What if soccer had an all-star game? Scratch that: what if soccer had eight all-star teams representing eight major leagues -- English Premier League, German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish LaLiga, Major League Soccer, Mexico's Liga MX, French Ligue 1 and Dutch Eredivisie -- and we put those teams head-to-head in a tournament to determine which league is the best in the world?
Welcome to ESPN's BATTLE OF THE LEAGUES, presented by EA Sports FIFA 22.
After the runaway success of last season's tournament, we've amped it up for 2021, giving new managers and leagues a chance to take down (spoiler alert!) last year's BOTL champion, France's Ligue 1, which prevailed over stiff competition to take the inaugural crown. (Most remarkable of all: Lionel Messi wasn't even at Paris Saint-Germain yet!)
Of course, the big five European leagues are present from England, France, Spain, Germany and Italy, plus our North American friends from Major League Soccer and Liga MX, and we're giving the Dutch Eredivisie a shot in the final spot this time around to see if the heaviest hitters from Ajax and PSV Eindhoven can make their mark.
And so, we ask the burning questions again, and with a lot of star power having shifted leagues in last summer's transfer window.
Can Messi, in his new home, lead the best of France to a repeat victory? Or will Cristiano Ronaldo help elevate the Premier League to its presumed perch as the best in the world? Will the Bundesliga, helmed by the cream of Bayern Munich -- and last season's runner-up, Gab Marcotti -- manage to get revenge for a shock defeat? Or will Kay Murray's canny Serie A side do the business and restore calcio as the home of the world's best soccer?
With a slightly tweaked competition format and some enthusiastic coaches -- oh, and FIFA 22 -- we're ready to do battle.
THE RULES / THE FORMAT / HOW THIS WORKS
The rules were strict when it came to squad selections given the relative might of the bigger leagues. We asked each manager to pick a 23-man squad -- this is a big competition, after all, with lots of room for injuries or fatigue -- with a couple of simple rules.
Each squad must have three goalkeepers in the 23
Each manager can pick a maximum of four players from a single club
Each matchday starting XI can have a maximum of three players from a single club
For each matchday, the managers selected their XIs, substitutes and tactics/formations from the available options in FIFA 22. We then simulated each game to get the results.
With eight teams, we randomly drew the two groups of four for the first stage, with everyone playing each other once. The top two in each group went through to the semifinals, with the winner of A taking on the runner-up of B and the winner of B facing the runner-up of A. Games were set to end in 90 minutes for the group stage, with extra time and penalties active for the knockout rounds.
Group A: Bundesliga, Ligue 1, MLS, LaLiga
Group B: Premier League, Liga MX, Serie A, Eredivisie
All information was entered into a Google form by each manager so nobody could see or have early access to their opponents' tactics.
Who do you leave out of an all-star Premier League team?
Mark Ogden claims he could have picked 4 all-star squads from the talent in the Premier League.
Tune in from Nov. 1 through Nov. 11 as we play out the tournament!
Nov. 1: Matchday 1
- A: Bundesliga vs. MLS
- A: Ligue 1 vs. LaLiga
- B: Premier League vs. Serie A
- B: Liga MX vs. Eredivisie
Nov. 3: Matchday 2
- A: Bundesliga vs. LaLiga
- A: Ligue 1 vs. MLS
- B: Liga MX vs. Serie A
- B: Premier League vs. Eredivisie
Nov. 5: Matchday 3
- A: Bundesliga vs. Ligue 1
- A: MLS vs. LaLiga
- B: Serie A vs. Eredivisie
- B: Premier League vs. Liga MX
Nov. 9: Semifinals
Nov. 11: The grand final
THE SQUADS AND OPENING WORDS FROM THE MANAGERS
Once the squads were submitted and the draw was complete, we asked each of our managers to explain their choices before the tournament began.
German Bundesliga (Manager: Gab Marcotti)
DF: Nordi Mukiele (RB Leipzig), Angelino (RB Leipzig), Martin Hinteregger (Eintracht Frankfurt), Matthias Ginter (Borussia Monchengladbach), Stefan Lainer (Borussia Monchengladbach), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Mats Hummels (Borussia Dortmund), Edmond Tapsoba (Bayer Leverkusen)
MF: Joshua Kimmich (Bayern Munich), Denis Zakaria (Borussia Monchengladbach), Florian Neuhaus (Borussia Monchengladbach), Axel Witsel (Borussia Dortmund), Serge Gnabry (Bayern Munich), Filip Kostic (Eintracht Frankfurt), Moussa Diaby (Bayer Leverkusen), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig)
Marcotti: "The limit of four guys from one club meant making some painful decisions, but you need to build around your strengths and with Haaland and Lewandowski up front, I felt I could do without Thomas Muller. Similarly, I've gone for attacking fullbacks and wingers who can provide service. And because Freddie Errington (The Gab + Juls' Show producer) is a fan of Union Berlin, I picked Andreas Luthe."
French Ligue 1 (Manager: Julien Laurens)
Laurens: "Ligue 1 won this competition last season in such impressive fashion that we are confident heading into this year's Battle of the Leagues. The outstanding stars from our winning tournament -- Ben Yedder, Mbappe, Neymar, Denayer, Aouar -- are still there, but we added amazing young talent like Kamara and Sanches, as well as the GOAT, Lionel Messi, who was so badly used by LaLiga's manager last season that he's ready to show what an impact he can have in this competition.
"Overall, this squad is more talented, stronger and more balanced than the previous one. No one could compete or even keep up with us last season, and it will be the exact same this time around!"
