The most dominant football teams in Europe

THE popular myth is that the Premier League is won by the same team virtually every year, but in the past decade, five teams have won the title: Manchester United, Chelsea, Leicester, Manchester City and Liverpool. The highest number of clubs that have won a domestic title in the period 2012-13 to 2021-22 in any country is six, so it doesn’t get much more open than the Premier.

However, ask the same question in a few years and the answer will almost certainly be different – we will see the true effect of Manchester City’s dominance in the coming seasons. But at the moment, there are quite a few leagues that have a far higher level of one-club superiority across Europe. These include Austria, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Moldova, Scotland and Wales.

If English football was so very predictable, it is doubtful the crowds would continue to grow and it is clear that demand for the game appears to show no sign of diminishing. In fact, in 2021-22, Premier crowds increased to an average of 39,600 while most other leagues, for various reasons including restricted attendances, actually fell from pre-Covid levels. The 2022-23 campaign will provide a far more accurate picture, but Premier football came out of lockdown with public appetite as strong as ever. We are still waiting for that bubble to burst.

The club with the longest period of superiority – in terms of titles won – is Ludogorets from Razgrad in Bulgaria. Although they come from a city of barely 35,000 people, they have won their domestic league 11 years in a row and finished 12 points clear of second-placed CSKA Sofia. They also reached the semi-final of the Bulgarian Cup and played 14 games in Europe – eight in the Champions League and another six in the Europa League. Ludogorets are quite unpopular in Bulgaria and there are always rumours and suspicions suggesting they are run by organised crime and that corruption prevails across Bulgarian sport. But Ludogorets are actually owned by influential oligarch Kiril Domuschiev, a shipping magnate who leads the country’s chamber of commerce.

In Germany, Bayern Munich have had sole possession of the Bundesliga, with 10 consecutive titles. Bayern have won 17 trophies in 10 years, including two Champions Leagues. The last side to win the Bundesliga other than Bayern was Borussia Dortmund in 2012, whose manager was none other than Jürgen Klopp. Bayern’s hold on German football is becoming a little worn at the edges and they desperately need greater competition, as do Paris Saint-Germain in France.

Ludogorets and Bayern are the only clubs who have enjoyed a 100% success rate over the past 10 years. There are four nine times winners including Red Bull Salzburg, Dinamo Zagreb, Sheriff Tiraspol and Celtic and a cluster of clubs with eight wins under their belt: Qarabag, Paris Saint-Germain, Olympiacos, Juventus and New Saints.

Nine champions in Europe were also cup winners in 2021-22 – Porto, Red Bull Salzburg, Red Star Belgrade, Ferencvaros, Lincoln Red Imps, Qarabag, Sheriff, La Fiorita and New Saints all won their respective doubles.

The club with the biggest margin of success in 2021-22 was Zrinjski Mostar, who won the league in Bosnia & Herzegovina by a substantial 27 points. They won 26 of their 33 games and lost just once and conceded a mere 14 goals. The next highest was recorded by New Saints in Wales, a margin of 21 points.

Some countries have more than one big fish, such as in Serbia, where Red Star Belgrade and their neighbours Partizan stand head and shoulders above the rest. In 10 years, Red Star have won seven and Partizan three and this season, the margin was just two points. Furthermore, Red Star completed the double by beating Partizan 2-1 in the cup final.

These clubs may be giants in their own leagues, but the imbalances in European football mean that most champions cannot compete with the continent’s elite institutions. Although most of the big clubs seem well established and comfortable, things can suddenly shift. The declines of Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan in recent years remind us that nothing lasts forever, so despite wealth, success and heritage, even the very biggest can fall from their pedestals. Remember that 50 years ago, clubs like Red Star Belgrade, Celtic and Ferencvaros were among the most formidable in Europe. Nevertheless, the champions of 2021-22, whoever they are and wherever they might be, deserve due respect from the football community.

FC Bayern’s failure – early onset decline?

ALTHOUGH the Real Madrid-Chelsea tie captivated the continent, the seismic news was actually the shock elimination of Bayern Munich at the hands of Villareal. Defeat by a Spanish club is not unknown to FCB, indeed in the last decade, they have gone out to La Liga representatives six times, but usually, its Real Madrid, Barcelona or Atlético Madrid that have inflicted the damage.

Villareal are managed by Unai Emery, who has bounced back from his unhappy time at Arsenal to win the UEFA Europa League and now reach the last four of the Champions League. There may more than a few Arsenal fans who now wonder if the likeable Emery deserved more time than 78 games to turn the Gunners into something credible.

But nobody really expected Villareal to turf Julian Nagelsmann’s team out of the Champions League, even when the “Yellow Submarine” won the first leg of the quarter-final tie by a solitary goal. Now, people are starting to ask if 34 year-old Nagelsmann has arrived at the Allianz Arena too early in his somewhat charmed career. The Bayern top brass will undoubtedly decide whether the gamble has worked. After all, the club may well win their 10th successive Bundesliga title, but that will be the only piece of silverware to be polished in the close season.

Bayern are currently nine points ahead of second-placed Borussia Dortmund, with five games to go. The two sides meet on April 23 at the Allianz. Over the previous nine years, the average margin between Bayern and the runner-up in the Bundesliga has been more than 12 points. This year it may be similar, but Bayern’s goalscoring has declined. The nine-year average is 91, but the past two years have seen Bayern score 100 and 99 respectively.

The team that drew 1-1 with Villareal included four players who are at the veteran stage of their careers, including Manuel Neuer (36), Robert Lewandowski (33) and Thomas Müller (32). This trio has been pivotal in the Bayern story and there are hints that Lewandowski, whose contract runs until June 2023, will not sign a new deal and will move to Barcelona. Müller, who missed a golden chance to clinch the tie in Munich, and Neuer, also come to the end of their current deals in 2023.

