'The idea that Serie A is defensive is completely out of date. Anyone who's seen Roma, Napoli, Inter or Lazio recently wouldn't call it defensive.'
'One of the greatest untruths touted about a football league is that Serie A is boring. But the mud seems to have stuck regarding Serie A'.
Replies to the thread 'Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga – Differences?' on boards.ie, December 2012.
As mentioned in the previous article and as alluded to in the quotes above, Serie A seems to have gained a reputation as being a 'boring' and defensive league. Articles such as this from bornoffside.net refer to a 'defensive mindset [which] seems to be drilled into the psyche of the players'. When English teams face Serie A opposition in the Champions League, commentators will often warn viewers that the Italians will likely be difficult to break down due to the supposedly unshakeable national trait of prioritising defensiveness solidity at the expense of attacking or fluid football.
Teams are defensive, emphasis is on tactics, keeping a clean sheet and attempting to score on the counterattack. The Italians brought the style of Catenaccio to football, so it is perhaps natural to assume that this style prevails in their national league's footballing identity.
However, we have already seen the folly of believing stereotypes about leagues based on only watching a select few teams from a league, believing what 'experts' tell us, confusing the footballing style of a country's national team with that of its league or believing that a league's style does not change or evolve over time. The quotes above, if they are to be believed, would suggest that similar misrepresentations are being made about Serie A – they claim it is now an exciting and attacking league, and the days of Catenaccio are long gone.
Like in the last article, I will analyse statistics from the Top 4 leagues to ascertain the truth of these assertions about Serie A, while also attempting to draw any interesting conclusions from the other top European leagues in the process.
But first we must clarify an important term.
What is 'Boring'?
What does the term 'boring' mean in football? It might seem a difficult question to answer as the term is subjective. In general, something is not inherently boring. For example, the statement 'The Godfather is a boring film' is not a statement of fact, rather a subjective opinion. We have seen this in football also with the recent debate about Spain's dominant International side – some see their football as fantastic to watch, while others see it as slow, boring, repetitive and unadventurous.
So how can we possibly measure how statictically 'boring' a league is? How can we prove or disprove the subjective claim that Serie A boring?
Well, we have to transform 'boring' from a subjective term to an objective, measureable statistic by inferring what the majority of football fans, pundits, writers and commentators mean when they use the term. There is a clue in the other word that is also often dispariginly pinned to Serie A – 'defensive'.
The bottom line when we talk about excitement and boringness in football is goals. It goes without saying that goals are usually the most exciting moments of a football match. A lot of goals? Exciting football. A nil-nil draw or a one-nil win? Boring. This is the way football is predominantly viewed. 'One-nil to the Arsenal' was sung by Arsenal fans, while opposition fans chanted 'Boring, boring Arsenal'. The last World Cup in 2010 was widely received as a 'boring' World Cup due to its low goals tally of 2.27 goals per game. Chelsea and Liverpool's low-scoring Champions League clashes last decade were frequently labelled 'boring' and groans of despair could be heard across the football world when they were once again drawn against each other in 2009. These are just a few examples of many that reveal the common acceptance that a lack of goals generally means a lack of entertainment.
I have reservations about equating goals with excitement. For me football is about more than just goals, and at times a nil nil draw can be an incredibly engrossing and interesting match. However, for many this is probably not the case, and it is true that frequently a goalless game can be disappointing for the spectator and that usually the most memorable moments and highlights from a match are the goals. In any case, as we have seen, there are countless examples that suggest that when the term 'boring' is used in football it refers to a lack of goals. A low goal tally could also be seen as an indicator of defensive football, as a greater emphasis on defending by teams throughout a league should typically result in more low-scoring games.
So to determine whether or not Serie A is a particularly boring and defensive league, we need to examine the amount of goals scored in that league in comparision to the other top leagues across Europe.
Goals per Game
Like in the last article, we'll look at the statistics from the last full season, 2011-12, as they contain the most current and relevant complete data. If the stereotypes are true, we should expect a relatively low goals per game tally in Serie A. Here are the results.
Based on last season, there would seem to be some credibility to the stereotypes about Serie A.
They have the lowest goal-per-game tally across the four leagues, with the Bundesliga pipping the Premier League and La Liga, which all have significantly higher tallies.
So based on this evidence, it would be fair to conclude that last season Serie A was the most boring (in the previously outlined interpretation of the word) league amongst the top European leagues. However, the discussion does not end here. The labelling of Serie A as a boring league is not something new – it has been heard throughout the years. While last season is of course the most recent and therefore most relevant data, it is worth looking at an average across recent years to see if these figures represent an ongoing trend, season on season.
