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Erling Haaland has blurred 'farmers league' arguments

September 2, 2022

Labeling European competitions 'farmers leagues' is a favored trope for the English media and Premier League fans. But the real divide in football is within leagues, not between them.

Erling Haaland points to the sky after scoring goal for Manchester City
Erling Haaland has made a mockery of the Premier LeagueImage: Paul Currie/Shutterstock/IMAGO

Two world-class stars changed leagues in the off-season, with Erling Haaland swapping the Bundesliga for the Premier League and Sadio Mane moving in the opposite direction.

The narratives around both players couldn't have been more different. One man was destined to run amok in a weaker league, the other was tipped for a battle to adapt.

But a month into the season Haaland is making a mockery of the Premier League, with nine goals in five games for Manchester City. Mane has started with a bang too, scoring three in four matches at Bayern Munich. But he is far from eclipsing Haaland's efforts, as was widely suggested.

Great players are simply great players, and yet the narratives have continued: Mane's performances prove that his boots are too big for a stagnant league which Bayern have won 10 years in a row; while Haaland's exploits are 'surprising' many in a competitive league where City have won four of the past five titles.

The well-worn trope of the Premier League being a tougher competition compared to the 'farmers leagues' of Spain, France, and Germany is starting to look trite.

Sadio Mane shouts in a megaphone after a Bayern Munich match.
Sadio Mane has swapped a super club for another super clubImage: Uwe Anspach/dpa/picture alliance

Blown-out scorelines signal widening gap

When Bayern defeated Europa League winners Eintracht Frankfurt 6-1 before spanking Bochum 7-0, the calls of derision were inevitable.

But there have been similar scenes in England. Liverpool recently thrashed Bournemouth 9-0, while Man City defeated Nottingham Forest 6-0.

In France, Montpellier recently smacked seven goals past Brest, two weeks after PSG beat them 5-2. Newly-promoted Monza and Cremonese sit bottom of Serie A with four consecutive losses.

These blown-out goal-fests are becoming a more common trend in European football, representing the widening gap between the richest and the rest.

And it's perhaps a greater problem in the Premier League than in any other of Europe's top five leagues.

Premier League's 'top six' a closed shop

Bayern look on track for an 11th consecutive title. PSG have won eight of the past 10 titles in France. Only Atletico Madrid (twice) have broken Barcelona and Real Madrid's hold on La Liga since 2004.

The Premier League, meanwhile, has only had five champions since 2004. Now that's competition, or at least so goes the argument.

City may have won the title last season by one point, but the last genuine three-way title race was in 2012-13. And across the last decade, the title has been won by less than 9 points only three times.

Erling Haaland embraces Julian Alvarez with Kevin de Bruyne in the background
Manchester City have dominated the Premier League in recent yearsImage: Andrew Boyers/Action Images/REUTERS

The average points gap between 1st and 3rd across those five campaigns stands at a whopping 23.6. That's a 40% greater gap than the Bundesliga (16.8), La Liga and Ligue 1 (both 14.8).

Leicester City's unexpected title win in 2016 was the only time in the last decade a club outside the Premier League's top six has broken into Champions League qualification.

Despite Premier League clubs spending €1.3 billion net on new signings in the last transfer window - an 1800% increase on the next league (La Liga, €52.5 million*) - the top six remains unchanged.

With Liverpool and Manchester City deciding the last five titles between them, that top six is quickly becoming a top two.

Intriguingly, the greater spending power and purported higher standards of the Premier League haven't translated into European success. The so-called 'farmers leagues' have produced 18 of the 23 Champions League winners this century, as well as 19 of the Europa League victors.

Real Madrid footballers lift the Champions League trophy in celebration.
European super clubs will continue to dominate footballImage: Antonio Calanni/AP/picture alliance

Super League threat still looms

Champions League money has created super clubs at the top of the European game, all with the spending power to distort competition. Nowhere is the status quo more pronounced and entrenched than in the Premier League.

Haaland's 86 goals in 89 games for Dortmund were assessed with a pinch of salt simply because he played in the Bundesliga. Now at a super club, the chances of him scoring goals against inferior opponents has only improved.

Similarly, Sadio Mane has a comparable, if not better, chance of winning a second Champions League medal now that he has swapped one super club for another.

Both players have shown that the concept of 'farmers leagues' is out of date. European football's biggest issue is not that other leagues serve the Premier League, but rather that almost all teams serve an elite group of super clubs.

*Statistics compiled using Transfermarkt data

Edited by Jonathan Harding

Janek Speight Sports reporter and editor