Farmer’s League?

“I don’t care what the stats say, he plays in a Farmer’s League” is a phrase I hear quite a bit and for me whenever anyone says it, all I hear is “I don’t have an actual argument to make about this player because I’ve never seen him play.” But despite its ubiquitous use I don’t quite understand what is a Farmer’s League? How do we decide that a league is a “Farmer’s League?” And finally, does it really matter that a player comes from another league? Does playing in Spain invalidate a player’s data points?

I think I know what people mean by Farmer’s League: they mean a league where the level of play is amateurish, so much so that some of the players have second jobs or are even actual farmers. There aren’t many leagues where this is the case anymore and none of the so-called “top five” leagues employ amateurs. Occasionally, an FA Cup tie or a Europa League clash will toss up a club where one or two of the players were recently working a second job but for the most part, almost every player linked to a club like Arsenal is a professional player who plays for a professional team.

So, we all do sort of know what Farmer’s League means and what’s annoying is when someone applies the epithet to a League like Ligue Un. No one in their right mind believes that French football is a Farmer’s League. But many people these days tend to reach for “top shelf” words when they actually mean something is just “not quite as good” or “maybe the competition isn’t as high as the league we are currently playing in”.

There’s no question for me that the Premier League is the most difficult league in the world. It has the most money and as a result it attracts and aggregates the best players. And judging by many of the metrics out there, it is the league with the two best teams and overall has the most high quality teams. I went to Nate Silver’s 538 web site and downloaded his SPI database. 538 uses a metric called “SPI” to rank every team’s strength. The metric is tested and constantly refined but it’s based on a team’s offensive and defensive strengths relative to how they are predicted to play against an average opponent. They also use history and market value to create an SPI at the start of the season and then tweak it as the season progresses. For example, Liverpool has an SPI of 93.9 right now and their average offensive output is 2.9 goals while their defensive liability against an average team is an astonishing 0.2. At the start of the season, Liverpool’s SPI was 88.7.

I was curious how the leagues ranked around the world and whether there was a “Farmer’s League” in Europe so I took the 538 club rankings and then averaged them for each league and got this chart.

As you can see, the average SPI for the Premier League is the best in the world at 73, but not too far behind that are la Liga and the Bundesliga. In a sort of 2nd tier you’ve got Serie A and Ligue Un and then from there on down there’s a pretty big drop off in terms of quality. One little thing I found interesting is that MLS is about the same level as Scottish football (fitba) which is pretty far down the table in terms of quality. Scottish football’s top two teams have an SPI rating of 69 and 66 respectively but the drop after that (to Hearts) is 44. In terms of Premier League, Celtic and Rangers would be bottom third of the table (Celtic above Wolves and Rangers above Southampton) while Hearts would be a mid-table English League championship side (just above Preston North End).

I tend to watch football from all over the world – I’ve been watching Rangers a bit since Aaron Ramsey joined, I watch Marseille, and I’ve followed Atalanta (Serie A) for a few years now. I watch Barcelona occasionally. I have also seen quite a few Borussia Dortmund matches this season and have over the years watched them as well. My impression from watching these various leagues is that the SPI rankings are close but not 100% accurate. I don’t think Bundesliga is close to Premier League and the football in Spain hasn’t been that great this year. Serie A is not a great league anymore and I also think the French league is getting short thrift in these rankings. But I can accept the model and don’t really think it’s that wild. There are, in essence, 5 top leagues and then everyone else.

But I think it’s important to note that almost all of the great talent aggregating in the Premier League comes from these other leagues! Arsenal purchased Kieran Tierney from Celtic and if there were a league out there which I would call “somewhat farmerish” it’s Fitba: maybe not because they have actual farmers but rather because so much of the football is agricultural.

Which leads me to my main point in all of this: you need to judge a player by watching him play. I learned this lesson the hard way. Nicolas Pepe, for example. I saw his data points (fine toothed comb at that) and thought that his dribbles, crosses, corners, and ability to score all made him a complete player. But if I had watched him play I would have quickly picked up his painful one-footedness. And of course, I could have judged how he played, whether he needed a lot of space, and how he meshed with teammates or if he was reliant on one or more players for his data. None of that invalidates his data.

Of course experiential research can be flawed and individuals can have agendas or misperceptions (such as, for example, calling French football’s flagship league a “Farmer’s League”) but matching data with experience gives us, usually, a good measure of a player.



  1. Thank you for that Tim. I find some of the views by the English fans really condescending. The money is what got them to where they are, and the money got them to buy all these talents from across the world. People like me and you are watching games for hours, I probably spent more time watching Ligue 1 than I did watching the PL. For me Ligue 1 is my league, the league I am attached to and the league which gives me so many young talent to talk about. So yes it might not be the best in the world but trust me, it ain’t farmers

  2. Ok, not really an Arsenal related comment, but what an excellent couple of CL semi-final for the neutral. Hard to believe City is going to mess this up.

