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Coming from behind: is the Premier League Europe’s most exciting top division?

7 August 2011

United beat Blackpool after being 2-0 down in one of the Premier League season's most exciting games

A couple of months ago I compared the competitiveness of Europe’s top leagues, which sparked some fascinating debate and suggestions in the comments.

A couple of those comments suggested I look at comebacks, and fortunately there’s data available on points gained from losing positions, which I’ve looked at below.

It strikes me that comebacks are more a measure of excitement than competitiveness. If the top teams in any league are consistently forced to come from behind against weaker opposition, the odds are most people would regard it as an entertaining season, even if the final league table appears predictable.

The classic examples are Manchester United at Blackpool and West Ham last season, where Sir Alex Ferguson’s team secured victories after being two goals down. The final result may have been expected; the journey towards it certainly wasn’t.

Equally, a league that sees weaker teams often picking up points from behind may be unpredictable and therefore entertaining at a match-by-match level.

So how many points across the top leagues were collected from losing positions, and by this measure, does the Premier League live up to its own branding as the world’s most exciting league?

The first point to note is that there are no discernible trends within each league; you could perhaps argue the Premier League is becoming more exciting in terms of points gained in comebacks, but elsewhere fluctuations have been largely random.

On average though, Ligue 1 sides have struggled the most to come from behind, whilst teams in Spain’s top flight are marginally the best in this respect.

And in the season just finished, the Premier League proved to be the most exciting, thanks in no small part to West Brom and Spurs, who collected 27 and 24 points from losing positions respectively.

Ignoring France’s Ligue 1, which most people would agree is easily the weakest of the five leagues in question, the Bundesliga proves to have been largely the least exciting, and Spain largely the most:

Thanks to consistent comebacks from the league’s top three finishers (Roma and the two Milan teams), the 2009-10 Italian Serie A season was as turbulent on the pitch as they come. Even 19th placed Siena took 13 points from losing positions.

And although derided as uncompetitive and predictable at the top, there have been comebacks aplenty in La Liga over the years. Perhaps even more surprisingly, either Barcelona or Real Madrid topped the points gained from losing position charts for every season bar one between 2004-05 and 2009-10. Ignoring debates about quality, there also appears to be sufficient excitement around the rest of the league too.

At the bottom of the pile – the Premier League’s 2005-06 season. Whilst Chelsea and United both collected 13 points from losing positions, many of the season’s weakest teams struggled to make an impact after falling behind. The low number of points is indicative of the best teams going ahead and staying ahead; all the signs of an uninspiring season.

But then how to explain the Bundesliga? Praised for being financially sound, high-scoring and fan-friendly, there appears to be little appetite for comebacks amongst its teams – until this season.

The metric doesn’t account for upsets, of which there may be many in Germany. Nevertheless, historically teams that led often went on to claim victory; as with this entire piece it’s for you to decide as to how much that constitutes excitement.

It’s also worth noting that this measurement doesn’t differentiate between Newcastle scoring four to earn a draw against Arsenal and a team equalising to secure a 1-1 draw. Indeed it places higher value on a team that comes from only a goal down to win.

Comebacks by no means a definitive measurement of a league’s entertainment, but exciting matches are often characterised by come-from-behind results. Therefore do more comebacks represent a more exciting league? Like competitiveness, it’s up for debate.

Is the excitement of La Liga underrated? And likewise the Premier League or Bundesliga overrated? Please provide your thoughts below.

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