Leagues, not Cups
League competitions are unquestionably the most important indicator of domestic success for football clubs. No one would seriously argue that Wigan Athletic were the best team in England in 2012-13, or that Eintracht Frankfurt were the best team in Germany in 2017-18, or that Rennes were the best team in France in 2018-19, despite these teams winning their respective domestic cups. We all understand that there is a lot of luck involved in knockout competitions, and the final outcomes aren’t necessarily representative of performances.
However, we still treat the Champions League as the ultimate measure of a team’s international success, even though it is primarily a knockout competition. This is an understandable mistake, given there is no league competition to compare against, but it is a mistake nonetheless, one which can lead us to overlook teams which, for one reason or another, just weren’t able to shine in international competition.
Atalanta are a good example. In the last three seasons, they have consistently ranked as one of the best teams in the world according to our World Super League ratings, being the 34th-best in 2016/17, 22nd in 2017/18, and 26th in 2018/19. Their success was relatively unheralded though, because they didn’t qualify for the Champions League in any of those years. Last year they couldn’t even make it to the Europa League group stages, being knocked out on penalties in the play-offs.
Atalanta are finally in the Champions League this season – it is possible they will go on to have a great European run, although their squad has aged and they are off to a bad start, so the most likely outcome seems to be elimination in the group stages. If that happens, supporters will justifiably feel a sense of “what could’ve been?” The silver lining is that the lack of European success allowed them to maintain key players at the club for the past several seasons, in a way that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. Ajax’s run to the semifinal of the Champions League made it all but certain that they would lose key players at the end of the season, which happened with De Ligt and De Jong.
This pattern tends to be even more prevalent in other confederations, as the best clubs are less dominant than in UEFA making it not only possible, but likely, for the best club sides of a generation to not win the biggest prize in their respective continents. It has happened with Palmeiras, who have been the best team in South America in the last two seasons, and achieved domestic league success, but failed to win the Copa Libertadores. Likewise with Tigres in Mexico, except in their case they have been the best team in CONCACAF for the best part of the last five years without ever winning the coveted top prize. And in Asia, Jeonbuk Motors did win the Champions League in 2016, but have been faced with disappointment ever since despite being consistently the best team in the continent.
Cups are not a very good measure of performance, and continental cups are not the best way to understand what the best teams in a continent are. The good news is that we have a very good measure of performance across all confederations in the world in our World Super League. Leveraging our intelligence, we can understand how good any club, from any league around the world, really was at any given season, and make more informed decisions when deciding where to sign players from, or whether to renew our head coach’s contract.