Why monopolies won’t be broken in Europe

Ancelotti – a sign that Bayern were worried about losing their position? Photo: PSG World (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

CARLO ANCELOTTI was sacked by Bayern Munich after half a dozen games and a disastrous UEFA Champions League result in Paris. For a few weeks, people had been suggesting this might be the year in which Bayern’s five-year run of titles came to an end, largely because Bayern had lost a few players and Borussia Dortmund have started the season on fire. Bayern rarely seem happy with their manager unless he is schooled in the club’s culture – there were rumours when Guardiola was in Bavaria that the Bayern committee was not enamoured by his style, but now you hear that those same influential former players didn’t truck with Ancelotti because he “wasn’t Pep”.

However, a change of guard at the top of German football would not a bad thing. Five years is long enough and although Bayern is the sort of club that will quickly rise to the top again, a new name of the shield is not a negative for the Bundesliga.

We are, however, in the age of the monopoly or duopoly. But has it really been any different across Europe? Surprisingly, England is the exception among the “big five”, with four different title winners in five years.

That said, English football has had its periods of one/two team domination: 1920s, Huddersfield; 1930s Arsenal; 1950s Manchester United and Wolves; 1960s Liverpool and Manchester United; 1970s Leeds and Liverpool; 1980s Liverpool; 1990s Manchester United; 2000s Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea; 2010s  Chelsea and Manchester City.

In truth, football in almost all countries is dominated by a handful of clubs. The order changes, but the clubs with money and resources will, nine times out of 10, be the pre-eminent forces.

It remains to be seen if Bayern’s time is coming to a close – last season many people started to write them off, but they ended the campaign 15 points ahead of RB Leipzig. In the two previous seasons, their margin of success was 10 points, which was way below the 19 and 25 of the two preceding campaigns. Any suggestion that Bayern’s effectiveness was being eroded was not supported by that 15 point victory, or the two defeats sustained in the Bundesliga.

For Bayern to be knocked off their perch, there needs to be a successor club that is consistent enough to see off the challenge of a club that expects year-in, year-out success. Leipzig showed flickers in 2016-17, but their young team ran out of steam to some extent. This year, Dortmund have looked exceptional at times, but let’s not forget they were beaten comfortably by Tottenham Hotspur. You cannot write off Bayern just yet.

German football is arguably more democratic than most leagues, hence 19 teams have appeared in the top six over the past decade, almost double the amount of clubs that have featured in the English Premier. Dortmund have been three times runners-up in the past five years, but the top six in 2016-17 showed four changes from 2015-16. This also shows, to some extent, that Germany’s clubs might lack the consistency or capital to seriously combat the mighty Bayern on a sustained basis.

The same scenario is prevalent in France, where Paris St. Germain are way ahead of the pack in terms of finance. PSG lost their crown in 2016-17 to Monaco, largely due to the transition from a team centred on the charismatic Zlatan Ibrahimovic, and also because Monaco had stumbled upon a young, exciting group of players. It looks as though PSG will return to the top this year, but the transfers of Neymar and Mbappe demonstrate the club is determined to regain its crown and also secure greater credibility on the European stage.

French football may be dominated by PSG, but the clubs behind them are quite consistent. Lyon, for example, have featured in the top six every season over the past 10 years, and Monaco have been in the top three for the past four seasons. But it would seem unlikely that PSG will be overtaken just yet, unless there is a dramatic investment made in another French club.

So what of Italy? Juventus have won six consecutive Scudettos and would seem to be all-powerful. However, there are warning signs for Juve. Firstly, their last two titles have been far less comfortable than previous triumphs – a four point margin in 2016-17 and nine in 2015-16. They’ve also lost five games in each of those last two seasons. The top three in the last four seasons have been the same, Juve, Roma and Napoli, and it is widely believed that Napoli will provide the biggest threat to Juve’s crown this time. At present, there is no sign of a Milan revival, but with investment pouring into both clubs, within two years, the Italian landscape could look different. Another factor for Juve to watch is the average age of their team, which currently comes in at over 29 – the Juve team that recently beat Torino 4-0 included six players over the age of 30. If nothing else, Juve will have to work harder for their silverware this season.

In Spain, the narrative rarely goes beyond a battle between Real Madrid and Barcelona and this season may not be any different. However, Real have struggled to get going in La Liga this time. The top three has been the same for each of the last five years  – Barcelona (three titles), Real (one title) and Atletico Madrid (one title). It is hard to see beyond Barca and Real at present. A more telling statistic in the state of play in Spain can be found in the gap between the champions and the teams behind them. In 2016-17, Real won La Liga by three points, and they were 15 points ahead of third and 21 above fourth. In 2015-16, the top three were more tightly grouped. Go back to 2012-13 and the title was won by 15, third was some 24 points behind and fourth 34.

All across Europe, most countries have [always had] a dominant club. In Switzerland, for example, Basel have won the Swiss Super League for eight consecutive seasons, while in Austria, Red Bull Salzburg have been Bundesliga champions for seven of the last 10. Croatia’s Dinamo Zagreb have won nine in a decade, only surrendering their title last season to Rijeka. Portugal has its duopoly of Benfica and Porto, the Dutch have the PSV-Ajax-Feyenoord axis. In many cases, success breeds success – and it always has.

What has changed is that clubs position themselves not just for domestic success, but also international superiority. No longer is it enough to be top of your own kingdom – certainly, PSG would not need to spend the sort of sums they have paid to build their own team for Ligue 1 alone. And Bayern Munich’s defeat at PSG, putting their Champions League hopes in jeapordy, was probably the catalyst for Ancelotti’s departure.

The UCL has also become increasingly concentrated, with 15 clubs filling 40 semi-final berths over the past 10 competition. Real Madrid and Barcelona have reached the last four seven times in 10 years, Bayern six and Chelsea four.

So have these empires been built to last? The top clubs in Europe are not just strong football teams, they are businesses that behave like financial institutions or multinational companies. For quarterly reporting, read seasons and transfer windows. For CEOs read team coaches. For directors of football read COO. The answer is probably yes, these clubs have structure. And will these monopolies prevail? Undoubtedly. Could they end? Unlikely, but then did anyone foresee the end of Liverpool’s empire or the decline of AC Milan? We assume the status quo will be maintained, that the giants of today will be the bigger giants of tomorrow, but with clubs moving into the playground of financial institutions, other factors that have not necessarily affected football in the past come more into play. Football fans might be advised to watch the behaviour of the capital markets, just as much as the simple P (played), W (won), D (drawn), L (lost) metrics of the game, to determine how their favourite club is really faring…

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