Despite appearances during the past few years of Barcelona and Spain's dominance, La Liga is not the technical Eden it is made out to be. It has lost its touch. England and Germany lead the field in terms of attacking spectacle while France and the cautious Calcio bring up the rear.
The biggest surprise from a collation of statistics from the first half of the season across the European leagues concerns passes, where Spain lags behind the Premier League and Bundesliga. "Statistics can be interpreted in different ways," says Sevilla coach Míchel. "It's not the same making offensive or long passes than short simple ones at the back. But I am surprised that La Liga isn't the leader in passes."
"This show that the game is changing," says Javi Garrido of Norwich City. Spain has earned the mantle of tiki-taka master and many teams have attempted to emulate the style, which is based on the ball reaching a teammate as quickly and cleanly as possible. Betis, Valladolid and Rayo, with Deportivo, Celta and Sevilla, added to the efficiency of Barcelona and Málaga, is not sufficient to out-pass the English and German leagues. Furthermore, the Anglo-Germanic divisions make more completed passes per game (697 and 664, respectively) than Italy (663), Spain (638) and France (623). "Most teams play the ball long, looking for rebounds and knock-downs," notes Míchel. "We've conceded 26 and none of them were from losing the ball coming out of defense."
Barcelona's patented and difficult-to-copy style gives the Catalans a completed pass rate of 666 per game, higher than Bayern Munich (517), Manchester United (478), PSG (445) and Juventus (343). But La Liga doesn't lead Europe in any attacking action. England (27.8) and Italy (26.8) average more shots on goal than the rest of the leagues. Juventus pulls the trigger most often (19.9), ahead of Real Madrid (19.7).
In terms of actually putting the ball in the back of the net Germany leads the way with 2.9 goals a game, followed by England (2.88) and La Liga (2.85). However, Barcelona is by far the most prolific side on the continent with 3.35 goals per game so far in 2012-13, ahead of Juventus (2.75), Bayern (2.59), United (2.57) and PSG (1.89).
English soccer has a reputation for being direct but the statistics show that the ball spends plenty of time on the deck. Swansea defender Chico Flores explains: "The condition of the pitches is perfect and encourages passing. And the rhythm is faster, it doesn't stop for 90 minutes."
Luis Fernández, former coach of Athletic, Espanyol and Betis, agrees: "The intensity in England and Germany is much higher and the ball gets moved around a lot." Garrido offers another reason: "In England the referees want the game to flow, so there are fewer interruptions." Chico adds: "The game is so fast there are fewer fouls because you don't have time to catch your opponent."
The Bundesliga is heading in the same direction. "It's surprising that more passes are made here than in Spain," says German-Spanish Leverkusen midfielder Gonzalo Castro. "But it's been a few years since we moved from long balls and scrapping to a more pass-based game."
"The results are there to see," says Fernández. "Dortmund, Schalke and Bayern are in the Champions League knock-out stages." Italy is not faring so well. Other than the Milan sides, Calcio teams have been largely absent from the latter stages for the past few years. "It's very tactical and slower than other leagues," notes former Lazio player Garrido. "It serves them to win titles at international level but the style is a little archaic."
Fernández says the same of Ligue 1. "It isn't at a high enough level. Everyone can see this. It's not surprising as PSG is the only team to have made big signings. Look at Lille and Montpellier in Europe..."
Another factor that has weakened La Liga in comparison to other leagues is competitiveness. "In Spain, everybody knows either Real Madrid or Barcelona will win the league. In Germany, although this season Bayern is dominant, there are 10 teams at the same level," says Castro. Míchel concurs: "Barcelona and Madrid are monopolizing the league. Even their coaches are never in danger of losing their jobs!"
Chico points to a long-standing gripe among La Liga's also-rans: "In England, unlike Spain, the television revenue is very equal. The smaller clubs are still able to sign players."
"La Liga is a two-horse race," notes Garrido. "In England, with the arrival of foreign investors, it has balanced out. A few years ago it would have been impossible for Manchester City to be in with a chance of winning the title."
In Spain, another problem is that fans are losing interest or are unable to go to the stadiums because of the crisis. "The Bundesliga and the Premier League protect the show and the fans. That's why the stadiums are always full."
"The best players in the world are in Spain but the bad organization, the dates and times of games and the crisis means that many players want to leave."