FT Baseline Where should you go to watch the best football in Europe?

By John Burn-Murdoch

Europe’s top football leagues get under way throughout August, with England’s Premier League and France’s Ligue 1 having played their first rounds over the weekend. But which of the five elite leagues can claim to offer the best football?

Many would say La Liga, where a glittering array of talent takes to the pitch each week for Barcelona and Real Madrid. Others might counter that outside of its two super-clubs the Spanish top flight has little to offer, and that the Premier League is where you should turn to watch high quality and entertaining football across the board. And then you have Germany’s Bundesliga, widely praised for its highly competitive nature — at least once you look beyond resident superpower Bayern Munich.

In short, the question of which league is the best is near impossible to answer definitively given the diverse criteria by which different people judge the beautiful game, but there is one method that can get us part of the way there, and hopefully spark debate en route.

The idea is to look at every match played in each league — in this case over the last five seasons — and explore how the strength of the teams involved interacts to determine both the standard of football on show, and the level of competition between the two sides. The same method has been used elsewhere including for the NFL by sport statistics specialists FiveThirtyEight.

The measure of strength used here is a team’s Elo rating, a score indicating its quality relative to all other teams, that is calculated after every round of matches and crucially adjusts for opposition strength, so when a favourite beats a weak side, fewer points move from loser to winner than is the case for a surprise win. These ratings, calculated by Lars Schiefler for ClubElo.com, are also adjusted on a country-by-country basis to take into account the underlying strength of each league.

And so onto the first of our metrics: the average rating of both teams in a match can be seen as an indicator of the absolute standard of football on show. In the chart below this in plotted on the horizontal axis. The very highest scores for this measure arise where two elite sides play each other, and the very lowest are matches between the weakest sides in the weakest leagues.

The second metric takes the difference between two teams’ ratings, and treats it as an indicator of how competitive a match is. The lower a match is on our vertical axis, the more unbalanced the teams involved. Home advantage is also brought in here, so if two sides’ ratings are exactly the same ahead of kick-off, the match will still be scored with a non-zero difference in ratings as a result of the home side’s natural benefit.

So what do we find? First let’s focus on our measure of the standard of football:

In news likely to surprise only the most blinkered of Premier League fans, if you want simply to watch world-class football, La Liga is the place to go. And we can be more specific than that: nine of the ten highest scoring matches for average rating are El Clasicos — the star-studded affairs between Spanish giants Barcelona and Real Madrid. Aptly, the number one on our level-of-football measure was the 2-2 draw in October 2012 where the goals were shared between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. We also find that the Bundesliga out-guns its wealthier English counterpart here, with eight of the top 50 matches by this measure compared with two for the Premier League.

But as we’ve discussed, there’s more to a great football match than the skill level of its participants, and it transpires that if you’ll take a small drop in absolute quality in order to watch a finely balanced contest, the Premier League comes into its own. Below we’ve highlighted the 50 highest quality matches based on both average quality and well-matched opponents.* While La Liga still fares well — its 25 matches beat the Premier League with 21 and Bundesliga with four — we can see that the English matches in this subset tend to be between more closely matched sides.

While we’re at it, let’s take a look at the biggest mismatches below. Here we see the other side of La Liga’s super-club story. For every clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid, there are a fistful of mismatched encounters where the giants face lowly opposition. Of the 50 most uneven pairings in our 9,130 matches, 44 took place in La Liga, 5 in Germany (all featuring Bayern) and one in Italy where Juventus beat Cesena 3-0, notching up 29 shots with one in reply.

While some followers of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus may have no complaints here — after all, watching your idols run rings around their opposition is hardly a negative experience — most football fans would admit that there’s something about a hard-fought win over a rival that no number of easy victories can match.

And this, perhaps, is also the Premier League’s greatest strength. The lower likelihood of a mismatch in England’s top flight is a double positive: fans of the big teams have more nail-biting encounters to look forward to, and followers of smaller clubs can travel to watch their side visit the heavyweights with genuine hope of coming away with a result.

So after all that, which league is the best? That’s for you to debate, but hopefully this both answered and raised some questions. We’ll be doing more with football Elo ratings over the course of the season — if you have feedback on our methodology or want to suggest an alternative measure, leave a comment below, email baseline@ft.com or tweet @jburnmurdoch.

*The 50 were selected by calculating the Euclidean distance between every game in our dataset and a theoretical match with the best scores on each metric present in our dataset, and then sorting by this combined measure.