The last decade of European soccer has been a battle between two conflicting truths: The game is random, and either Barcelona, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich always win.
Soccer’s unpredictability has been studied by everyone from chemists to experts in risk to former goalkeepers. German theoretical chemist Andreas Heuer analyzed 20 years worth of German Bundesliga games and discovered that luck—not skill or athleticism—was the most important factor in whether a team won a given game. David Spiegelhalter, the Winton professor of the public understanding of risk at the University of Cambridge, combed through years of historical data from European soccer games and developed the 48/26/26 law; the home team wins 48 percent of the time, the away team wins 26 percent of the time, and they draw in the remaining 26 percent. And after looking at a year’s worth of data, former keeper Chris Anderson and David Sally, coauthors of The Numbers Game, discovered that the betting-market favorites in soccer win just over 50 percent of the time. In baseball, it’s closer to 60 percent, and in football and basketball, the favorites win nearly two-thirds of the time.
Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona aren’t great basketball teams; they’re even better. Since the start of the 2010-11 season, the three clubs have combined to win 75 percent of their league games, while drawing 15 percent of the time, and losing just 10 percent of their matches. Combined, they’ve won seven of eight Champions League titles and 13 of 16 Bundesliga and La Liga championships. Bayern Munich has systematically dominated matches like few teams ever have. In the early part of the decade, Barcelona built the best passing team the world has ever seen, and then took it to another level by also employing the greatest individual player of this century. And Real Madrid stacked enough superstars on top of each other to create enough decisive moments when it mattered most.
Watching soccer over this past decade has, in a way, required fans to fundamentally alter their perception of the sport. Randomness has governed the game since its rules were first codified more than a century ago. (See: FC Porto winning the Champions League in 2004 or Leicester City’s 2015-16 Premier League title.) And yet these three clubs have found a way to control the uncontrollable—at least, until this season.
Over the past 10 combined league games, Munich, Madrid, and Barcelona have been winless. The odds of that happening, based on the pre-match betting lines? One in 1,212,367. Bayern have lost two Bundesliga games in a row for the first time since May 2015, and they’ve already lost as many games as they did in the entirety of the 2015-16 or 2016-17 seasons. Madrid have lost two of their last three and have not scored a goal in more than 400 minutes in all competitions. And Barcelona’s four-game winless streak is their longest run without a victory since 2015-16. The Catalan club sits second in La Liga, while Madrid are in fourth. Munich, meanwhile, are all the way down in sixth in the Bundesliga.
The game has changed, and the shift didn’t just start last month.
The consultancy 21st Club has developed the World Super League rating system, which aims to quantify the quality of a given team based on its recent underlying performances. Around 2011, Bayern joined Real Madrid and Barcelona at the top of the ratings, and the three clubs almost exclusively maintained that trio of spots right up until the start of last season. Since then, it’s been a free for all:
“I think the decline has been going on for about two seasons, which people have generally accepted,” Omar Chaudhuri, head of football intelligence at 21st Club, told me over email. “The decline is probably made more ‘real’ by the fact that Juve, PSG, and Man City have improved and closed the gap. Sometimes you can get worse and no one notices (e.g. Celtic won 106 points in 2016-17, then 82 points in 2017-18, but won trebles in both so no one really commented on it). But the decline is sufficient now that the league table, not just the results, are reflecting the decline.”
The two biggest blows to the Bayern-Barça-Madrid stranglehold atop European soccer have been the Premier League’s exploding television contract and the brief trend of oil-and-or-gas-rich Gulf states purchasing their own clubs. Qatar essentially funds Paris Saint-Germain’s operations, while the Abu Dhabi royal family owns Manchester City. Meanwhile, the Premier League’s broadcasting deal is worth more than double that of any other league, and, on the back of that, the league’s total revenue is nearly double that of all its closest competitors.
“The big challenge for all clubs outside England is how to cope with the EPL TV deal,” Stefan Szymanski, coauthor of Soccernomics with Simon Kuper, told me over email. “Eventually, generating twice as much money as anyone else should be expected to lead to perpetual dominance. For me the surprise is that it hasn’t happened already.”
In an effort to gain back some ground, La Liga has changed the way it distributes broadcasting revenue. For the 2014-15 season, Barcelona and Real Madrid earned €140 million in broadcasting revenue, while Almería, the worst team in the league, earned €18 million. Under the new deal, which distributes the TV money more equitably, the ratio in revenue from top to bottom is now closer to 4-to-1. The overall deal has skyrocketed: from €851 million in 2014-15 to €1.247 billion in 2016-17. But Real and Barcelona have barely seen their broadcasting revenues increase.