Major League Soccer (Manager: Nedum Onuoha)
Onuoha: "The overall ratings [of my players] aren't as high as maybe some of the other leagues in this tournament, but there's still some quality and pace within the squad. And a couple of tidy finishers in Martinez and Vela, too. Wish us luck!
Spanish LaLiga (Manager: Rodrigo Faez)
DF: Eder Militao (Real Madrid), Jose Gaya (Valencia), Inigo Martínez (Athletic Bilbao), Kieran Trippier (Atletico Madrid), Pau Torres (Villarreal), Jules Kounde (Sevilla), Juan Foyth (Villarreal), Marcus Acuna (Sevilla)
EDITOR'S NOTE: Rodrigo only selected two goalkeepers in his squad and was assessed a minor fine (just kidding) for breaking one of the pre-tourament rules.
Faez: I am really proud of my team because I believe it's the best one on earth. No matter that Messi, Neymar, Mbappe and co are not in Spain; we are delighted of what we have. I think Oblak is the best goalkeeper in the world. In defense, no one can get to Kounde or Torres' level at the moment while in midfield, everybody already knows Pedri, the best youngster in the universe, as well as the experience of that German metronome, Toni Kroos.
In the attacking line, there are no words to describe Benzema, Real Madrid's French playmaker, or Williams, who has been transcendent since breaking through for Athletic Bilbao. La Liga has enough difference-makers to win it all.
Are Gab & Juls the Klopp & Pep of ESPN?
Gab Marcotti, Julien Laurens, Rodri Faez and Nedum Onuoha trade blows after being drawn together in the same group of ESPN's Battle of the Leagues.
English Premier League (Manager: Mark Ogden)
DF: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool), Matty Cash (Aston Villa), Virgil van Dijk (Liverpool), Ruben Dias (Man City), Kurt Zouma (West Ham), Lewis Dunk (Brighton), Lucas Digne (Everton), Luke Shaw (Everton)
Ogden: It's only when you try to pick a 23-man Premier League squad, with the four-per-club restriction, that you realise how strong and deep the competition is. But by strategically selecting players from outside the Big Four (Man City, Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea) I have been able to load up with the best players from those Champions League clubs.
Cash is developing into a fine right-back at Aston Villa and deserves a place as backup for Alexander-Arnold, while Zouma and Dunk both have a track record for scoring goals from the back. In defence, I've favoured those with attacking qualities over more defensive candidates, while my midfield is also stacked with creativity, with Kante and Phillips providing the security in front of the defence.
Does my forward selection really need an explanation? Ronaldo, Salah and Mane pick themselves, while Kane gets in because you can't overlook his incredible consistency despite his slow start to the season for Tottenham. He'll be scoring again soon. The big surprise might be Michail Antonio, but the West Ham forward scores goals and makes them, so he could be my shock tactic in games that need something a little different.
Italian Serie A (Manager: Kay Murray)
Murray: Overall, I'm happy about my squad. In goal, I went with Samir Handanovic as my starter. While he hasn't been as consistent in real life in recent seasons, he has been a rock at the back in FIFA, so that's why I'm still trusting him as my starter. The back line is stacked with FIFA "OP" (overpowered) players who are quick in defense like Koulibaly, Manolas and Skriniar. That's a clean sheet trio if I've ever seen one. The full-back position is loaded with more speed and trickery with the likes of Theo Hernandez and Juan Cuadrado, and we know that pace out wide is especially important with all the great wingers in the game.
In midfield, box-to-box players like Kessie and Barella will be doing it all for me, and there's a reason they're a consistent hot commodity already in FIFA Ultimate Team. Milinkovic and Luis Alberto should be able to get forward and score, too.
Up front, goals won't be lacking when you have the likes of Martinez and Immobile as a one-two punch, with technical wingers like Insigne and Chiesa helping out in this department. The X factor will be Dybala, who has the joint highest rating (87) out of any Serie A attacker in FIFA. I expect a lot from La Joya!
Dutch Eredivisie (Manager: Fresia Cousino Arias)
DF: Philipp Max (PSV Eindhoven), Jurrien Timber (Ajax), Marcos Senesi (Feyenoord), Lutsharel Geertruida (Feyenoord), Tyrell Malacia (Feyenoord), Owen Wijndal (AZ Alkmaar), Riechedly Bazoer (Vitesse Arnhem), Jacob Rasmussen (Vitesse Arnhem)
Cousino Arias: Obviously I was not allowed to pick more than four from the big clubs, so it was quite a challenge to put up a good time. But it's not only Ajax that has the young players! I found plenty up and down the Eredivisie. PSV also has Mario Gotze! I've got some good players and was able to build a team around them, but I'd be lying if I said it was an easy task.
Mexican Liga MX (Manager: Herculez Gomez)
FW: Maxi Mesa (Monterrey), Andréa Pierre Gignac (Tigres), Nico López (Tigres), Rogelio Funes Mori (Monterrey), Rubens Sambueza (Toluca), Orbelin Pineda (Cruz Azul), Ángel Mena (Leon), Julio Furch (Atlas)
Gomez: My squad is full of flair and grit, which you always get when you go toe-to-toe with Liga MX. Gignac, Mesa and Lopez will form a formidable front-line in my 4-3-3 system, while Tesillo, Montes and Doria are uncompromising defenders. We might be a little light in midfield, but I expect this team to play with pace and on the front foot. We're not worried about the Premier League or any other league, for that matter!