La Liga on top – Claims Refuted

I’m one of the many people around the world that check the SkySports football website multiple times a day. One of my favorite columns to read is that from Guillem Balague who is an expert on the La Liga. Like every week, I was delighted to see he had a new post – however some of the claims in this weeks post were worrisome. Now I don’t claim to know soccer as well as Guillem, after having taken one too many classes on applications of econometrics, I think I can spot some misleading statistics. Here is my 2 cents on why the stats he cites are misleading:

And to read the original article, check it out at:

http://www.skysports.com/opinion/story/0,25212,12087_6563395,00.html
Claim 1: La Liga is a more open league.

He cited for the last 6 years either Chelsea or ManU in the EPL or Barca or Real has won their respective leagues which suggests that both leagues are just as competitive. A better measure would be to calculate the variance between the league positions for both teams – I just did and its the same. This doesn’t mean he’s right though. If we were to calculate the variance for the top 6 teams for the last 6 years in both leagues, its much smaller in the EPL. He claimed the average points difference between the top 6 is closer, that doesn’t matter because it could be more skewed in La Liga (ie. the top two are close as are the next 4, but the difference between 2nd and 3rd could be 15 points – we should read the variance for better measure)

Claim 2: La Liga has no easy games

He cited the point difference between the top and bottom teams – but there is an endogeneity bias in this statistic, what if the top teams in La Liga know their final positions in the league several games in advance and hence field easier sides that lose points against weaker teams? What if the bottom teams do in fact play weaker sides against the top 2 in La Liga but are more likely to win their following games having rested their top players and hence the middle of the table is more densely populated – whereas in England bottom teams play their top players each weak who tire out faster and perform worse which leads a greater points game.

The statistic to support this claim does very little, we need to analyze the distribution and see what players actually play against top teams to understand this better.

Claim 3: La Liga has the best players

He says “judging by the 23-man shortlist for the Ballon D’Or, La Liga wins hands down. The Spanish competition had 11 Ballon d’or nominees out of 23, while the Bundesliga (five) and Serie A (four). The Premier League had three. And now that the winners have been announced, all three play for FC Barcelona.”

This one is probably the easiest to refute. No shit La Liga has the most nominees, its because Spain won the World Cup! Had England or Italy won it we would have had an entirely different story. Winning the World Cup does reflect on good players, but that is one of several elements. The fact that half of Barca’s first team played for Spain could suggest that Barca just have the best players, but I think what is more telling is the fact that they played together all year (as did Real Madrids’ Spanish players) and developed team chemistry over the years which was put to use at the World Cup. So its circular logic, better team chemistry (in addition to talent) among players wins the World Cup, and winning the World Cup makes Barca seem like a better team and their players as individually more talented. Obviously Barca is a great team – but please don’t underestimate these other variables.

Also if we are just going on Ballon D’Or nominations, at least present to us which countries have had the most nominations over a larger period of time – such as the last 10 years. And then please realize that teams that there is a spotlight bias – that is players in less competitive leagues are very visibly more talented than equally talented players in more competitive leagues.

Claim 4: The EPL has more money than La Liga (and yet it isn’t as good)

This was a more subtle claim as he tried to argue that La Liga has developed the best players instead of bought them, he said: “No doubt some will respond by stating that all of this proves that La Liga simply throws money at attracting the biggest players in the game.” And then went on to say that they hadn’t bought them.

If you disregard Real Madrid whose Galactico Policy had buying expensive players at its essence, I can agree with this – I think if you take down total amount paid in wages and transfers for all the teams in La Liga and the Premier League you would get the right answer. My gut says its probably the EPL teams that spend more.

Additionally I think the tangent claim that he has made over his last few posts about players from Barcelona’s Youth Academy has to be seen with respect to its selection bias. Yes I’m sure its a great academy that is great for development, but they also attract the best young players. I doubt that their academy can take some random child off the streets of Equatorial Guinea and turn him into the next Ronaldhino – though I’m sure he’d still be a lot better than if he were to continue to play street soccer. Also note that they recruit good young players from all over the world very heavily, where do you think Argentinian Messi and the Mexican Dos Santos brothers came from.

Claim 5: La Liga is more entertaining

He specifically said “Well, quite how you measure excitement is impossible to define; but if it’s in terms of goals scored, again, La Liga just about comes out on top over that same six year period.”

I quite agree with his framework here, excitement is an unobservable factor, and also one that varies greatly from person to person. So he used an observable variable, that is number of goals scored, which is correlated with excitement and so is a decent measure of it. However, I would say that just one measure is too simplistic of an analysis to measure excitement. Goals certainly have a strong correlation with excitement, but so do rivalries, derbies, importance of matches, clashes between players, etc. These all should be in some way analyzed to be able to come to a more holistic understanding of which games are more exciting. And then perhaps fuse that with some more economic measurements of excitement such as the percentage of stadiums that are filled, average stadium size relative to local population, how much spectators pay for seats in the stadium etc.

On a last note, Guillem seem to imply towards the end of the article that Jose Mourinho wanted matches to be more exciting, but that was a very weak point if that is indeed what he was trying to say.

Not that I know better than Guillem, I just don’t buy his arguments. He said at the beginning: “if you’re going to disagree with me, you’re going to have to avoid churning out the same old clichés!”

I don’t disagree with the argument that led to his post (the principal claim was that Barcelona are one of the top 3 teams throughout history), I do think that Barcelona are currently the best team in the world, and possibly one of the top 3 teams of all time (but not because I have quantified it, but because I know very little about the great teams throughout history). But I don’t buy the majority (if any) of the claims he made in his most recent blog post. And without some good analysis, I implore you to do the same.

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About alalani
I grew up in Tanzania and now I'm a student at Stanford!

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