Champions League Analysis: Comparing the Bundesliga and La Liga
The 2012-13 Champions League is down to its final four after a midweek schedule of remarkable matches, and one can find it difficult to argue that the cream hasn't risen to the top.
And with the semifinal draw pitting Bayern Munich vs. Barcelona and Borussia Dortmund vs. Real Madrid, fans of European football can look forward to two truly mouthwatering ties.
How do the national leagues of Germany and Spain match up with regard to what we see on the field, as well as that off it?
Let's take a look.
Bundesliga: League Season Overview
This year's German league has been all about the resurgence of one club, FC Hollywood as they have often been referred, Bayern Munich.
Following two seasons in which they had been swept aside by Jurgen Klopp's exuberant Borussia Dortmund, the Bavarian club have struck back with a vengence, to the extent that they have already claimed the league title at record-setting pace.
With 24 wins from 28 matches, and an astonishing away record which has seen them win 13 of 14 matches, conceding only two goals in the process, Jupp Heynckes' side have been well worth their 20-point lead at the top of the table.
However, there's been no shortage of action and drama elsewhere.
Schalke 04 have had a roller-coaster season which began with them looking like title contenders, saw them win only twice between Nov. 3 and Feb. 23. Nonetheless, a recent run of six wins in seven has propelled them back into Champions League contention with the excellent youngster Julian Draxler a key component of their run back toward the top four.
SC Freiburg, relegation favourites early on, have been the surprise package of the season, and they currently find themselves in fifth place based on a solid defence (third best in the league) and the tactical resolutions of coach Christian Steich.
On the other hand, perennial European-chasing clubs such as Werder Bremen, Hamburg, Stuttgart and the partly Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg have all endured transitional seasons. Their respective struggles mean that they all find themselves in the lower half.
Greuther Furth have endured a miserable campaign with only two wins and will surely be relegated bottom of the table, whilst Hoffenheim, the village side thrust into the limelight by billionaire owner Dietmar Hopp, could also be in relegation trouble with a meagre 23 points from 28 matches.
La Liga: League Season Overview
For Bayern in Germany, read Barcelona in Spain, as manager Tito Vilanova's Catalan giants look set to reclaim the Spanish crown from reigning champions Real Madrid.
With Lionel Messi's 43 league goals more than playing their part, Barcelona have plundered 25 wins from 30 matches, giving them a 13-point lead atop the Primera Division, despite the general consensus across Europe being that this side isn't quite what it has been in previous years.
Elsewhere, manager Diego Simeone has continued his marvellous work at last season's Europa League winners Atletico Madrid, who are currently in third place, a mere three points behind the top two, as opposed to the 30 points between second and third last year.
Indeed it has been a good season for the Madrid-based clubs as a whole, with the smaller, financially-stricken Getafe and Rayo Vallecano also currently occupying spots in the league's top 10.
Malaga, Real Betis, Getafe, Real Sociedad,Rayo Vallecano all great examples of the high standard of coaching in La Liga.— James D. (@JDTIPS) April 7, 2013
An honourable mention must go to Real Sociedad, the Basque club who have played some of the most inventive football not just in Spain but across Europe this season, under the guidance of French coach Philippe Montanier. They are currently in fourth place, vying for the final Champions League spot with Valencia, Real Betis and Malaga.
At the other end of the table, Mallorca are bottom with 24 points, in what will be a tight relegation battle as only four points cover the bottom five places. Battling for safety also are well-known clubs such as Real Zaragoza, Deportivo La Coruna and Celta de Vigo (the latter duo having only been promoted last season).
Comparing General Styles of Play
Whereas the stereotypical views of the English Premier League suggest it is all about blood and thunder and that the build-up in Italy is too slow and ponderous, the German and Spanish leagues aren't all that different in styles on the pitch.
To paint a broad picture, both leagues are full of sides who look to play the ball on the floor and who dominate possession, looking to work combinations in the final third to create openings. As such, it is no great surprise that two of Europe's best purveyors of possession and pressing football, Bayern and Barcelona, top their respective leagues.
However, perhaps the greatest difference in styles between the leagues are that effectively all sides in Spain look to play in a similar manner, whilst Germany has a broader range.
Of the 20 clubs in La Liga, 18 look to dominate possession and to instigate the play in matches. Due to the success of the Spanish national side, not only at senior level but also across various youth platforms, and the "tiki-taka" approach, it's of little wonder.
Nevertheless, of those 18 sides, one of them (Real Madrid) have to play that way almost by default, as sides often allow them to have the ball, fearful of their brilliance on the counter-attack and the sheer pace of Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria and Karim Benzema. Fear dictates.
Of the remaining duo, Atletico Madrid, with their 4-4-2 formation, looking first to be defensively resolute before finding some match-winning genius by Falcao, are the real anomaly, alongside "La Liga's Expendables" (Sid Lowe, Guardian), Levante, whose approach is rather more physical and robust.
In the Bundesliga, Bayern are the real possession-based side, whilst the remainder of the top six alone sees perhaps five alternative styles.
Dortmund look to use rapier-like thrusts to cut through sides with short vertical passes (witness their first goal against Malaga on Tuesday evening), third-placed Leverkusen play neat football but aren't afraid to go direct to use the strength of Stefan Kiessling and the pace of Andre Schurrle when opportunity permits. On the other hand Schalke try to feed the ball out wide, isolating and creating overloads against opposing full-backs before trying to find Klaas Jan Huntelaar in the penalty area.
