Parity in soccer is not exactly commonplace. Some leagues have it, others have less. It’s part of the excitement in all leagues, though.
In fact, a lack of competitive nature makes those shock runs at titles or European spots that much more exciting. A challenging Bayern Munich team for the Bundesliga, albeit rare, is exciting for the German top flight. LOSC Lille shocking PSG in 2020/21 to win Ligue Un on the final day brought much-needed attention to French club soccer.
At the same time, it may provide an inside look as to why some leagues are so popular. The Premier League is the most popular European league in the United States for a number of reasons. Among them is the unpredictable nature of the league. Serie A is experiencing a rebirth, and part of that comes from the disruption of the Juventus hegemony that dominated in the 2010s.
Over the last handful of years, some leagues are just more predictable than others in Europe. Here are some of those leagues ranked.
The most predictable soccer leagues in Europe
1 – Bundesliga – One winner over 10 years
In the 2021/22 season, Bayern Munich won another Meisterschale. That, along with being a record 32nd title, was the club’s 10th straight league win. Since the 2008/09 Bundesliga season that Wolfsburg finished top of the table for, Bayern Munich won 11 of the titles. The only other two over that span went to its biggest rival, Borussia Dortmund.
That is what makes the Bundesliga so predictable. You know Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund will finish towards the top of the table. Dortmund is far less consistent, to be fair. Still, since its back-to-back title wins in 2010/11 and 2011/12, Dortmund has just one finish outside the top four. That was back in 2014/15, the last year under the leadership of Jürgen Klopp.
Now entering the fray over the last several years is RB Leipzig. Cracking into the Bundesliga for the first time in 2016/17, Die Roten Bullen made a splash with a second-place finish. Including that season, Leipzig has six seasons in the top flight. It finished sixth in its second season. However, excluding that ‘outlier,’ Leipzig has a pair of second-place finishes, two third places and a fourth spot.
You could dot in some other teams to complete the top four over the last decade or so. Bayer Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Borussia Monchengladbach or Eintracht Frankfurt flirted with that area. The fact that Dortmund sits fifth and Bayern has a three-point edge at around the halfway mark in the campaign is a surprising feat.
2 – Ligue A – Three winners over 10 years
Whereas Bayern munich won each of the Bundesliga titles following the 2011/12 campaign, Paris St. Germain is on a comparable run of success. However, despite Ligue A being somewhat lower in quality than the Bundesliga as a whole, PSG ‘only’ has eight titles over that ten-year span.
Monaco won the title with its magnificently talented squad of Bernardo Silva, Fabinho, Thomas Lemar, Radamel Falcao and a certain Kylian Mbappé in 2016/17. Then, in 2020/21, the aforementioned Lille shocked the odds to finish top of Ligue A.
What makes Ligue Un so predictable among European soccer leagues is the gap in talent between the top teams. PSG is in a class of its ownnot much of a surprise with Mbappé, Neymar and Lionel Messi leading the line. Even the clubs competing for the other top four spots, clubs like Lyon, Marseille, Monaco or Lille have recognizable names. They often lose those names to top European clubs, including PSG.
3 – LaLiga – Three winners over 10 years
LaLiga is a fairly competitive league. That is true for the top three, that is. Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Real Madrid are the overwhelming favorites to win every LaLiga crown.
The last time a team that was not Barcelona, Real Madrid or Athletic won LaLiga was in 2003/04, when Valencia lifted its sixth trophy. That balance of split hegemony makes LaLiga square in the middle of the most predictable leagues in Europe.
In the history of Spanish soccer, only nine teams have ever won the top division. That speaks to the dominance of Barcelona and Real Madrid, combining for 61 of 91 titles.
So, if there is such a clear gap between these three teams and the rest, it should be level with the Bundesliga or Ligue Un. Well, LaLiga at least has a challenge for the title each season. From the 2013/14 season and onwards, Atletico Madrid has two titles, Real Madrid has three and Barcelona has four. It is consistent between the top teams, but still a challenge.