In this ten year representation of goals Serie A, once again, comes out at the bottom of the pile. Their ten-year-average is just .02 goals more than last season's tally suggesting it was typical for Serie A in relation to recent trends. We can also see that the Bundesliga has consistently provided the most 'exciting' football in terms of goals scored, and that last season was nothing new or exceptional.
What is more interesting is the tallies of La Liga and, in particular, the Premier League. We can see that last seasons tallies were significantly higher than the ten-year average.
In fact the Premier League and La Liga have experienced a goal explosion recently. The two most recent seasons in the Premier League have been the highest since its inception, and the one previous was also relatively high (2.77 gpg). La Liga has also seen a marked increase in goals in the last four seasons. So then why are their ten-year averages so comparably low?
The obvious answer is that their have been some comparably low-scoring seasons in this ten year period. The three seasons between 2004 and 2007 in the Premier League saw a combined average of just 2.5 goals – less than Serie A's average tally or their tally last year. La Liga had a similar tally during these three seasons – 2.51. So if Serie A is a boring league, then the Premier League and La Liga were for several seasons too, and have only recently become more entertaining.
Yet Serie A continued to have its boring reputation during these years (as was stated earlier, this is not a new tag ascribed to Italian football) when it was in fact slightly more 'exciting' than the English and Spanish leagues during these seasons.
What's more, despite Serie A coming out bottom over the ten year period, the differences between the leagues (high-scoring Bundesliga aside) are relatively trivial – just a .05 difference between Serie A and the Premier League and a further .03 between the Premier League and La Liga.
So again – if Serie A is boring, the Premier League and La Liga are barely more exciting. In the last decade there appears to be no statistical evidence to support the claim that Serie A, in particular, is exceptionally boring. So where do these claims come from?
One potential answer is suggested in a quote at the beginning of this article, which describes the idea that Serie A is boring and defensive as 'out of date'. There is a suggestion here that Serie A indeed was a boring league in the past, but has become more exciting in recent years, yet its reputation as boring has continued to pervade – or, in other words, as the other quote states, 'the mud has stuck'.
Looking at the average goal per game data from past decades should reveal whether this theory is correct.
We can see a colossal difference in the amount of goals per game in the 70s and 80s compared with the 90s and 2000s. The 1970s and 80s saw the goal per game rate barely exceed two goals – something incredibly rare in football. Indeed, this twenty-year period saw seven seasons drop below the 2 goals-per-game mark. Having looked at data across a range of leagues and years, these years are unparallelled in their consistent scarcity of goals. Serie A during these years was an exceptionally boring league.
In other words, Serie A now is nothing like it once was, and there seems to be considerable evidence to support the quotee's claim that the ideas about it are out of date – it was vastly more boring in the 70s and 80s than it is now.
One might argue that just because it was exceptionally boring in the past, that does not exclude it from being at least a bit boring now. However, we have already seen that in recent years Serie A does not stand out from the Premier League and La Liga. To further counter this claim, let's have a look at Serie A's most recent decade alongside other widely watched leagues and competitions.
In order to see if their total of 2.58 for the last decade stands out as exceptionally low, I have included probably the most prestiguous, widely watched and highest quality competitions (excluding those already examined) alongside Serie A: The World Cup and European Championships (in which, due to their infrequency and to provide a greater representation, I have included tournaments from the last twenty years), the Champions League, the Europa League (due to a lack of easily available data and it's recent change of format I've only included the last 5 seasons) and France's Ligue 1 (which is often included as part of a 'top 5' of Euorpean Leagues, but which I have left out of my detailed analysis due to the fact I think it is significantly weaker than the 'top 4' leagues).
This table puts an end to the debate about Serie A being a boring and defensive league. It sees more goals than the modern era of the most famous and prestiguous tournament in the world – the World Cup. It also has a significantly higher goal rate than the European Championships. Its goal rate is comparable to Europe's premier club competition and pinnacle of club football, the Champions League. We can see that the real boring league of Europe is France's Ligue 1 which has a far lower goal rate of just 2.29.
Taking the word 'boring' to mean a paucity of goals, statistics show that the quotes at the start of this article are accurate in their appraisals – the stereotypes about Serie A being boring and defensive are as false as those that label the Premier League as a predominantly long-ball league.
The introduction of 3 points for a win in 199 4 marked the end for a defensive style which was already showing signs of being abandoned in the late 80s and early 90s. Since then Serie A has been much the same as La Liga and the Premier League, with most seasons falling into the standard range of between 2.5 and 2.7 goals per game.
Those who wish to hang on to their dismissive claims towards Italian football will be reassured by the fact that Serie A had a lower goals tally last year compared to the other top leagues, and also the lowest of the four leagues over a ten-year period. However, this is, as has been shown, a limited view of the statistics.
