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 from Germany.
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