winning and losing throughout.
Maybe that’s just me and maybe that’s just a perfect world for people like Kevin and I who would like to call ourselves students of the game and fanatics at that. The fan base is increasing worldwide and soccer is heading into that class of the most elite sports ever created. One thing that still remains true to this day is the game is forever changing and players come and go like the leaves on a tree, but the moments as fans, as players, and as coaches, are the things we live for in watching this great game.