  3. I watch way less football than you, Tim, it’s mostly only Arsenal games and CL semis like today. And I’m not a good player either, just a Sunday league guy from India. Yet, i can make some good observations and judgement watching players on TV. If Pepe had these flaws previously too, even occasionally, I would’ve called it out. Does this mean the guys who recommended and the guys who were convinced did a shitty job?

    I should test this hypothesis by watching AFCON games and try judging him there. I know he scored some important goals, but wanna see how his game was.

  4. “Farmer’s league” is a lazy comment, free of thought or proper analytical standing, and should never be dignified with a response.

    Nonetheless, great work here, Tim.

    There is a new breed of arguer/debater. One who sees himself as being all in or all out. So they denigrate the Ligue Un performances of a young midfielder with whom we decided to part ways (or a young defender to whom we never gave a break), in order to demonstrate that the management can never be wrong about anything. It’s wearying. And Twitter is a cesspit when it comes to that.

    Good observation on Pepe. We could see that (and some of us commented on it almost at once at the start of his Arsenal career) that he was too one-footed. From WR, he slows down attacks to check it onto his left. In contrast Mahrez (who scored — with his left from the right — in that crazy game in Madrid today) and Saka favour their left but are very dynamic. Should we have played Pepe through the middle some of the time? He certainly knows where the goal is.

  5. Off topic… I loved Pep Guardiola’s composure, dignity and class in defeat; his warm embrace and congratulation of Ancelotti. I really do like him a coach, and as a man. He respects the game.

    That had to have stung. What Madrid did was to apply pressure instantly after their first goal. Dont let them settle… they were still reeling, and slightly panicked, it must be said.

    The Mahrez goal. I’ve never seen a midfield as vacated as the one that Bernardo ran though, unopposed. Liverpool must fancy their chances.

  6. Wouldn’t average SPI be heavily skewed by the PSGs and the Bayerns of their respective (FARMER) leagues?

      1. Median lowers most scores by one point and raises just one score by 1 point.

        I also looked at the average after dropping the top two and bottom two teams in each league and that literally doesn’t change anything.

  7. Thanks Tim!
    I never understood or bothered to research the meaning of Farmer’s League. I heard it used years ago in a non-sport context by one of my teachers at Berklee.

  8. farmer’s league is a lazy term likely derived by an englishman and is only used by the english. who in their right mind would say something so disrespectful about another league? we all recognize different leagues have different levels. but calling a league of professional footballers something as condescending as a farmer’s league reeks of self-importance that hasn’t been earned. it’s not as if the premier league is so amazing because of all the brilliant english players and coaches. it’s because the sterling was very valuable which meant the british pound kicked ass economically, which meant players wanted to go to england to maximize their value.

    there are several lazy terms that probably started in england. we’ve argued in the past about what is form or what is bottle. once again, these are terms derived and predominantly used by the english personalities calling football matches. what you have to keep in mind is that these guys are different than american athletes, who for the most part are college educated. as you can imagine, the commentary is quite different. many sports commentary teams consist of a formally trained broadcast journalism guy accompanied by an old pro (player or coach) with big charisma. simply being an old charismatic talent doesn’t make you smart.

    one i used to hate is some english guy once branded cristiano ronaldo a “one-trick pony”. what a fucking clown! what that fool didn’t understand is that cristiano’s biggest trick was that he was obsessed with being great, not with the idea that he was somehow already great because he was born in england. unfortunately, everyone started using that term to describe cristiano ronaldo.

    1. Joshua,

      I say this as someone who has a huge amount of respect for your knowledge, insights and – from what I’ve picked up – career. You are in danger of sounding very xenophobic, which is not a good look.

  9. Currently I think the Series A is more competitive than either the Bundesliga or the La Liga. You know a competitive league when there consistent comeptitors year in year out. Not one time competitors for one season and the next season they are struggling with relegation or bottom half of the table. This is the issue with the French Spanish and German league. They may play better football there which I hardly doubt but the lack of consistent possible contenders gives the league a frail look. In England there was a time it was Man UTD and Arsenal. Always between these two folks. It stretched to include Chelsea and then Man City and now Liverpool and Tottenham. We all know none of these teams will be doing anything on the bottom half of the league. We also know any of these teams can win the title. But you cannot say same for the La Liga or the German league. Who knows where villareal might end up or Sevilla will finish. You never know what season Atletici will turn the heat up. It is always between Barca and Real. But surprisingly the Italian league has bounced from it’s grave. The Serie A used to be the greatest league in the 90s and they are begining to get that vibe back. It’s been 4yrs Atlanta came up as a surprise challenger but nowadays, you have it in the back of your mind that they can Fuck you up. The Milan teams have picked up. Juve is a never die fame. Napoli and Lazio have the history like Tottenham or Everton. So in my humble opinion a truly competitive league is defined by the amount of consistent title challenging teams it has and only the EPL and the Serie A got that. I write this as I feel every one sleeping on serie A. Nice Article though .

    1. Yeah, I think most of the folks who design a metric for ranking leagues usually give extra credit if ther league does well in one of the UEFA competitions. So, since Spain has either won the Champions League or Europa League pretty consistently they get a much higher ranking than I would probably give them.

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