Sport Premier League

Saturday 18 November 2017

Miguel Delaney: Intensity delivers volatility at the top in the Premier League

Statistics confirm the argument that the elite players prefer more forgiving leagues

Pep Guardiola: ‘I hear a lot about the intensity in the Premier League, when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is’ Photo: PA
Pep Guardiola: ‘I hear a lot about the intensity in the Premier League, when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is’ Photo: PA

Miguel Delaney

It is a belief that has been vigorously asserted in England for a fair few years now but, having finally been directly asked about it, Pep Guardiola took just a few seconds to shoot it down. In fact, it seemed like he had prepared in advance to.

The Manchester City manager was in the middle of the worst winless run of his career so far, and was asked whether that was down to the trait that seems to obsess many in the Premier League more than anything; the buzzword that the competition has been marketed on.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

"I hear a lot of times about the intensity in the Premier League," Guardiola responded, "when none of you have been in La Liga or the Bundesliga to know how intense it is."

Part of the frustration with the entire debate, though, is that no-one seems to know what that "intensity" really entails. It has become one of those vague phrases with a variety of different meanings, all dependent on who it suits at the time. So, what is it? What does it actually mean?

Many new foreign managers like Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp have admittedly bought into the idea, publicly talking about the difficulty of the Premier League, but it's always hard to know how much of that is just looking to sell themselves to a fresh audience.

What is more telling, of course, is what such figures actually say and believe in private - where they don't have to be as political. It appears some of Guardiola's bosses may disagree with him here.

One of City's former Barcelona officials recently held a dinner with Catalan media and business people in London, where he insisted that one of the reasons top English clubs struggle to sign the absolute elite stars, is because those players genuinely prefer to rack up goals and medals in more forgiving fixtures in Spain. They do not think it is as energy-sapping as the Premier League, where more energy is used without the same reward.

Some of the stats bear this out. In short, those same Spanish clubs simply lose fewer games. While the average points-per-season of the English champions in the last four years has been 85.8, it has been 93.8 in Spain. It is similar in Serie A, where Juventus have enjoyed an average of 93.8 in that time, and Bayern Munich have hit 87 despite the Bundesliga being four games shorter than a Premier League campaign.

When the intensity of the English season is brought up, it is usually in relation to that, and to specifically criticise the ease with which Guardiola has won some of his titles.

The problem with solely considering this one line of thinking is that there are a fair few caveats and alternative perspectives complicating it. For one, these are all the same teams that have dominated the latter stages of the Champions League: Barcelona, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Bayern and Juventus. As such, it's not just their domestic leagues they are reducing to rubble, and it could easily be argued that those competitions look misleadingly weak because their main teams are so strong. That is an argument also bolstered by the fact that all of these teams have so regularly - and often so easily - defeated Premier League sides in the last half decade.

The flipside is that English sides often complain the demands of their league sap them for Europe - and it is something the City hierarchy agree with - but that brings with it implications about the intensity of the actual football on the pitch.

That is something that is even harder to define. At the very least, you could obviously say that intense football is fast, and that should bring more tackles, more shots and more imprecise passes. The stats don't necessarily bear that out though.

Of the four biggest European leagues, the Premier League is only second on tackles made by team per game, on 19.37 behind Spain's 19.65; as high as second in terms of teams' average pass success with 77.8 per cent, just behind Serie A on 78.68 per cent; and last on teams' shots per game, at 12.4.

So, despite so much talk about the mile-a-minute nature of the matches, the figures don't completely match the perceptions. The stats from Spain stand out, and are all the more conspicuous if you consider it is generally only ever La Liga clubs that knock other La Liga clubs out from Europe. Middlesbrough's Alvaro Negredo has had two separate stints in both England and Spain and, speaking to the Sunday Independent a few weeks ago, did say that the Premier League retains one distinctive element to its football.

"I think the centre-halves play the ball out less here, and the teams play more direct balls," the striker said. "They're both very intense. I think in the Premier League, there are more teams that fight for titles and to be as high as possible. In Spain, there are good teams but Real, Barcelona and Atletico detach themselves from the rest."

That is one fact - backed up by figures - that is unavoidable. There is a steadier gradient to the wealth of clubs in the Premier League, with no massive chasms between one club and then the next richest. It has meant that the average points for the Premier League's fourth-placed side over the past four years has been 72. The other major leagues don't break 70 here.

England has also had four different champions in the last four years, further emphasising a greater volatility to the league.

That is probably the biggest difference, with the variety adding a vitality. The place of teams don't seem quite as fixed, and there are fewer 'gimmes' in terms of fixtures.

The League Cup also brings extra matches, but then Guardiola showed his attitude to that by playing a second-string team against Manchester United, and not really seeming to care that defeat extended that winless run.

It all indicates that the Premier is undeniably intense - but that the argument about it perhaps shouldn't be made with the intensity it has been.

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