Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Euro clubs on virus tenterhooks

The unprecedented break in European club football came at a time when tantalising battles were heading for endgames in the five big leagues

Jurgen Klopp, as he usually does, got it right. In a letter to Liverpool supporters last week, the German manager of the English club put on a show of grace and perspective as he articulated the place of sport in a world ravaged by disease and fear. In one stroke, he drew a line on ill-timed conversations on alternative scenarios facing the ongoing season of European club football.

The season, roughly three-fourths done, currently stands suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak. For many a club involved either in creating history or in tight races, this limbo leaves them on tenterhooks.

The races that matter play out at three levels. The first is for the league title. The second is for a top-four finish in the league, which ensures a spot in the premier European club competition next year. The third is to avoid the bottom three places, so as to stay in the tier-I league next year. At each level, clubs are delicately placed, but their numbers this season pale before some of the previous seasons in the past decade.

For this footballing year, and for each of the 10 years preceding that, we looked at how clubs in the five big European leagues—England, Spain, Germany, Italy and France—were placed at the point when football was stopped this season. The objective was to gauge the closeness of competition at these three levels.

The measure of closeness we have considered here is six points, or two wins. At what is roughly the three-fourths point of each league, how many teams were within six points of position 1 (for the title), position 4 (for a Champions League spot) and position 18 (to avoid relegation)?

In terms of bunching up of competition and results, at a consolidated level for the five leagues, 2019-20 is a middling sort of year (See chart 1). But break this apart, and the narratives emerge, especially given the worst-case scenario of no more football this season.


There’s the utter dominance of Liverpool, where it was looking good to win its first title since 1989-90, that too with the largest-ever points differential in the league. In Germany, three teams trail the leader by just six points, and there’s one apiece in Italy and Spain. That’s three title races that could go down to the wire. The norm in the past decade has been two to three close races out of five.

For the fourth spot, there’s an intriguing battle in England. Six clubs are within six points of what is effectively the fourth spot, something not seen in the past decade. Yet, this is nothing compared to the nine teams that were within six points of the fourth spot in France in 2015-16. Challenging is one thing, leapfrogging is another. In the top-4 race, a presence in that set at the three-fourths stage augurs well. This is especially true in Spain and England where more than 90% of teams that were in the top four at the three-fourths stage also ended the season in the top four.

Although the numbers are relatively lower in the German, Italian and French leagues, churn is more the exception than the norm (See chart 2).


A similar conversion rate for the title is seen among the heavyweight clubs. Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have a 100% conversion rate. Then, there are clubs that have blown it in the last quarter of the season: Chelsea and Real Madrid have led on four occasions at the three-fourths stage, but not won on two occasions. This year too, Real Madrid have been tossing around the top two positions. There are also teams that shown a knack of coming from behind, namely Manchester City and Juventus (See chart 3).


In the past decade, the English league has emerged as the place to be, drawing money and players. While it’s more competitive at the very top, that’s not the case lower down. Data for the past decade at the three-fourths stage shows that in terms of the three races that matter, there’s greater closeness in the Italian and Spanish leagues across the three levels (See chart 4).


Also, on average, while there are 2-3 chasers for the fourth spot, the relegation battle sees 3-4 teams. For these teams, resumption of football becomes even more critical. On Tuesday, the body that governs European football decided to postpone the inter-country European football tournament—held once in four years—from June 2020 to June 2021. That move will create a few more weeks of additional time for club football to complete this season. Whether and when that will happen is anyone’s guess. For now, Klopp said it: it’s not about football.

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