The top-flight football leagues in Spain, England, Germany, Italy and France, colloquially referred to as the 'top-5 leagues', are generally regarded as the most competitive ones in Europe.
Although there is a popular perception about the English Premier League being the toughest in the world because of the relentless pace of games and the physicality aspect, it is largely a subjective one as there are no barometers to 'measure' the toughness quotient.
The Bundesliga is the most well-attended top-5 football league in Europe. A CIES Survey that analysed 51 national leagues across the continent, found that Bundesliga games between 2013 to 2018 had an average attendance of 43,302, which was over 6700 more than the next best one - the EPL.
The Bundesliga tends to feature high-pressing attacking football. The competition generally produces more goals per game as it has fewer games in a season (74 fewer games overall, four fewer games per team) and a longer mid-season break compared to its four other top-5 league counterparts. But that doesn't necessarily make it the most competitive league in the continent.
Italy's Serie A, on the other hand, isn't as 'physical' as the EPL or as well-attended as the Bundesliga, but is renowned for being very tactical, which means that teams are not allowed much space to play in. Yet the Serie A produced more goals per game (3.02) in Europe's top-5 leagues last season after the Bundesliga (3.2).
Aaron Ramsey, who recently moved from the Premier League to Serie A, surmised the differences in the two competitions quite succinctly when he said:
“Tactics here, especially in Italy, are such a big thing. Most days, we’ll be doing some sort of tactical work in preparation for the next game. You have to be a lot more patient, try to move the ball quicker in certain areas to encourage somebody slightly out of position.”
"The Premier League is more end-to-end. There’s a bit more freedom to attack and probably more spaces to exploit there. Whereas over here a lot of teams, especially against the bigger sides, drop a lot deeper into a low block and encourage you to come and break them down."
Spain's La Liga tends to place more emphasis on a skilful short-passing style of football that was championed by Barcelona's famed tiki-taka playing philosophy.
The case in France is a bit different. As a competition, the French top-flight is perhaps a combination of the physical aspect of the EPL and the tactical one of the Serie A. However, the Ligue 1 is generally underrated and is often seen as a stepping stone to one of the 'bigger' top-4 leagues.
Five players who have succeeded in three of Europe's top-5 leagues
The unique challenges faced by players in each of the top-5 leagues become more convoluted when the preferred playing styles of individual managers and teams are thrown into the mix. That explains why only a handful of players, or for that matter managers, have achieved success in at least three of Europe's top-5 leagues. Let us have a look at five such active players, not necessarily in any particular order, who have excelled in three of the top-5 leagues in the continent.
#5 Edin Dzeko (Serie A, Premier League, Bundesliga)
The Bosnia and Montenegrin international had earlier scored exactly 50 Premier League goals for Manchester City after netting 66 times in the Bundesliga for Wolfsburg, while winning league titles with both clubs.
The 34-year-old, renowned for his physical presence, aerial prowess and goal-scoring ability, first made his name in Europe's top-5 leagues when he joined Bundesliga side Wolfsburg in the summer of 2007.
After a lukewarm first season, the then 22-year-old conjured up an impressive 26 goals and 10 assists, finishing only behind strike partner Grafite (28 goals) as Wolfsburg won their first Bundesliga title.
In 2009-10, despite Dzeko scoring 22 goals, the defending champions finished a lowly eighth. The next season, the striker became the all-time top-scorer in the club's history before moving to Manchester City in the winter of 2011.
Like in his first season in Germany, Dzeko did not hit the ground running in England as well, scoring just twice in his first 15 Premier League games for the side. In his next season, though, Dzeko scored 14 goals as City won their first English top-flight title in over four decades.
After scoring 14 times in the next season, the Bosnia and Montenegrin international produced his best campaign in English football as his 16 league goals powered City to their second Premier League title in three years.
Dzeko signed a new four-year contract with the club at the start of the next season but endured a lean injury-ravaged spell where he scored just four times in 22 games before AS Roma came calling in the summer of 2015.
The all-time Bosnia and Montenegro top-scorer took his time to get going in Italy, scoring only eight times in his first season, before bagging the Capocannoniere award in 2016-17 as his 29 goals propelled AS Roma to a runner-up finish behind champions Juventus.
Dzeko may have scored 'only' 41 league goals in his next three seasons, but the AS Roma captain appeared in at least 33 league games during this period despite entering his 30s.
Former AS Roma manager Luciano Spalletti once opined that very few strikers in the world share Dzeko's attributes.
“He started to show his quality over time and proved he is the complete centre-forward. He's good in the air, can hold up the ball, is surprisingly fast – there are few strikers of his size who are that fast, as you think with a run from midfield you'll catch him, but you can't."
#4 Xabi Alonso (Bundesliga, La Liga, Premier League)
Xabi Alonso was one of the finest midfielders of his time who was renowned for his work-rate, consistency and versatility.
The 38-year-old Spaniard played for elite top-5 league clubs like Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, winning big titles at all three clubs; however, a league triumph with Liverpool is conspicuous by its absence.
Alonso, who is a two-time European Championship (2008, 2012) and FIFA World Cup winner (2010) with Spain, particularly excelled in a deep-lying midfield role as his excellent passing range, tactical intelligence and vision helped him create scoring opportunities aplenty for his forward colleagues.
Besides his playmaking prowess, Alonso was also adept in set-pieces and possessed an accurate long-range shot. His versatility meant that he could be deployed in a bevvy of midfield positions like central midfield, attacking midfield and defensive midfield.
Though he didn't score a lot of goals in his club career, he did net a few important ones like the equaliser in Liverpool's come-from-behind penalty-shootout win against AC Milan in the thrilling six-goal 2005 Champions League final.
After five successful years at Liverpool where he won a Champions League and FA Cup title, Alonso went on to excel at Real Madrid where he won the first league title of his career (2011-12) and second Champions League (2013-14) title.
Alonso's departure from Anfield didn't go down well with Liverpool legend Steven Gerrard who remarked:
"It was clear Alonso was royalty after our first training session together in August 2004, and Rafa Benitez, who had been so clever to buy him in the first place, was equally stupid to sell him to Real Madrid five years later. He was, by some distance, the best central midfielder I ever played alongside."
After a successful six-season stint in the Spanish capital, Alonso moved to Germany where he won a league title in each of his three seasons at Bayern Munich before the decorated midfielder decided to hang up his boots.