Are you curious to know which men’s football leagues are statistically the strongest in the world? Or are you looking for answers about whether Lionel Messi picked the tougher league between MLS and the Saudi Pro League? The Opta Power Rankings are here to help.

When most of the major men’s football leagues were about to begin for the 2023-24 season in August last year, it was an ideal opportunity to assess the overall strength of those competitions by using the Opta Power Rankings, which you can find an explainer on below.  

Now, with most of those leagues approaching the home straight, we at Opta Analyst felt it was time to revisit the various talking points identified at the start of the campaign. 

Here, we analyse how the outlook has changed – or remained the same – for some leagues over the course of 2023-24. 

The ‘Top Five’ European Leagues?

The ‘top five European leagues’ has very much established itself in everyday football parlance over the past 20 years or so, becoming more identifiable as those respective competitions created a financial and popularity gulf between themselves and the rest.  

While some leagues have threatened to upset the status quo and break into the top five as defined by UEFA Coefficients, in the Opta Power Rankings they look more or less as you’d expect for the majority of the time. 

Some might argue the ‘Big Five’ – as this particular group of leagues is also known – isn’t even a thing anymore because in reality the English Premier League is the ‘Big One’ and the other four competitions pale in comparison when it comes to financial power. And with that in mind, it won’t surprise anyone to see England’s top flight still very much leading the way in the Opta Power Rankings, as it did in August.  

Back then, the average team rating of the 20 Premier League clubs on a scale of zero to 100 (where zero is the worst-ranked team in the world and 100 is the best) was 87.1. Even though Manchester United have since dropped out of the top 10 (20th, 89.4 rating), the league’s average rating has improved to 87.3, with Manchester City (100), Liverpool (96.4) and Arsenal (94.8) all in the top five of the global rankings. 

At the start of the season, it might have surprised some to see the German Bundesliga ranking as the second-strongest league. There has been a bit of change since, however, with La Liga and Serie A both moving above it. 

This is despite the Bundesliga being the only other league aside from the Premier League to have three representatives in the top 10. Bayern Munich (seventh) are still just ahead of Bayer Leverkusen (eighth) even though Xabi Alonso’s men are 10 points clear at the top of the table in Germany, while Borussia Dortmund are a further 10 points back domestically but cling on to 10th in the Opta Power Rankings partly thanks to their run to the Champions League quarter-finals

Nevertheless, the lowest-ranked side of all from the top five leagues are Germany’s Darmstadt (244 ranking, 76.3 rating), which will have had an impact.  

Europe top five leagues Opta Power Rankings
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

So, while the Bundesliga’s average club rating has decreased (85.4 to 84.1), La Liga’s has improved to 84.8 from 84.1, undoubtedly helped by Real Madrid (97.1) being second only to Man City. Similarly, Serie A going from an average team rating of 83.8 in August to 84.5 now will have been aided by Inter being level with Madrid (97.1). 

Ligue 1 remains the fifth-ranked league and it also has the closest gap between highest- (Paris Saint-Germain’s 94.7) and lowest-rated (Metz’s 77.0) teams of all the top five leagues. That gap of 17.7 is lower than the Premier League (21.4), Serie A (20.7), La Liga (19.6) and the Bundesliga (18.0). 

The Top 10 Leagues Across the World

European competitions dominate the top 10 top-tier leagues in world football according to the Opta Power Rankings, though not quite as much as at the start of the season. 

In August, the Brazilian Série A was the only non-European league to break into the top 10, but Major League Soccer (MLS) has since followed suit after enjoying a massive climb up the rankings. This is also interesting because it means MLS has moved above Mexico’s Liga MX, potentially signalling a shift of power in that region of the world. 

It’s certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that Liga MX and MLS swap over again soon, though. There are four Mexican clubs to MLS’ three in the quarter-finals of the CONCACAF Champions Cup, with three of the four ties pitting teams from the two competitions directly against each other; in the previous round, Liga MX sides progressed from all three of their duels with MLS teams. Tigres were 4-2 aggregate winners over Orlando City, Monterrey saw off Cincinnati 3-1 and Pachuca swept aside Philadelphia Union thanks to a 6-0 hammering at Estadio Hidalgo. 

Nevertheless, MLS has gone from being rated the 29th strongest top-tier league in world football to 10th, which is likely a knock-on effect of the competition’s collective performance in the 2023 Leagues Cup – which is contested by MLS and Liga MX teams – in July and August last year; Inter Miami were the champions, while six of the eight quarter-finalists were from MLS. 

