The Premier League kicks off this weekend, a competition which those with a vested interest in often call the most competitive league in the world. They can get away with such claims due to the fact that ‘competitive’ is a rather broad, subjective term, one which, as will be shown, can be approached more objectively from a number of different ways, meaning that it isn’t hard to find some statistics to back up such a claim.

However, it isn’t true. At least, not if you consider all tiers of Football. The Football League for example, will outperform the Premier League regularly on almost any measure of competitiveness. However, comparing a top tier league with a lower tier league is inherently unfair. The champions of the top tier, barring a Calciopoli-esque scandal resulting in demotion, will have the opportunity to defend their title the following season. With a lower tier league, the champions will normally be promoted, guaranteeing a new winner the following season. The turnover of clubs is also higher, due to the fact that clubs are both relegated and promoted into the league, unlike the top tier where clubs only enter via promotion. Top tiers are more settled competitions than lower tiers, and therefore will be less unpredictable, even before factors such as relative budgets and the turnover of players and managers at a club are considered.

The question of whether the Premier League is the most competitive top tier league is therefore a better question. This post will investigate Europe’s top five leagues, where the relative standards of the leagues makes for more valid comparisons. Competitiveness is sometimes defined as a competition where there is a broad pool of potential winners, and in this regard, the Premier League performs relatively well. Four different clubs have won the Premier League over the past 10 seasons, bettered only by Ligue 1’s five winners. The Premier League is also comfortably the most competitive if you look at the dominance of a single club. Manchester City are the league’s most successful club over the past 10 seasons with four league titles, compared to Paris St. Germain’s six titles, Barcelona’s seven titles and the eight titles apiece won by Juventus and Bayern Munich.

LeagueNumber of different winnersNumber of multiple title winnersMost successful club
Premier League43Manchester City (4 titles)
La Liga32Barcelona (7 titles)
Serie A31Juventus (8 titles)
Bundesliga22Bayern Munich (8 titles)
Ligue 151Paris St. Germain (8 titles)

However, competitiveness cannot be judged solely by looking at the number of winners of a competition. Last year’s Champions League finalists, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur, are certainly amongst the Premier League’s pool of potential winners this season, despite neither having won the competition previously. If you were to look at the number of clubs to finish in the top four at least once over the past 10 seasons, the Premier League actually offers the least diverse group of teams with just seven clubs achieving that feat.

LeagueNumber of clubs finishing in the top 4 at least once
Premier League7
La Liga9
Serie A10
Ligue 19

A completely different way to compare the competitiveness of different leagues is to look at the points difference between the top and bottom clubs. In a league where ‘anyone can beat anyone’, you would expect this gap to be relatively small, and indeed, the Premier League does have a smaller average gap than either La Liga or Serie A (the Bundesliga has not been included in the table below due to the fact that it only has 18 teams rather than 20, and therefore the gaps will naturally be smaller). However, a big points gap could be the result of a dominant champion, but could also be the result of one particularly poor team. Manchester United won the Premier League title in 2007/08 with 87 points, which at the time was the lowest figure since the 2002/03 season. However, the gap between first and last of 76 points was the joint highest during that period, due to the fact that Derby County set a new Premier League record for fewest points during that season. One way to remove these outliers is to measure the gap from 4th to 17th (i.e. fourth bottom) instead, and here the gaps are considerably higher in the Premier League.

LeagueAverage points gap between 1st and 20thAverage points gap between 4th and 17th
Premier League63.934.1
La Liga66.927.3
Serie A66.629.1
Ligue 160.328.0

Any assessment of which league is the most competitive would therefore have to clearly define what competitive means, and then justify the weighting of the various factors should multiple factors be considered. The Premier League may not have a clearly dominant club over the past ten years unlike its European rivals and boasts a wider pool of potential winners each year, but the dominance of the top six over the rest of the league is more pronounced, with only Leicester City breaking their stranglehold over the top four past 10 seasons. Therefore whilst there is certainly a great deal of competitiveness within the Premier League, there is perhaps not the level of competitiveness from top to bottom that those charged with marketing the league would like you to believe.