It would appear that many are confusing today's Serie A with the Serie A of the 70s and 80s. This is very strange considering Italian football was nowhere near as accessible to a foreign audience during this period compared to now. Also many who today spout claims about the league being boring would have been very young or not alive at all in these decades. In short, when Serie A was boring, not many non-Italians were watching it.
This serves as a possible indicator about where false footballing stereotypes predominantly originate – namely, word of mouth and repetition. We have already discussed the possible varying sources of stereotypes, but the example of Serie A seems to suggest the number one reason is uncomplicated – the stereotypes are just assumed truths, presented as a sort of footballing 'common knowledge', shared and repeated so many times that they are unchallenged and taken for fact. Despite the highly popular Gazetta Football Italia in the 90s and greater access to live matches and highlights through satellite TV and the internet in the last decade (not to mention the fact that recent decades should logically be fresher in the memory) it is somehow the Italian football style of previous decades which has remained at the forefront of the imagination of many when they think about Serie A.
In other words, it appears these claims are not based on any kind of football-watching at all. However it is worth discussing the other suggested reasons for the perpetuation of footballing stereotypes in relation to Serie A.
The comments of commentators and 'experts' can be seen as an extension of the previous point – few if any of these pundits watch or even casually follow Serie A, but they need to say something and thus revert to the easy stereotypes about 'tight' defences. These comments certainly perpetuate these false beliefs, as they are coming from supposed experts so can be repeated by fans with a sense of authority attached to them.
Another explanation could be the categorisation of an entire league based on the biggest and most successful clubs within it. We saw this with La Liga falsely gaining a reputation as a 'tiki-taka' league based predominantly on the example of Barcelona, and something similar might have wrongly influenced some opinions with regards to Serie A. The Champions League is the arena in which most fans watch teams from other countries, so many might have formed opinions (or more likely reaffirmed what they already believed) after the all-Italian final of 2003 which finished goalless after extra-time, taking this as evidence of typically defensive and boring Italian football. Some might also call to mind Fabio Capello's great AC Milan team of 1994 which won both the European Cup and Serie A. Founding their success on an incredibly strong defence, Milan somehow won the league with a paltry 36 goals in 34 matches, and their matches in the league that season averaged out at an unprecedentedly low 1.5 goals per game. The logic for many then might have been along the same lines of what is happening with Barcelona now – as the best and most famous team in their respective countries, they are the best representative of the assumed style in that country. Therefore, those following Serie A in 1994 might have logically (in their minds at least) made the invalid argument that, because Milan are boring, Serie A is too. This would ignore the fact that an average of 2.47 goals-per-game were scored by the other clubs of Serie A that season, not at all a low tally considering 3 points for a win had not yet been introduced.
A final possible reason for the false beliefs about Serie A was mentioned in the last article – a propensity to confuse the style of the national team with that of its national league. This is possibly at play with England and Spain with regards to passing style, but it is perhaps with Italy that this confusion prevails most strongly. The most successful Italian team of recent times was the 2006 World Cup winning squad, which had an incredibly strong defence. They conceded just 2 goals in 7 games on their way to victory and their games averaged just 2 goals per game. The national team has been seemingly quite defensive in the major tournaments in the modern era (since 1990), with their matches averaging out at 2.03 goals-per-game in their 59 matches (although it should be noted that the dynamics of knock-out matches where avoiding defeat is paramount are very different to league matches where the incentive of 3 points for the win encourages a more risky approach). Add to the fact that, as Fabio Cannavaro states, Italy 'have always been good at defending and shouldn't be ashamed of that' (link), and have historically produced great defenders (Baresi, Maldini, Cannavaro, Nesta to name just a few), it is perhaps understandable that people associate Italy (and by association Serie A) with defending.
Looking solely at goals-per-game as the one variable to decide such a broad, subjective and difficult concept of what exactly 'boring' means in football may seem limited. The word is often also used in relation to other factors, such as competivity (or a lack of it) and we will look at this in the next article. However, as has been discussed, goals are the essence of what we mean when we use this term. In this sense Serie A is not boring. At the time of writing Serie A seems to be following the previously mentioned 'goal explosion' trend that has recently appeared across top European leagues, notching up a high tally of 2.73 goals-per-game so far this season.
One could ignore all the goals now flying in in Serie A, stick to their guns and say that they think it's boring and that's their opinion, and it would be difficult to argue with that – however no one who makes such a claim would have watched even a small percentage of the thousands of matches played across Europe in recent years, while statistics capture the data in its entirety. I know who I trust more.
Follow me on Twitter @ErwinMorzadec