Throw into that mix the defensive setup of Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt's game plan of feeding a big striker and looking to play from there, and you have six differing styles amongst just six clubs.
Elsewhere, take into account Thomas Schaaf's gung-ho approach at Werder Bremen and Wolfsburg's focus on using the talented playmaker Diego to launch attacks, and the league is quite a contrast.
Talking Tactics: 4-2-3-1 is King
No doubt about it, the 4-2-3-1 formation—which has evolved largely since the turn of the Millennium—is king both in Spain and in Germany as football continues to lead itself toward a battle for midfield domination.
Of the 38 top-flight sides, the default setting for all but eight is to line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation in some shape or form.
Additionally, of the remaining eight clubs, four of them (Barcelona, Real Betis, Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen) all employ a similar, single-striker formation, similarly looking to utilise the extra man in midfield, albeit through the creation of different angles. The Spanish duo have largely been purveyors of the 4-3-3 formation this season, with high wide forwards, though Betis have recently employed a 4-2-3-1 in home games, with mixed results.
Conversely Leverkusen have employed a 4-3-2-1 shape, with narrow inside forwards looking to keep close to their central striker. As such, the side full-backs have been given great license to raid forward, knowing there is often cover from three sitting midfielders.
Meanwhile, Thomas Schaaf's Werder Bremen have utilised a 4-1-4-1 formation for much of the season, a strategy which has seen them score the sixth most goals in the Bundesliga, but also concede the most.
Throwbacks to the old school of twin-striker formations come in the shape of Atletico Madrid, Freiburg and Hannover 96 with their preference of what is effectively 4-4-2. In the case of the Spanish club, this is rather curious, having seen coach Diego Simeone employ a 4-2-3-1 formation to win the Europa League last season.
Nonetheless, the Argentine has had its reasons and having seen loan-star Diego return to Wolfsburg last summer, and a striking renaissance for Diego Costa at the Vicente Calderon this campaign, it's of little wonder why Simeone has seen fit to accommodate one Brazilian, having lost another.
The one remaining side, Wolfsburg, have been perhaps the biggest deviation, especially since the departure of Felix Magath earlier in the season. Largely unpopular with fans who had seen an irrationally high turnover rate in players during his reign.
Since the arrival of Dieter Hecking, the Wolves have changed shape quite regularly depending on opposition and often to get the best out of the aforementioned Brazilian playmaker, Diego. Recent weeks have seen 4-2-3-1, 4-3-1-2, 4-4-2 and 4-4-1-1 formations all used to various degrees of success.
Amongst all the tactical talk, what is noticeable is the lack of anyone employing a three-man defence, currently very much in favour amongst Italian sides. Although Barcelona have experimented, more so under previous manager Pep Guardiola than Tito Vilanova, it is far from practiced elsewhere.
The fan participation in both leagues is different, and Germany has largely been hailed as the most fan-friendly league in Europe, largely down to its low ticket prices and its standing sections.
Much of the infrastructure for what German supporters currently experience was put into place prior to the 2006 World Cup, when a number of new purpose-built stadiums were created.
German football is still riding high after that success, and the average attendance of last season's Bundesliga was 42,091, beating its Spanish rival. In part, this is due to the stadiums, where capacity is generally higher but also due to fan culture itself.
For whereas Spanish fans don't travel to away games generally, apart from the very hardcore, German fans flock in numbers to away matches, thanks in part to relatively cheap travel tickets for football fans.
However, the Spanish football supporters' cause is hardly helped by the Spanish Football Federation, who have spread fixtures across the entire weekend for the majority of the season.
Indeed, some evening matches have kicked off as late as 11 p.m. (via Insideworldfootball), and has only led to protests and served to drive people away from attending matches.
The harsh reality is that when it comes to looking after its own fans, the Bundesliga, where regulation sees clubs continue to be owned at least 51 percent by its members, far outweighs its Spanish counterpart.
Bundesliga's Financial Success or La Liga's Crisis
There really is no contest. Whilst the Bundesliga is relatively debt free, with the league posting over seven percent growth in its last set of annual financial results (Bundesliga.com), La Liga is riddled with debt, and stories of unpaid tax bills and unpaid players (Guardian).
The German model, according to Stefan Bielkowski in the New York Times, is "arguably the broadest and most sustainable revenue system in the sport" with only 37.8 percent of revenue across the league currently being spent on player wages.
Throw in that the Bundesliga is perhaps the only major league in Europe which isn't dependent on a massive TV deal, clubs make the vast majority of their revenue through advertising and commercial deals. It's easy to see why it's classed as being so remarkably well run and is looked upon with envy from elsewhere.
On the other hand, Spain's way of allowing the vast majority of television revenue to go to Barcelona and Real Madrid, has only served to enhance the sense that the league is nothing more than a duopoly. Last season Real Madrid made €140 million from the sale of its TV rights. Granada made a mere €12 million.
Of the situation, La Liga chief executive Francisco Roca said on Thursday, at the Soccerex European Forum:
We need to get much better with the control of team's finances. We need to conquer the issue of individual television rights. It is not advantageous for the Spanish league to sell its rights individually and something we aim to solve over the next two or three years is to sell them collectively.
The best thing the LFP could do is perhaps take a look at the two sides against whom its premier clubs will meet in the Champions League semi-finals. Use the example of Borussia Dortmund, a club on the edge of financial ruin as recently as 2005, and question what they have done to get back to their current position.