England is the most top-heavy league in the world. Is that a problem?
For years, when women’s soccer commentators have wanted to reference an unbalanced league, their go-to example has been France. The Division 1 Féminine has been won by the same team (Olympique Lyonnais, of course) for thirteen consecutive years. Over the past ten seasons, Lyon has lost two (2!) games, both to Paris Saint-Germain. Over that same period, PSG has finished in second place six times (with another likely this year), third place twice, and all the way back in fourth place once. Over those years, Montpellier has never finished worse than fourth, with only Juvisy (now Paris FC) ever seriously challenging this triumvirate.
The general rule for a D1F season: Lyon will beat everyone, PSG will beat everyone except Lyon, Montpellier will beat everyone except Lyon and PSG. It’s as inevitable as the tide.
This year, that trend has generally continued, but there are some tiny signs of movement. Bordeaux invested significantly in the offseason and has locked in some serious improvements. They and Dijon have both managed draws against Lyon this year. Meanwhile, PSG has drawn with Guingamp and Montpellier, in addition to losing to Lyon. And Montpellier have actually fallen into fourth place, trailing Bordeaux.
It’s still a massively unbalanced league, of course. But by one measure, it’s no longer the most extreme top-heavy major league. That honor instead now goes to England.
Take a look at the tables, and the gap becomes quite obvious:
The gap between the top teams and the rest is clearly larger in England. And the distance is actually understated by this presentation, because virtually every point taken off the top three English teams has come from one of the other top three teams.
The bottom nine teams in the league have collectively played 34 matches against Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal this year. They have taken two points from those 34 games.
Why is the WSL so stratified?
The strange thing about this is: if you actually watch the WSL, it doesn’t feel that imbalanced. Teams outside the big three do suffer the occasional shellacking (most notably Arsenal’s 11-0 demolition of Bristol City—otherwise known as The Miedema Game), but are also often quite competitive. The second tier of teams—Manchester United, Tottenham, Everton, and Reading—have given the leaders plenty of tough games. And even those near the bottom have played well against the top tier on occasion—most recently Liverpool's agonizing 3-2 defeat to Arsenal on Thursday. By pure chance, you’d expect a few of those narrow defeats to be draws, if not outright wins. But despite competitive play, they somehow (pretty much) never find a way to manage a result.
Is that evidence of a winning mentality in the top clubs which the rest have been unable to cultivate? Is it pure randomness which we’d expect to correct itself over time? Or is there in fact a much larger gulf between the best and the rest, a gap which doesn’t appear obvious as you watch but is unavoidable over the course of the season?
And if England is turning into an exceptionally stratified league, is that a problem? It’s normal across the global game to see the same big teams at the top season after season. It usually doesn’t come with this kind of full spectrum domination, but is that so important? D1F hasn’t collapsed under the weight of predestination. There’s no particular reason to think it will hurt the WSL, either. Especially when England has an important advantage: genuine tension over who will win the title.
In fact, precisely because the big three have so utterly extinguished the rest, the head-to-head matches between them are that much more important. This year, Chelsea is the only one of the three to stumble against the rest of the league, having to settle for draws against Liverpool and Brighton. But because they have dominated in the round robin at the top, they remain in pole position to take the title.
Measuring the best
A lot of digital ink has been spilled over the past few months debating which league is the ‘best’ in the world, with Sam Kerr’s move to England being the latest major event to spur those conversations. Partisans for different leagues will try to make the case, and there are good arguments available for several of them. Of course, it’s ultimately somewhat unknowable, since no one can really agree what ‘best’ actually means.
Is it the quality of the best teams? The quality of the worst teams? The overall level of play from game to game? Something else?
No one could reasonably deny that Lyon has been the strongest individual team in the world over the past five years, with only the North Carolina Courage even playing in the same league as them. But the top-heaviness of D1F makes it hard to argue it’s been the best league. Outside the big two of Lyon and PSG, you have generally found a bunch of semi-professional teams merely there to make up numbers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the NWSL prides itself on being a league with parity. Sure, the same three or four teams do generally make the playoffs, but there is also serious movement. The Washington Spirit went from an inch away from the title to one of the worst teams in the league and are now back on a strong upswing. All in just a few years. The Courage have been absolutely dominant for the past three years, but before this run, they finished 7th in consecutive seasons. And most importantly, the overwhelming majority of games really are competitive. You simply don’t see 11-0 demolitions in the NWSL. Mid-table teams regularly beat teams at the top. Those at the bottom even win their fair share. Even the dominant Courage teams lost five games in 2019. They demolished their fellow playoff rival Portland Thorns 6-0 in September, but that followed after a 2-1 defeat to the Thorns the previous month.
The full professionalization of the WSL, along with investment from long-absent giants of English soccer like Manchester United and Tottenham, suggested that it might move toward a more balanced model. Yes, the teams at the top would be expected to stay there, but there would also be a rising tide that lifted all clubs. But so far, that doesn’t seem to be the case. The mid-tier WSL teams certainly aren’t bad, but they seem increasingly incapable of seriously competing with the top teams, even on a single-game basis.
It remains to be seen whether the rest can start to translate good performances against the best into tangible results, or if this is simply the new normal. Neither result will necessarily determine the answer to the ‘best league in the world’ question, but it will certainly need to be part of the conversation.