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Which European league is most competitive?

Which European league is most competitive?

Andrew Brocker on 7 December 2012

Using betting odds, Andrew Brocker analyses which of Europe's leagues is the most competitive.

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.

Andrew Brocker works for and can be found on Twitter


What those charts show me is that Serie A, Ligue Un and the Bundesliga are a lot more competitive than the two strongest leagues in UEFA's coefficients table, La Liga and the Premier League.

In your haste to laud the Championship you seem to have forgotten to mention this.
by YM on 08 December 2012 at 12:54 AM

How come you only decided to include the English 2nd division?

Seems odd that you didn't look at the equivalent leagues in Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.

It may simply be the case that lower leagues are inherently more unpredictable because, by definition, anybody who establishes themselves as vastly superior finds themselves in a different division shortly after. Lower leagues have two exits for teams who're far from the norm- promotion and relegation, whereas top divisions only have relegation. I mean, imagine how competitive the Prem would be if you took the top 3 teams away every year!

So before we go giving 'The Championship' (strange name for a lower league) too much credit, we should probably look at whether it's actually just a typical lower league.
by Patrick Larsson on 08 December 2012 at 04:12 AM

This is all well and good, but why only include the second tier Championship for English league only and not the others. It's not a fair test as it stands - the lower tiers in other nations such as Serie B could be more competitive than the Championship for example.
by Nee-No on 11 December 2012 at 02:47 PM

Thanks a lot for the article Andrew, really interesting and confirmed what I already expected, that the Championship is more unpredictable than the Premier League. I was wondering whether you have similar data for the Segunda Division, Zweite Bundesliga or other equivalent leagues? Am curious to know if it is the case that second tier football is always less competitive than the first tier. Also do you have any data for League One?

Thanks again for an interesting article.
by Gareth Pridding on 12 December 2012 at 02:20 AM

What would be delightful then would be to correlate the odds of 1.30 with the result, how often this happens would be an interesting further factor. I appreciate the caveat at the start (Betis did after all beat Madrid), I think this model as a predictive tool is useful, but perhaps to link matches predictions to outcomes has some value.

Another interesting way to look at this would be to see goal margins in these matches (or matches in general), a 2-1 result (Betis v Barca) being in my view more "competitive" than a 6-1 drubbing.

I think the figures would change a bit this season with Rangers not in the SPL anymore, seeing it become, by this logic, more competitive by removing one of the teams who would ordinarily account for about 1/2 the 1.30 or less matches in a SPL season.
by t'OM on 14 December 2012 at 07:02 AM

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