Small edit to make something clear: the thing I'm concerned about is not the end of the era of domination by Barça and Madrid, but rather the generally decreasing attractiveness of the league to neutrals. I don't mind Cádiz and Getafe improving and winning against the big two, but I'd (obviously) prefer them to win 4-3 or 3-1 instead of shithousing a 1-0 win (which is also not me trying to play down their achievement or saying they should rather play attractive football instead of trying to win at all costs).
Being a big fan of Spanish football and La Liga myself, I wrote a comment on the Monday Moan thread stating how I'm nearly starting to get jealous of the drama and spectacle in EPL, Ligue 1, etc. Now, instead of spending my Monday moaning, I decided to give it some thought of my own and analyze the situation in La Liga, the league that has been dominated by 2 of football's biggest and most succesful teams for the biggest part of its existence. I will be studying (sports) journalism starting November, so a little bit of extra practice won't hurt.
First of all, I'm German, grew up supporting Madrid, but by following La Liga, travelling Spain, visiting various stadiums and speaking the language fluently, I started to become insanely invested in Spanish football, and I now hold sympathies for teams all over Spains first 3 divisions (Espanyol, Málaga, Tenerife, Dépor, Cádiz (and RM Castilla of course)). So I'm trying to get rid of any existing bias for this post.
What is happening to La Liga?
This is (as to be expected, or I wouldn't be writing this) a question that can't be answered easily, but has to be analyzed from various perspectives, on and off the pitch.
The gap between top and bottom is narrowing.
Financially, La Liga has never been closer together. There are various reasons for this.
Most importantly, LFP is obliged by law to redistribute the revenue made through marketing of each club's audiovisual rights, starting with the 2015/16 season in La Liga and Segunda División.
- The re-distribution of TV money as agreed in Real Decreto - ley 05/2015 of 30. April 2015
- The inflated market being beneficiary for midtable and lower sides as selling clubs
- Mistakes made by Madrid, Barça and Atleti in the inflated market
I have linked the Spanish version of this law above, but you can see all the changes made to the distribution of TV money (in English) on this
offical La Liga page.
The main difference is, clubs can no longer negiotate deals with broadcasters for their TV rights themselves, instead, LFP negotiate the deal, and clubs get a share determined by a common distribution key.
This, in general, is a very good change that has been eagerly awaited by basically all clubs except for Barça and Madrid. Just to put the situation before the law came into place into perspective, Atlético, who won the league in the season before, only made 42m€ from TV rights in 2014/15, while Barça and Madrid shared 280m€ between the two. To further demonstrate how absurd the distribution before 2015 was, Cardiff City, who were relegated after finishing bottom of the PL in 2013/14, received 74,5m€ (Source: B/R
This change was enforced by the government not because, but despite the efforts of LFP, who wanted ongoing dominance of the two Spanish giants, to not only see them successful in international competition, but also to keep La Liga attractive for fans all over the world, fascinated by monsterous scorelines and goalfests produced by the big two.
This table shows the average TV money received by some clubs from 2013-16 and 2016-2019, followed by the percentage of increase from period 1 to period 2.
As you can see in the table above, the big two have only marginally increased their average TV income per season, while most "smaller" clubs' average TV income has massively increased, Atleti and Celta even increasing their TV rights revenue by more than a 100%. A second, minor aspect is the inflated market being very beneficiary to selling clubs in La Liga.
As visible in this list
on transfermarkt focusing on net spend of La Liga clubs in the period between 2015 and now, except for the big 3 clubs, only Valencia, Sevilla, Getafe, Betis, Osasuna and Mallorca have positive net spend. All other 20 clubs featuring in La Liga in that period have negative net spend, therefore having made profit on the transfer market, with Málaga (81.25m€), Athletic (59.6m€) and Las Palmas (32.7m€) topping the list. On the other hand, we have Barça with a net spend of 368.3m€, Madrid with 130m€ and Atleti with 22.65m€.
All of this with, as mentioned, stagnating TV revenue.