The rest of the squad includes a cluster of players – the likes of Pavard, Kimmich, Goretzkam Coman and Gnabry – who are probably at their very peak. It’s only two years since Bayern last won the Champions League, but have this collection got another victory within them given Lewandowski, for example, will need to be replaced soon? The prolific Pole has scored 235 Bundesliga goals in his time with Bayern, representing 33% of their total output.

Bayern have the money to find a replacement and potential heirs to Lewandowski’s throne include Bayer Leverkusen’s Patrik Schick (26), Stuttgart’s Sasa Kalajdzic (24) and Benjamin Sesko (18) of RB Salzburg. Bayern have spent € 747 million over the last 10 years, less than Borussia Dortmund, but the position of the Bundesliga is underlined by the expenditure of Manchester City and Chelsea, whose gross outlay is around double the total spent by Germany’s biggest two clubs. Dortmund have made their name in selling talent, hence their income from transfers over 10 years is dramatically higher than Bayern’s. While their income was higher than their expenditure, Bayern had a net spending deficit of € 376 million. Basically, they don’t need it to be any other way as the club has made a profit for 29 consecutive years.

So it is clear – Bayern can win Bundesliga titles quite comfortably given their financial model and cultural position in Germany, but where does that leave them (indeed, Germany) in Europe? We have seen the power of the Premier League over the past three seasons and the 2021-22 final may well be another all-English affair, but Germany is increasingly becoming a little uncompetitive at the very highest level. This season, three of the four Bundesliga teams went out at the group stage (Leipzig, Dortmund and Wolfsburg). In 2020-21, German interest ended at the quarter-finals. In 2020, Bayern were champions and Leipzig semi-finalists. There has been something of a decline, which may be temporary or may become exacerbated by the Premier’s economic advantages.

Furthermore, Bayern’s dominance in Germany may not necessarily be good for them in terms of making them competitive beyond their domestic league. RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund are their biggest rivals, they have occupied positions two and three in the Bundesliga for four of the last five years, but they are way behind FCB on and off the pitch. As for the rest, few clubs are consistent (or rich) enough to put excessive pressure on Bayern.

Whether Nagelsmann can ride the stormy weather ahead is open to question, although it cannot be denied Bayern have, at times, played superbly in 2021-22. Yet some Bayern fans want him to leave and others don’t always warm to his demeanour. Nagelsmann has said his first campaign has not been a success, but that inevitable Bundesliga title will be his first major trophy. One big landmark for a relatively young man, one small step for his employer.

Mirror image – UWCL includes familiar names

THE UEFA Women’s Champions League has reached the quarter-final stage and the eight teams involved are: Arsenal, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Lyon, Paris Saint-Germain, Real Madrid and Wolfsburg. It could almost read like the A to Z of men’s football in Europe, with the exception of Lyon and Wolfsburg. Five of the eight have appeared in at least seven quarter-finals in the past decade and in the past five years, six have taken part in at least four. The men’s game has actually been less polarised since 2017-18.

Clearly, money talks in the women’s game almost as much as it does with men. The leading clubs are almost all affiliated to elite European clubs and unsurprisingly, those teams are dominant in their domestic leagues. Of the last eight of the Champions League, the leaders in Spain (Barcelona), France (Lyon), Germany (Wolfsburg), Italy (Juventus) and England (Arsenal) are all in the mix. While men’s football took decades to create huge imbalances, women’s football seems to have reached that stage at a rather extraordinary speed.

Barcelona, the holders, demonstrated how superb their team was when they swept Chelsea’s women aside in 2020-21 in the Champions League final. In the league this season, Barca have won all 24 of their games, scoring an astonishing 136 goals and conceding just six. They have already been crowned champions. Likewise, Lyon are unbeaten in France, winning 16 of their 17 games and PSG, Arsenal, Juventus and Arsenal have all lost just one game each. 

The elite in women’s football have financial strength and this enables them to lure the top players to their clubs. For example, the Guardian’s top 100 women footballers, published at the end of 2021, included 13 from Barcelona, 10 each from Lyon and PSG, nine from both Arsenal and Chelsea and eight from Bayern Munich. In total, the current last eight of the Champions League accounted for 58% of the top 100.

The Women’s Super League in England is dominated by three clubs: Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal. Chelsea have won five titles since 2015 while Manchester City have been runners-up six times in that same period. Arsenal’s most recent championship win was in 2019, although they lead the table in 2021-22.

Interest is growing in the women’s game in England and the average WSL crowd is now around 1,600 with Arsenal the biggest draw with gates of just under 2,600. Chelsea average 2,500 and Manchester City 2,200 and another half dozen generate more than 1,000 with Manchester United just under 2,000. There’s no shortage of media coverage these days and the profile of women’s football is growing all the time. Currently, there is considerable momentum behind the levelling up of wages, notably in the FA Cup, but while the highest level of women’s football has attendances comparable to step two or three non-league, advocates will have to be prepared for a long game.

Only one WSL team has won the Champions League or its equivalent, Arsenal in 2007, who beat Swedish side Umeå 1-0 on aggregate. The winning goal was scored by none other than BBC pundit Alex Scott and the combined crowd from the two games struggled to get to 10,000. The last Champions League final with a crowd drew almost 20,000. This year’s final will be played in Turin.

The names might be familiar, but the Champions League should make for compelling viewing over the coming weeks. Can anyone really stop the Barcelona machine?

Quarter-final draw: Bayern Munich v PSG (22 March, 30 March); Juventus v Lyon (23 March, 31 March); Arsenal v Wolfsburg (23 March, 31 March); Real v Barcelona (22 March, 30 March).