The past few years have seen the formation of a clear "big six" at the top of the Premier League. Are these big teams more dominant than ever? If so which section of the table has lost more points to the elite? Read on to find out.
The Premier League has an established top six teams these days, and has done for almost a decade now. Prior to that there was a big four – made up of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United, who between them have taken 23 of the 24 top four finishes available between 2003/04 and 2008/09.
The picture started to shift to six teams and not four, when Manchester City were taken over by Sheikh Mansour in 2008. At the same time, Tottenham got their act together on and off the pitch, after finishing in mid-table for most of the first decade of the 21st century.
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The “big six” breakaway
The “big six”, as these clubs are collectively known, probably first became a phenomenon in the 2010/11 season. This was the first campaign where they took the top six spots in the table. It was also the season where Manchester City first secured a top four finish and Champions League qualification, something they’ve not failed to do since.
Indeed, the big six clubs have taken all bar one of the top four slots in the table from 2005/06 onwards. However, the first full campaign of the current decade definitely seems an appropriate place to start an investigation into whether or not the top teams are better than ever.
2010/11 was a strange season in a number of ways. In total there were 111 draws, which is the most in any of the last 18 completed campaigns. This obviously affects how many points are won in total by the whole division, as each draw takes one off the potential total.
Manchester United won the league with just 80 points. But it was also the last season to date where a team needed 40 points to stay up, as Birmingham City finished third bottom with 39. Teams in relegation dogfights always talk about aiming for 40 points, but there’s little to suggest they actually need that many too often.
The combination of these factors meant there were just 47 points separating first place from 20th, against an average this century of 62. In the seven seasons since, though, the gap between top and bottom has been 63 on average, which does not imply that the champions are pulling away particularly more than they ever have.
As the Premier League’s points range has been 69 for the past two seasons, perhaps we’re on the verge of the gulf across the division stretching permanently wider, but it’s too soon to say.
An era of dominance
The league’s big six are dominating the other 14 teams more than they have before. In the five-season span from August 2010 to May 2015, clubs from outside the big six took an average of 0.68 points per game when facing one of the top sides.
This then shot up to 0.93 in 2015/16, as Leicester laid waste to all notion of what we could expect to happen in the Premier League. The response from the big teams has been stark – the other 14 sides have averaged just 0.48 points per game against the big six in the period from August 2016 to match week 25 in the 2018/19 season. The smaller clubs may have collectively beaten the big boys 38 times in 2015/16, but they only managed it 35 times in total across the two seasons thereafter.
Where have the points come from?
As we have a clearly defined ‘big six’, how have the league’s bottom six been doing since 2010/11? It’s interesting to note that while the teams obviously change each season, the points they collectively amass has been remarkably consistent. The Premier League’s worst six sides have earned within four points either side of 210 in each of the last seven seasons, including exactly 210 on three occasions.
The points-per-game averages after 25 matches of the 2018/19 season imply that there will be a dip this year, but the consistency of collective performance at the foot of the table following the 2010/11 campaign has been phenomenal.
This rule broadly applies for the relegated teams in this period too. The bottom three teams have always won within six of 92 points in total. If we take the total of the 18th place side, plus a point as the requirement to stay up, then it has been no more than two points either side of 36 each season.
Yet despite this consistency at the wrong end of the table, the top six have been winning more points. The last two seasons have seen them take 466 and 477 points, which are the third and first highest totals in the past 18 seasons.
You’ve probably figured out how this is possible - the middle eight teams in the division have been getting worse. In the first 16 seasons of the 21st century, the sides finishing in places seventh to 14th averaged a total of 392 points.
However, they won 372 in 2016/17, and just 365 last season. From 2000/01 to 2015/16, an average of 3.4 sides in the middle eight per season reached at least 50 points. Yet only one team has managed it in each of the two campaigns since.
The total points figures for the middle eight clubs have been boosted in recent times whenever one of the big teams has had a relatively poor season. David Moyes’ Manchester United finished seventh in 2013/14, but their total of 64 points is the highest by a team in that position in the last 18 years.
Liverpool pulled off a similar feat by finishing eighth with 60 points and 2015/16, and that same season Chelsea became the first side to finish tenth with 50 points for six seasons. The presence of the big teams seems to drag up the performance of those clubs around them in the table.
Leicester’s phenomenal title win three years ago appears to have inspired the big clubs to up their game, but it’s at the expense of the mid-table clubs rather than the sides who have really struggled. Bear that in mind next time you’re placing a bet on a match between a top team and one in the middle of the pack.