Investment, in general, is to be expected for such massive football clubs. Barça and Atleti have mainly been investing in well-developed players to guarantee them immediate success (Griezmann, Coutinho, Pjanic, Vidal for Barça, Costa, Carrasco, Morata, Gameiro for Atleti). This strategy is not exactly working well for these clubs, especially Barça were surely aiming to further prolong their national dominance and to strive for better results in international competition, yet they missed out on the last two Copa del Reys and one Championship, while massively disappointing in UCL. The investment risked by those two clubs isn't exactly generating the immediate success that people expect after such expenditures. Adding to that, according to Barcelona themselves, they've amassed 488m€ of debt, although presidential candidate Victor Font is stating that "the club's debt is very high. It's much higher than the club explains"
Madrid on the other hand are finding themselves in a period of transition with the old guard steadily declining, and president Florentino Pérez decided to approach this transition in a calm way, investing in big talents and having a big network of loan players. Players like Jovic, Vinícius, Rodrygo, Militão are costing them around 40m€ each, and don't seem to be up to the task yet, though. With Hazard, a mistake similar to or even bigger than most of Barcelonas flop signings was made. To some extent still riding on the success of 2016-18, a massive investment is to be expected in the 2021 summer window. If they don't manage to set themselves apart from the rest of the league and regain their status as an undisputed world class team after that, I'd expect the problems Barcelona are facing right now to occur in Madrid as well. While having paid off any debt they previously had, they have now taken on a 500m€ loan to renovate the Bernabéu.
Why some of the signings have underperformed, what's going on at Barcelona and if Madrid's period of transition will be successful are all topics often discussed on this sub, so I will not include them in this submission.
But, as a matter of fact, due to (failed) investment and the Coronavirus pandemic, the financial prowess of the big three has decreased dramatically.
The narrowing of the financial gap in La Liga has seen many midtable clubs make their record signing over the last few years such as Cucurella - Getafe, Luis Suárez - Granada, Alcácer - Villarreal or de Tomás - Espanyol. A few years ago, it wouldn't have been imaginable for Betis to pull off as signing as high profile as Nabil Fekir. So as we can see, the narrowing of the financial gap in La Liga is also leading to the narrowing of the gap in quality.
The last time the league was as close together, quality-wise, was probably the small era of Basque dominance from 1980 to 1984.
The football is more defensive-minded
My write-up on the financial aspect may answer the question on why games are now closer than before. The question still remaining is, why do most games seem to not be ending with scores like 3-3 or 5-4 (scores we regularly see in the PL) but more likely scores like 1-0 or 0-0?
|Season ||Avg. goals scored per match |
|2011/12 ||2,7632 |
|2012/13 ||2,8711 |
|2013/14 ||2,7500 |
|2014/15 ||2,6553 |
|2015/16 ||2,7447 |
|2016/17 ||2,9421 |
|2017/18 ||2,6947 |
|2018/19 ||2,5868 |
|2019/20 ||2,4789 |
|2020/21 (so far) ||2,1509 |
First of all, it is easy to see the goals have been drying up in La Liga over the last 3-4 years. Out of the last 10 seasons, the three seasons with the least goals scored per match in La Liga are 20/21, 19/20 and 18/19.
Is this the result of goalscorers leaving the top teams, or is the league getting increasingly defensive-minded?
Let's take a look at the goals scored by Barca and Madrid in this timespan
|Season ||Combined goals scored by RMA and FCB |
|2011/12 ||235 |
|2012/13 ||218 |
|2013/14 ||204 |
|2014/15 ||228 |
|2015/16 ||222 |
|2016/17 ||222 |
|2017/18 ||193 |
|2018/19 ||153 |
|2019/20 ||156 |
|2020/21 (normalized to 38 matchdays) ||121,6 |
We're seeing a massive decrease in goals scored by Madrid and Barcelona starting 2017. Before that, both teams normally had a goal tally of 100+ per season, while the last time they achieved this feat was in 2016/17 (Madrid with 106, Barça with 116).
It is obvious that the insane goalscoring numbers of the big two massively improved the goals per match ratio in La Liga, but it would be to easy to blame this fact only on them becoming worse or the rest of the league becoming better. There is a lack of reliable goalscorers in La Liga.
From 2010 to 2020, the top scoring player in La Liga was 6x Messi, 3x Ronaldo and 1x Suárez. With Ronaldo now having left, Suárez having declined and Messi at least having declined in his numbers, the careers of 3 of the best players of our generation will now come to an end. Who is there to replace them though?
Benzema and Messi are probably the only reliable, world class goalscorers that guarantee their team 20+ goals in La Liga at the moment. The likes of Gerard Moreno, José Luis Morales, Iago Aspas and Lucas Ocampos are surely decent players, but La Liga has been known for the sheer amount of world class attacking players. The days of players like Forlán, Costa, Neymar, Suárez, Griezmann, Agüero, Villa, Eto'o, Raúl, Bale, Falcao, Higuaín, Negredo, Soldado etc. scoring 20+ per season, in seasons where CR7 and Leo both scored even more (40+ goals), are over.