Then, adding in that fourth-place team, Sevilla is about as surefire as it gets to complete a top four. Sevilla has four fourth-place finishes in that span, even if the club is struggling mightily in the 2022/23 campaign.
4 – Serie A – Three winners over 10 years
If you had asked which European league is the most predictable three years ago, Serie A would make a serious case to be top of that list. However, the Italian top flight is undergoing something of a renaissance in terms of parity.
Juventus, which won every Scudetto from 2011/12 to 2019/20, hit a massive rough patch. In its stead, Inter Milan and Milan both won a Serie A title. In the 2022/23 campaign, the string of changes looks to extend. Napoli has a comfortable lead in the title race at the halfway point in the season.
Part of what makes Serie A unpredictable, at least compared to the three aforementioned leagues, is how teams come and go. Atalanta emerged in recent campaigns as a fan favorite to compete for Champions League spots. Roma slightly let down when Juventus collapsed. After a number of top-four finishes, it failed to get back to that level after the 2017/18 campaign.
Still, there is hope for each team that is in the elite. Inter, Milan, Juventus, Naples, Rome and Lazio. All competitors, and that shows in recent editions of league tables.
5 – Premier League – Five winners over 10 years
Seeing five different clubs win the Premier League over a 10 year span may surprise some people. After all, Manchester City has half of the Premier League crowns in that span. For good measure, it added the one 11 years ago. In many ways, Manchester City winning the title has become the norm in England. The first, and only, centurions in the history of the Premier League have an era of dominance under Pep Guardiola.
Still, looking back at the last decade, Liverpool, Chelsea and even Manchester United won the title. Also, Leicester City pulled off the most unpredictable title in the history of all European soccer leagues, winning the league after starting as relegation favourites.
Then, what makes the Premier League stand out more in terms of unpredictability is the talent at the top. Compare the ‘tough times’ of Barcelona to Manchester United or Arsenal. Barcelona has not won LaLiga in three seasons, that is abhorrent in LaLiga. Arsenal have not won a title since 2003/04. Moreover, it has not finished in the top four since a runner-up finish at Leicester City in 2015/16. Now, it’s top of the league. Manchester United bounced all over the place over the last decade. A couple of second-place finishes, two more top fours, three sixth-places. Other teams have also fluctuated in form. Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs, even Leicester City. It went from promotion to relegation battle to champions to top-six. Now, it is back in the bottom half of the table.
The Premier League has more ebbs and flows than any other league, making it the least predictable of the top five leagues in Europe.
How does MLS stack up?
MLS – 7 winners in the last 10 years
Taking the top five European leagues and looking at Major League Soccer, there is a case for MLS to be considered more unpredictable. Note that this does not overtly make MLS better. Talent is lower across the board. Instead, consider it more balanced.
This looks at the winners of the MLS Supporters’ Shield, which goes to the team with the best record at the end of the regular season. It is more in line with the way the top five leagues in Europe decide a winner. Seven different teams won the MLS Supporters’ Shield. Interestingly, only two of those teams went on to win the MLS Cup that season. That was Toronto FC in 2017 and LAFC in the most recent campaign.
Clearly, MLS is less predictable than other leagues. The reasons for this are fairly clear. MLS has a salary cap, European leagues do not. Teams are constantly fighting to remain under the cap. When players come calling for raises after strong seasons, the money may not always be there.
Players aren’t craving to get to MLS, weakening some teams and making it more balanced. For example, Miguel Almiron left Atlanta United after the side won MLS Cup in 2018. During his tenure in Atlanta, Almiron linked up with Josef Martinez to dominate the league. It won a US Open Cup and an MLS Cup, even if it missed out on the Supporters’ Shield. He left (and Martinez dealt with injuries) and Atlas has not been the same since, breaking up its performances and success.
PHOTO: IMAGO / Sammy Minkoff