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.

Europe’s fairy-tale in 2022? Union Saint-Gilloise

IN 2020-21, three of the five big European leagues saw a changing of the guard, although it is unlikely to represent a seismic shift in the balance of power. In Italy, Juventus’ long reign was brought to an end by Inter Milan, Lille knocked Paris Saint-Germain off their perch in France and in Spain, Atlético Madrid were champions for the first time since 2014. 

As Manchester City opened up a six-point advantage in the Premier League, poundits were starting to predict a prolonged period of sky blue prominence, with City overtaking Manchester United’s 20 title wins. This is, of course, a possibility, but the chances are, a new contender or two will emerge in the coming years to change the competitive landscape.

Nevertheless, Manchester City are looking formidable again this season and after chasing Chelsea earlier in the campaign, they have raced ahead and it would be a fool who would bet against Pep Guardiola’s team lifting yet another title. At best, it could be a three-horse race in the Premier, involving City, Liverpool and Chelsea, although three may become two in the near future. City are not the only team in Europe who probably won’t have to return their championship trophy in the summer.

No change there, then

Red Bull Salzburg are, predictably, 14 points clear in Austria and look far too strong for the rest of their Bundesliga rivals. They also have a Champions League last 16 tie with Bayern Munich to look forward to. Rangers are six points in front of Celtic in Scotland and have transitioned well after losing their coach, Steven Gerrard, to Aston Villa. But after going undefeated in 2020-21, they were beaten at Tannadice, home of Dundee United, 1-0. It’s there only league defeat so far.

In Italy, Inter have surprised everyone by going top after the departure of coach Antonio Conte, Romelu Lukaku and Achraf Hakim. Inter signed the veteran Eden Džeko to replace Lukaku, and it seems to have worked, but Inter actually look a more fluid side and are playing very good football. Inter will play Liverpool in the last 16 of the Champions League, which could be much more difficult than fending off the Serie A challenge of AC Milan (4 points behing) and Napoli (seven).

Bayern Munich are on course for yet another Bundesliga title and have nine points more than second-placed Borussia Dortmund. Robert Lewandowski, so cruelly denied the Balon d’Or, has netted 30 goals in all competitions. Other champions from 2020-21 who look destined to retain their championship include Slavia Prague (Czech Republic), Slovan Bratislava (Slovakia), Olympiacos (Greece), Ferencváros (Hungary) and Zenit St. Petersburg (Russia). 

Surprise packages

The most eye-catching league leader in Europe has to be Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium. The Brussels-based team, who only a few years ago were in the third tier of Belgian football, are seven points clear of holders Brugge. It’s often forgotten that USG have been champions 11 times, but the last occasion was in 1935. The club has been owned by Tony Bloom, the chairman of Brighton & Hove Albion, since 2018.

Legia Warsaw, Polish champions in 2020-21, have been having a torrid time this season and are languishing in the bottom half of the top flight, which is more of a shock than Lech Poznań being top of the league. In Switzerland, FC Zurich are top of the table, ahead of Basel and Young Boys Bern. Zurich, who were last champions in 2009, have not been contenders for some time and finished eighth in 2020-21. There could be an unfamiliar face at the top of the Turksih league come the end of the campaign. Trabzonsopor are 10 points ahead of second-placed Konyaspor and could win their first championship since 1984.

Tight competition

Portugal is experiencing a keenly fought title race and the big three, Benfica, Porto and Sporting, are in a commanding position. Porto and last season’s champions, Sporting are both on 41 points and are unbeaten, while Benfica have four less. All three clubs are still involved in European competition, with Sporting facing Manchester City and Benfica playing Ajax in the Champions League last 16. Porto have been paired with Lazio in the Europa League play-off. As ever, the Serbian title will be decided between Partizan and Red Star Belgrade. The former have five points more than the champions and are unbeaten in their first 21 games. Similarly, it is a Shakhtar Donetsk – Dynamo Kyiv battle in Ukraine, with the former just ahead of champions Kyiv. Both teams have excellent away records.

Back on top

Real Madrid have an eight point cushion at the head of La Liga and have lost just once. Sevilla, Real Betis and Rayo Vallecano (!) are chasing Real, while champions Atlético Madrid are in fifth position but have been blowing hot and cold. Barcelona are way off the pace, largely due to their financial problems and the physical and psychological loss of Lionel Messi. His new club, Paris Saint-Germain, have a 13-point margin over second-placed Nice  and look certain to recapture the title they lost to Lille in 2020-21. Messi, who has taken time to adjust to Ligue 1 football, has scored just one league goal for PSG. 

Ajax have got serious competition this season in the Eredivisie and are in second place, one point behind PSV Eindhoven, who were last champions in 2018. Interestingly, PSV were beaten 4-0 at home by Feyenoord and 5-0 when they travelled to Ajax. With the Amsterdamers distracted by the Champions League, though, PSV have an opportunity to consolidate their leadership in the next few months.

European football has become quite predictable over the past decade, although the big clubs have always been successful over the long-term. While it is fair and responable that the best should emerge as winners, the joy of the unexpected is what makes football so interesting. We need more stories like Leicester City (2016) and Lille (2021) – could we find one or two from this season? If you’re a football romantic, cheer on little USG in Brussels!