It is now extremely difficult for La Liga teams to hold their top scoring players. The financial prowess of the Premier League is as strong as ever, and even a newly promoted club like Leeds is able to snatch one of the better attacking La Liga players in Rodrigo Moreno away from Valencia. Championship teams like Watford and Fulham are loaning players out to top 10 La Liga Clubs (Cucho Hernández from Watford to Getafe, Anguissa from Fulham to Villarreal). Ever since the Neymar move to PSG, not even Barcelona and Real Madrid are safe of losing their top players, which is why they put absurd release clauses into the contracts of players (Benzema at 1b€, Messi at 750m€ etc.). And if it wasn't for this, like we all know, Messi would probably be gone as well by now.
This isn't the only reason why top teams find it increasingly harder to break down deep-lying defensive lines. More and more clubs are making defending their main footballing philosophy.
Seeing that the top clubs are getting weaker and weaker in attack, many midtable and lower league clubs are no longer afraid of playing the big teams. They've realized top clubs are struggling with deep sitting defensive lines. This is a phenomenon that has evolved all around Europe's top leagues, even before but especially since the 2018 World Cup. Possession-based top teams (like Spain and Germany's NTs, Barcelona, City...) are struggling harder and harder with scoring goals. Smaller teams in La Liga have taken advantage of this and simply park the bus, giving possession to the bigger sides. Especially Madrid and Atlético normally don't utilize this possession well and prefer to have less of the ball but more space in attack.
Now, this has seemingly always been the case in La Liga, smaller sides always park the bus against the big teams, so what has changed?
Clubs like Athletic, Alavés and especially Getafe under Pepe Bordalás have made defending, shithousery and timewasting, a physical style of play, their complete footballing identity. They don't park the bus against Madrid only, most of the times they also do so against opponents like Elche (sorry Elche fans). They play a hybrid defensive style of sitting back and giving possession to their opponent, while also gegenpressing and waiting for their opponents to make mistakes. The main objective is to not take any kind of defensive risk, under any circumstance, while also doing everything the rulebook allows to get a good result over the whole 90 minutes.
These teams are taking Atleti as an example, who can now be seen as a near-world class club, having reached this status with few resources and with a very defensive footballing mindset.
On the other hand, there are still "smaller" clubs who are trying to play beautiful attacking fooball, most notably Villarreal, Betis, Levante and to some extent La Real and Celta. In my opinion, the "downfall" of Betis and Celta, from teams consistently competing for European spots to teams fighting against relegation, can't be explained with lack of quality of their players, bad signings or bad coaches, but with them failing to adapt to this more defensive play style. Villarreal's and Levante's trajectories have been relatively satisfactory, but are still hardly a full success. Real Sociedad are seemingly on the way up, but that's because they play some sort of hybrid tactics under Alguacil and can do very well defensively against big teams (0-0 against Madrid on matchday 2) but also well offensively against "smaller" oppositions (yesterday's 3-0 win against Betis). Teams like these, but also Barca and especially Madrid, will often have a lot of possession and play extremely slow-paced football, while trying to search for a gap that just isn't there.
The defensive playstyle that has developed is obviously only possible through the increasing quality of defensive players in La Liga, which on the other hand is only made possible through the redistribution of TV money, bringing us back to our first point.
Clubs not adapting to this style of play and instead trying to push through their own style of play, their own "DNA", will continue having a very hard time. Koeman has realized this, and his team is already starting to give opponents more possession than they did under Setién or Valverde. This will lead to Barcelona having more attacking space, but also having to transition to defence more often. All in all, or as you do on reddit, TLDR:
2015's redistribution of TV money + transfer market inflation + big teams' mistakes on the market have led to the quality gap in La Liga narrowing, lack of reliable goalscorers and clubs making defending their ideology is leading to slow-paced, defensive football
It's the first time I'm ever doing something like this and it started out as a long comment in the Monday Moan thread, so obviously this is not a professional analysis, and I've left out a lot of tactical analysis on Getafe & co. and decided not to further analyze the current states of Barcelona and Madrid, but I'd appreciate your thoughts and input.
Let me know if you find errors, mistakes or something that just isn't 100% correct in your opinion.