How competitive is the A-League?

With most football leagues around the world becoming increasingly dominated by unimaginably wealthy owners and their fantasy-like teams, the A-League stands out as one of very few leagues where it is plausible for any of the competing sides to finish the season as champions. Whilst the idea of West Brom or Wigan winning the Premier League borders on insane, current A-League cellar dwellers Wellington and Gold Coast still have realistic chances of making strong challenges this season.

I was interested in how the A-League stood up against other leagues and have put together a few tables that compare competitiveness across leagues. I have compared the EPL, Bundesliga, La Liga, MLS, J-League, the Brasileirão and A-League. This gives a good mix of top European leagues, more competitive Asian and South-American competitions and the only other league that I am aware of that has a salary cap (the MLS).

Whilst the J-League places some limitations on player contracts they do not employ a salary cap in the sense that the A-League and MLS do.

Reigning A-League winners Brisbane Roar

The question that is being asked is does the use of a salary cap and removal of a promotion-relegation system makes a league more competitive?

The first table deals with how competitive each season of the league is. There are obviously a number of ways to do this. The two I have chosen are the average points won per game (PWPG) of the Champions and the percentage of the Champion’s total points that the last placed side won (Note: I have not included play-offs and finals for the leagues where these apply).

Average points per game demonstrates how dominant the top side was over its rivals during the season whilst the percentage of their points that the last placed team accrued provides an indication of how competitive the league was as a whole.

A more thorough analysis would also include how close second was and so-on, but the line has to be drawn somewhere.

How competitive is each league? Numbers are the average for the last six complete seasons in each league.

These stats show us that the MLS is the most competitive league in both criteria. Over the last six seasons the winner of the MLS (not including play-offs) has averaged only 1.84 PWPG. On the other hand the La Liga champions have averaged 2.30 PWPG, an increase of 25%. The A-League champions have averaged 1.93 PWPG since the competitions inception. Only the Brazilian and American league champions have lower averages.

The last-placed MLS side accrues, on average, 48% of the points that the top team does. This is considerably higher than the Premier League (27%), the J-League (30%) and La Liga (33%). The A-League registers as the second most competitive league using this criteria; the last-placed side averages 42% of the Premier’s total points. Removing the New Zealand Knights effort of 6 points in the inaugural season gives a result of 48% – on par with the MLS.

The three leagues that appear to be the most competitive are the A-League, MLS and the Brasileirão. That two of the three have no promotion-relegation system and include the use of a salary-cap shows that these two features could well impact heavily on the competitiveness of a football league.

The second table explores the competitiveness of the league from one year to the next. Two criteria have been used here. The first is simple: how many different sides have finished top of the table in the six-year period. The second shows the change of PWPG of the winning club in their following season. The assumption is that the bigger the (negative) change the more competitive a league is as other teams have improved and/or the previous champions have suffered a decrease in competitiveness.

How competitive is each league from season to season? Numbers are the average for the last six complete seasons in each league.

These stats seem to indicate that from season to season the A-League is the most competitive of the seven. In the last six seasons there have been five different league winners. This is compared to only two in England and Spain and even three in the MLS.

The A-League champions on average win 0.47 points less per game than the season that they won. The next closest is the Bundesliga where the champions average 0.39 less points per game the season following their success. This can partly be explained by the up and down form of German giants Bayern Munich who have followed success with poor seasons consistently for the past six years.

German side Bayern Munich

Surprisingly the MLS appears less competitive when looking at these criteria. It could be said that whilst each season is closer than other leagues, similar teams continue to maintain their form and edge out their opposition. It is interesting to note though that the last six MLS play-off finals have been won by five different sides.

The difference between the A-League and the MLS could be explained in the relative infancy of the A-League in comparison. Players have moved between teams quite a lot in the few years the league has been operating, promising players are quick to move to overseas clubs following break through seasons and managers have struggled to build consistent sides from one season to the next. None the less, based on these stats, the A-League is by far the most competitive league from year to year and gives the best chance of a new team taking the title each Autumn.

Overall it appears that the two most competitive leagues are the A-League and the MLS. Whilst it is impossible to be 100% certain, I would feel safe in saying that the employment of a salary-cap and the lack of a promotion-relegation system have an impact on this.

The stats I have used above are far from the perfect and definitely do not give the full picture but they are at the least a start.

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