It’s been a difficult season, internationally, for
Bundesliga clubs. Not a single German team has made it to the quarterfinals of
the Champions Leagueand Only Eintracht Frankfurt is still kicking in the Europa
League. But, domestically, the league is enjoying its closest title race in
years and, perhaps more importantly, the Bundesliga remains a league where the
goals go flying in.
German teams, generally speaking, don’t play defense. The top three teams in the league have strong expected goals allowed numbers, with 0.91, 0.63 and 0.86 xG allowed respectively for Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, they’re the only three teams in the entire league that have allowed less than 1.2 xG per match. There’s an absolutely gigantic gap, over a third of a goal, between Dortmund, and the fourth best defensive team in the Bundesliga, at least by xG, Wolfsburg.
In England, by contrast, a full half of the league allows less than 1.20 xG per match, and Arsenal narrowly miss out, allowing 1.21. It’s a difference that’s easy to miss.
But, England only has one more team that allows less than a single expected goal than Germany, and looking at a round number as a natural cutoff point makes it seem like the two leagues have similar dynamics, each with only a handful of strong defensive teams. But, slide a little further down the ladder and what’s clear is that the average English team is simply much more committed to defending than the average German one.
Unsurprisingly, on the flip side of the ball, Germany teams
are more invested in attacking. There are only two German teams that tally less
than a single expected goal per match, Nurnberg and Hannover, the two worst
teams in the league. The Premier League meanwhile sports five inept attacking
teams. It’s helpful to look at those totals as a percentage of the league in
order to compare the Premier League’s 20 apples with the Bundesliga’s 18
oranges, and what it amounts to as 25% of the Premier League is inept when
attacking while only 11% of the Bundesliga is. If we look at the most attacking
teams in the league we find that only the big six in England average more than
1.2 xG per match while in Germany ten teams do. They also happen to be the top
ten teams in the table.
There are of course more than two leagues at the top of the
European pyramid. But, Italy and Spain tell slightly more complicated stories. Serie
A actually looks quite a bit like England. The league has six teams, Juventus,
Napoli, Inter Milan, AC Milan, Atalanta and Lazio that allow less than one xG
per match and nine that allow less than 1.2. On the attacking side of the ball
there are eight teams that rack up more than 1.2 xG per match, and five teams
that are below the expected goal line.
England and Italy have similar contours. Both leagues are
significantly more defensive than Germany, and they both have a larger group of
dominant teams at the top that tick the box on both sides of the ball. In both
leagues teams up and down the table demonstrate the ability to defend, while it’s
only the elite cadre of clubs that pour on the attacking hot sauce. Despite
their reputational differences, and the clear stylistic divergences, both leagues
by and large end up at a similar place, one that’s an entire continent away
Then there’s Spain. Nobody can score in Spain. There are a
whopping eight teams in Spain that average below a single expected goal per
match. And while only four teams allow less than one expected goal per match, there
are also only three teams in the league that allow more than 1.2. Two teams
fall are both allowing more than 1.2 and scoring less than one, Celta Vigo,
having a surprisingly poor season and battling relegation in 18th
place, and Deportivo Alavés, a team currently in fifth place. Yes, fifth place.
Why? How? Sometimes absolutely everything breaks right for a team.
What sets Spain apart from the other three leagues is that the
teams in La Liga just refuse to cluster around one side of the ball or the
other. In England the six teams at the top of the table are the six best
attacking teams, in Germany the three teams at the top of the table are the
three best defensive teams. In Italy the six teams at the top of the table are
the six best defensive teams. At least, as far as expected goals can tell. In Spain,
who the heck knows.
On the defensive side of the ball, the four teams that allow
less than a goal, are Atlético Madrid in second, Getafe in fourth, Valencia in
seventh and Leganés in 12th. On the attacking side of the ball there
are six teams that score more than 1.2 xG per match, they are Barcelona in
first, Real Madrid in third, Sevilla in sixth, Valencia in seventh, Eibar in 11th,
and Espanyol in 14th.
Looking at the numbers this way is a little bit dry. It misses out on tons of nuance, and glosses over the exceptions to the rule, when generally the exceptions are the most interesting part. But, it provides a window into why leagues are perceived the way they are, and whether those perceptions are correct. In some ways they hold up. Germany really is an attacking league, Serie A really does have a number of strong defensive sides. There really are more teams in Spain that don’t put up an attacking fight against the giants of the league. On the other hand, other stereotypes don’t hold up nearly as well. The Premier League isn’t the all action league its often portrayed as, and Italy’s best teams are largely as proficient in attack as the best in the rest of the world. The game, as always, contains multitudes.
Header image courtesy of the Press Association
Article by Mike Goodman