In this article, we try to answer the question: Which football league is the best in Europe?
There are various ways to try to answer this and we will go through a few of them:
- 1) UEFA’s ranking
- 2) Elo ranking
League ranking according to UEFA’s coefficient table
UEFA – the Union of European Football Associations – uses a coefficient system to rank the individual leagues in Europe in order to determine the number of teams each country can have participating in the European Cups that UEFA controls (the Champions League, Europa League and Conference League cups). Generally speaking, the higher on the list, the more teams a nation can have participating in the UEFA-controlled cups.
The coefficient system uses match results as the basis and it’s an objective way to measure how good the clubs perform and, thus, how good each league is. The better the teams perform, the more points they gather and so the higher a coefficient score they will get. For the number of teams a nation can have to participate in the UEFA cups, a 5 year total is used, so it’s not just the latest results that count.
If we look at the current total for the past 5 seasons incl. the current 2020-21 season, the Top 5 is:
- 1. England Premier League (Total score: 100.140)
- 2. Spain LaLiga (97.712)
- 3. Italy Serie A (75.438)
- 4. Germany 1. Bundesliga (73.570)
- 5. France Ligue 1 (56. 081)
We find that the English Premier League is at the top, closely followed by Spain’s LaLiga (in fact, before the current season, LaLiga was the top-rated league, so the fact the Premier League has had a very good year in Champions League and Europa League in the current season has elevated them to the top).
When we only use the current season, the picture is much the same:
- 1. England Premier League (23.928)
- 2. Spain LaLiga (19.357)
- 3. Italy Serie A (16.285)
- 4. Germany 1. Bundesliga (15.214)
- 5. Portugal Primeira Liga (9.600)
France did not have a good season in Europe, as Portugal overtakes them (and in fact, even the Netherlands and Scotland have outperformed France this season).
So, according to the UEFA coefficient rankings, the English Premier League must be championed as the best league in Europe (and, arguably, in the world).
However, there is a problem with this approach, since these coefficients are based only on teams involved in the UEFA cups – so what the ranking shows, really, is the level of the best
teams in the top leagues in Europe. What if the Top 6 teams are head and shoulders above the rest in a league? Is a league with a high coefficient ranking necessarily better than a league with a lower coefficient ranking, if all the teams below, say, Top 6 are much worse in the higher-ranked league than the lower? Should a league’s quality be based only on the best teams in the league or on the average quality of the teams in the league?
The UEFA coefficient ranking system only really takes into account the best teams in each league, so how do we find a way to measure all teams? We do so by using the so-called Elo ratings.
League ranking according to the Elo ratings
Before we show the Elo ratings, let’s just define what an Elo rating is. The Elo rating system is a method for calculating the relative skill levels between players (in individual sports such as chess, tennis, etc.) or teams. It is named after its creator Arpad Elo, a Hungarian-American physics professor. The higher the Elo score, the better the player or team is believed to be. The Elo score is computed based on results (just like the UEFA coefficients) and since each team is awarded an Elo score, the rating can be used directly to measure two team’s quality against each other, which for instance can be useful for betting purposes (beware though, that just using an Elo score blindly for betting will NOT generate a profit). Read more about the Elo rating system here.
In order to find the current Elo ratings, we use the following site: www.clubelo.com
On this site, we can find the Elo ratings by team, league, country, etc., so we have all we need for this purpose there.
The current Elo Top 5 ranking for European leagues is:
- 1. England Premier League (Total score:1,775)
- 2. Spain LaLiga (1,717)
- 3. Germany 1. Bundesliga (1,693)
- 4. Italy Serie A (1,656)
- 5. France Ligue 1 (1,589)
We again find that England’s Premier League comes in first, while LaLiga is second best. Based on the Elo ratings, the German 1. Bundesliga is superior to Italy’s best division, however not by much. If we want to look at the percentage-wise difference between the best league (Premier League) and the others, we get the following:
Premier League’s Elo-based quality superiority vs other leagues:
Spain’s LaLiga: +3.4%
Germany’s 1. Bundesliga: +4.8%
Italy’s Serie A: +7.2%
France’s Ligue 1: +11.7%
It’s quite interesting to see the Top 10 for Europe since we actually see a couple of 2nd tier leagues enter the frame before the best leagues for a number of countries:
(Rank, Country & League, Elo score)
|1||England Premier League||1775|
|3||Germany 1. Bundesliga||1693|
|4||Italy Serie A||1656|
|5||France Ligue 1||1589|
|8||Portugal Primeira Liga||1504|
|9||Austria Tipico Bundesliga||1473|
|10||Germany 2. Bundesliga||1468|
|10||Switzerland Super League||1468|
So we find that Spain’s and England’s second-tier leagues come in at 6 and 7 respectively, before the best leagues from Portugal and Austria, and we also find that the German second tier is on a joint 10th spot with the best Swiss league.
Based on the above we feel it’s safe to say that currently, the English Premier League is the best league in Europe, albeit closely followed by Spain’s LaLiga and with both countries having their second-best tier beating all other leagues outside Top 5, we also believe it’s fair to say that England, Spain and Germany (in that order) produce the best club football in Europe outside of just the top clubs in the respective countries.
An interesting side note to the conclusion is that the Top 5 order to a certain extent seems to correlate negatively with the competition within the leagues – that is, leagues dominated by one or two teams seem to suffer vs leagues with more competition for the top spot. As shown in a recent article (read more about that here), the English Premier League is actually a pretty competitive league compared to a lot of other European top leagues, and the German, Italian and French leagues, in particular, have been very predictable in the recent decade (Italy finally having changed that this season with Inter winning the championship instead of Juventus).