But the highest-rated non-European side aren’t from Brazil, the USA or Mexico. No, Saudi Arabia’s Al Hilal have soared up to 44th with a rating of 86.1, putting them between Fulham and Union Saint-Gilloise of Belgium. The Saudi Pro League leaders were recently recognised by Guinness World Records as having broken the world record for most consecutive wins by a men’s top-flight football team when a 2-0 AFC Champions League triumph over Al Ittihad took them to 28 victories on the bounce. You have to go down another 34 places to find the next highest-rated non-European side – Mexico’s Monterrey.  

Strongest Leagues in World Football

Brazilian clubs are at a disadvantage here for the time being, though. Palmeiras, for example, were the highest-rated non-European team in August with a ranking of 62 but have since slipped to 110th. That’ll partly be because they compete in the local state championship for São Paulo, the Campeonato Paulista Série A1, from January to April, and the standard of opposition is more varied than in the nationwide Campeonato Brasileiro Série A, which is the competition that ranks ninth in the Opta Power Rankings and begins in early April, as does the CONMEBOL Copa Libertadores. 

With Liga MX ranked as the third-best league outside Europe, Argentina’s Primera División comes in fourth and the Saudi Pro League rounds off the top five in that respect.  

But back to Europe now, and the Belgian Pro League has managed to retain its place as the sixth-best league in the world according to the Opta Power Rankings, with the Portuguese Primeira Liga back up to seventh after finding itself behind the Swiss Super League in August. 

Most people might tend to consider both the Primeira Liga and Dutch Eredivisie to be among the leagues stronger than Belgium’s top flight, but you have to take into consideration the quality of the weaker half of each competition. For instance, Portugal’s FC Porto (16), Benfica (19) and Sporting CP (21) are all in the top 25 clubs in the world, but the only other two to break into the top 200 are Sporting Braga (59) and Vitória Guimarães (143); 10 of the 18 Primeira Liga clubs are ranked lower than 300th. 

Additionally, Belgium’s top tier has fewer clubs (16) than the Primeira Liga (18), so naturally the top 16 Belgian clubs are likely to be ranked a little higher than the top 18 Portuguese teams purely on average. The same goes for the Danish Superligaen being eighth instead of the Eredivisie, which has dropped out of the top 10 entirely. Denmark’s top tier has only 12 teams in it, so it’s easier for its average ranking to be higher. 

Best Leagues in World Football - top 10 teams

This is why it’s so hard to conclusively compare different leagues, but one alternative way to simply comparing league-wide averages is to look at the mean rankings of only the top 10 teams in each competition; the Primeira Liga goes sixth above the Belgian Pro League when you do this, while the Eredivisie comes back into the top 10 at the expense of the Danish Superligaen. 

The graphic below helps make sense of it with respect to the battle between the Eredivisie and the Superligaen, as we see the team rankings of Danish clubs alongside Dutch teams. Essentially, Denmark’s top tier is more of an equal playing field, with the quality in standard between the top and bottom being much closer. Whereas in the Eredivisie, the gulf between the top and bottom is far wider, which is obviously impacted by there being more clubs. 

Eredivisie vs Superligaen Opta Power Rankings
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

But this shouldn’t just be written off as a quirk of the Opta Power Rankings. Danish football has become an intriguing breeding ground for talented young players over the past decade or so, especially at Midtjylland, Copenhagen and Nordsjælland, with the latter becoming partnered with the reputable Right To Dream academy in Ghana. 

MLS vs Saudi Pro League – The New Messi vs Ronaldo Debate

The average rating of Major League Soccer clubs is 75.1, which is above the Saudi Pro League club average of 72.0. Of all top-flight leagues across the world, this places MLS as the 10th strongest, 16 places above the Saudi Pro League (26th). 

Major League Soccer is a much tighter competition in terms of team quality, according to the Opta Power Rankings. While the top two clubs from either league are Saudi Arabian (Al Hilal and Al Nassr), only three of the 13 lowest-ranked teams from the two leagues are from MLS (Toronto, Colorado Rapids and San Jose Earthquakes).  

MLS vs Saudi Pro League Opta Power Rankings
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Over the past year or so, Ronaldo has claimed the Saudi Pro League is stronger than MLS and even Ligue 1. Maybe if we one day see some kind of global super league that pits Saudi Arabian clubs against teams from more established or reputable competitions then we’ll be able to come to qualitative conclusions around this. 

But for now, we only have the Power Rankings. It would seem there’s a way to go yet for the Pro League.    

The Opta Power Rankings

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