Mindful of the gap: The Premier’s class problem
Posted on August 17, 2019
THE 2018-19 Premier League title race was exciting, make no mistake, but the cushion between Manchester City and Liverpool and the rest of the division was embarrassingly huge. Chelsea finished third, quite remarkable given the inconsistent season they endured, and the mixed reviews of their banker-turned-coach Maurizio Sarri, but in truth, the points difference between Liverpool and Chelsea was a fair reflection of the gulf between the teams.
It’s not just playing resources that marks these teams apart from the pack. City and Liverpool, quite simply, have the best coaches in Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp. Money is money, but if it was the sole deciding factor, then Manchester United would have won the Premier. If you consider that the top six clubs are all capable of beating each other, then it will be those clubs that are better organised, better coached, more strategic in the way they spend money and more focused that will emerge as the winners.
Outside the top six, the chasm is getting bigger and bigger, leaving seventh place the sole target for around half a dozen clubs each year. They call it the “Everton Cup” and that just about sums it up – if anyone breaks into the first half dozen, it will be a genuine achievement.
The Premier has become so polarised that you could break it up into three sub-divisions quite easily. The gap between sixth and seventh this season was nine points, a pattern that has developed over the past few seasons. In 2017-18 it was also nine points, in 2016-17 it was eight. Twenty years ago, the difference was just one point. The average over the last 10 seasons is just under five, but this looks like a widening margin.
Even within the top six, there are imbalances that suggest English football is becoming as uncompetitive as some of the monopolised European leagues we once laughed about. In 2017-18, City were champions by 19 points, this season, the difference between first and second is a single point, but more relevant and worrying are the points separating second and third – 25, the biggest placing difference in the division.
Liverpool are, without doubt, the unluckiest runners-up in the history of English football. A 97-point season deserves the top spot and is a massive 16 points more than the average second-placed team since 2000. One defeat represents the lowest ever total for a runner-up and the 27thseason in which the champions have lost more games than a team beneath them. The fact is, the club’s one solitary defeat (against City) outstrips every past Liverpool championship team, whose 18 titles have seen them lose an average of seven games a season. The best performance prior to 2018-19 was two defeats in 1987-88, with 1978-79’s four losses next best.
The Premier era has given us teams that have only lost more than six games on the way to the title once, in 1994-95 when Blackburn were champions. Only twice in the past 10 years has a title winner lost six games, in 2009-10 (Chelsea) and 2013-14 (Manchester City). The average for champions is 4.33 games.
While the top dogs are generally more invincible than they were in the 50s through to the 80s, the gap from top to bottom has never been greater than in 2018-19 – 82 points, an average of 4.3 points for placing. This adds fuel to the argument that the class structure has never been more apparent than it is today.
In 2017-18, it was 60 points and over the past decade, it has ranged from 47 to the current four score and two. If you look way back, some of the supposed great teams were never that far from the wooden spoon winner. Spurs’ double team (if you convert to three points for a win) was 57 points from team 22, Leeds United’s 1969 champions were 72 points to the good, Liverpool’s 1978-79 team were 73 up and their 1987-88 all-star unit 59.
The top six has become a no-go area for most clubs. Since 2009-10, only six of 60 places have been filled by teams other than the big six. Three teams have been ever-present in the top six, with Liverpool absent on four occasions, Chelsea and Manchester United one apiece. Manchester City have won four titles and have an average position of 2.3, Chelsea have won three (3.5), Manchester United two (3.6) and Leicester one.
Looking back to the start of the Premier League in 1992-93, there was less certainty as to the composition of the top six. The first 10 years of the Premier saw only one club maintain a place in the upper echelons of the division – Manchester United. From 1999-00 to 2008-09, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool move into that bracket, but we also see Spurs come into the top six. City, needless to say, are nowhere to be seen.
Since 2009-10, 11 clubs have achieved a top six position, but returning to the first decade of the Premier, there were 15, including some very unlikely candidates, Wimbledon, QPR, Nottingham Forest and Ipswich Town. This provides firm evidence that there has been a concentration of wealth and playing resources that has created a “super league” within the Premier.
How does this all shape up compared to Europe’s other top leagues? While we might look at two successive City title wins as a sign of diminishing competitiveness, the runners-up in England, since 2000-01, have averaged 81.84 points, more than the other major leagues. The points-per-place rate has been rising for the past six years in England, going from 2.9 in 2013-14 to 4.3 in 2018-19. Spain, for example, is not far behind, but it has to be noted that in seven of the past nine seasons (prior to 2018-19), the top two comprised Barcelona and Real Madrid, clubs that will inevitably accumulate high totals of points. Spain has the lowest points differential at 2.9 per place. Ligue is next lowest with 3.26 and Germany is 3.29 and Italy 3.89.
The danger the Premier League has, as an attractive investment, broadcasting magnet and in maintaining spectator interest, is if Manchester City become even more powerful and the title race becomes a foregone conclusion. At present, English football has six clubs that could, at a push and a little imagination, win the league. Admittedly, City’s position looks very strong at present and they are just better than everyone else – they won eight out of 10 games against the other five contenders in 2018-19 – but closed shops are boring in sport. Just ask anyone other than a Liverpool fan what the period between 1976 and 1990 was like.