Lionel Messi. Harry Kane. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Edin Džeko. Edinson Cavani. Bas Dost. They all have two things in common. First, they were the top scorers in their respective leagues in 2016/17. Second, none of them won their league title.
Was this merely a coincidence? Well, the fact that four of the six champions from these leagues – the six highest-ranked leagues, according to UEFA’s coefficient system, at the beginning of the 2016/17 season – boasted the top scorer last season would lead many to assume that yes, this was just a one-off. However, the longer-term trend actually makes this less of a surprise. In 2014/15, there were also no league champions among the top scorers from these half a dozen leagues, while only PSG’s Zlatan Ibrahimović was able to bag the most goals and a league medal in 2013/14.
In fact, looking at the past ten years, France is the only country where the champions have the top scorer more often than they don’t. That has happened seven times over the past decade – although it should be noted than on one of those occasions, Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud shared the award. Elsewhere, though, the top scorer usually isn’t a member of the title-winning squad. In Portugal, it’s only happened five times in the past ten years. In England, four times. In Spain and Germany, three times. In Italy, once.
Not only that, but it is actually becoming even less common. Across all but one of these six divisions, the top scorer has won the league fewer times over the past five years than had happened across the previous five years. Between 2007/08 and 2011/12, the phenomenon occurred three times in England, but has happened just once between 2012/13 and 2016/17. In Germany, it has fallen from twice in five years to once in five years. In France, from four times to three times. In Italy, from once to not at all in the past five Juventus-dominated years. In Portugal, from three to two. Only in Spain has it been more common for this to happen, with Lionel Messi bagging the Pichichi award and the LaLiga title in 2012/13, before Luis Suárez did likewise in 2015/16. In the previous five-year stretch, only Messi – in 2009/10 – had done so.
So why is this happening? As Sir Alex Ferguson once said, “attack wins you games, but defence wins you titles.” Yet three of this year’s champions from the six leagues in question claimed their title with the most goals scored, the same number of those which did so with the best defensive record. So the recent trend doesn’t suggest that a team can get away with not scoring heaps of goals. It only suggests that there isn’t a need to have the top scorer.
The logical explanation, then, is that the league champions have been able to share the goals between their attacking players better. Real Madrid, Chelsea, Bayern Munich, Juventus, Monaco and Benfica may not have had the outright top scorer, but five of those teams – all but Juventus – can claim to have had more than one player inside the top ten of their country’s goalscoring charts. In four out of six of those cases, the league champion had the most or joint-most representatives inside the top ten of the scoring charts. Juventus, who only had Gonzalo Higuaín, and Real Madrid, who only had Cristiano Ronaldo and Álvaro Morata, compared to all three members of Barcelona’s MSN, were the only two teams for whom this wasn’t the case.
Perhaps, then, this spreading of the goals is the key to success. It’s all very well having a Messi, a Kane or a Cavani, but if the team becomes too reliant on one man to deliver, then this can cause problems when they’re out through injury, suspension or when having an off-day. Boasting two very good strikers might be more useful than having the very best.