In Germany, Bayern Munich have the highest commercial revenue of any club in the world, but their overall revenue decreased slightly last year. The Bundesliga is expected to sign a new broadcasting deal that may surpass the current La Liga deal, but clubs in Germany all operate under the “50+1” rule, under which fans maintain majority ownership of each club. It’s an honorable, socially democratic bulwark against the rampant global capitalism of the beautiful game, but it also prevents a super-wealthy owner from coming in and infusing a club with cash. As such, Bayern’s record transfer-spend on a single player is just £37.35 million. That’s the 79th most expensive transfer of all time.
“Simon [Kuper] and I have said that we think Barça and Real might struggle more now that they are committed to sharing TV revenues,” Szymanski said. “Bayern is clearly worried about financial constraints limiting the growth of the Bundesliga. These days you seem to need either a wealthy owner prepared to commit cash or the EPL TV deal.”
It’s not all about money, though. Bayern Munich, Real Madrid, and Barcelona are all at the tail end—or the actual end—of a superstar-powered cycle. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are the two best players of this generation, and their peaks coincided with the dominance of their clubs. Meanwhile, Bayern Munich built the spine of their team using the Germany side that won the 2014 World Cup—and then they supplemented it with two of the players, Arjen Robben and Franck Ribéry, who have came the closest to occasionally matching the production of Messi and Ronaldo. At 31, Messi is still the most dominant player in the world, but his main supplier Andrés Iniesta is gone, while other stalwarts like Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets, and Luis Suárez have begun to decline. Ronaldo left Madrid for Juventus, he hasn’t been replaced, and most of the Madrid squad remains in place—they’re just a year older. And perhaps Germany’s World Cup failure presaged an oncoming decline for the country’s premier club team. Plus, Ribery is 35 and Robben is 34.
“Bayern have certainly aged,” Chaudhuri said. “Their starting XI average age was 26.3 from 2009-2016, but in the last 3 seasons it’s been 28, 27.4, and 28. Madrid have their oldest starting XIs since 2004-05, Barça are about 1.5 years older than what they were between 2008 and 2010. So you’d expect a natural decline from these figures.”
Each club has also brought in a new manager to be the steward of the complicated transition of their aging squads—and none of them have any experience at the highest level. Before joining Bayern, Niko Kovac brought Eintracht Frankfurt up from a relegation fight and into the European places. Ernesto Valverde had a journeyman career before spending four seasons with Athletic Bilbao, as the team bounced between fourth and seventh place. And for Real Madrid and Julen Lopetegui—well, you know him as the guy who was fired by Spain on the eve of this past summer’s World Cup. None of those three coaches would grade out as a consensus top-10 manager in the world. Some of that is just timing—most of the top coaches are currently employed, and there’s not much you can do about that—but it’s also likely connected to the increased spending power in England and at PSG.
Despite the recent bad run and the rise of competitors elsewhere in Europe, Bayern will still probably win the Bundesliga, and the same goes for one of Real or Barça in Spain. FiveThirtyEight puts Munich as 70 percent favorites in Germany, while the combined title odds of the Spanish giants comes out to 84 percent. They’re still the best teams in their leagues—and among the best in Europe—they’re just no longer at a point when a loss or a trophy-less run should feel like a shock to the natural order of things. The league tables aren’t lying; the underlying numbers for all three clubs have dropped off, too.
Of course, those lines won’t continue trending down, leading the superclubs into mid-table mediocrity and eventually out of the top flight. All three teams will likely level out right around where they are now, or somewhere a little higher, and then a new cycle will begin. Before the dominance of Bayern, Barça, and Madrid, English clubs were the ones taking turns winning the Champions League. And remember when the red-and-black stripes of AC Milan used to be a semifinal fixture?
As for what the next era will be, it’s still unclear. PSG’s record-realtering moves for Neymar and Kylian Mbappé two summers ago seemed to destroy any established ideas about who buys players from whom and for how much. It also gave an upstart club two of the presumptive Next Best Players in the World. A little more than a year after they both arrived in Paris, plenty of the big pieces pieces are still falling into place.
“Market values are a little crazy,” said Rob Wilson, an expert in football finance at Sheffield Hallam University in England. “These three clubs have consequently been less interested in mega deals—don’t write them off though.”
For now, at least, randomness will start winning again.