The top four isn’t what it used to be a little more than 10 years ago and in this article I look at how that’s changed and why it’s more of an achievement now than ever.
To see the progression of the top 4 I believe there is only one way to go about it to get some context and that way is to go season by season over the last 10 years. In this quite lengthy post I will look at how a the dominance of the original top four ie Chelsea, Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal has all but ended over the last decade and it’s now a more open and inclusive race. This has also led to the league being slightly more unpredictable and bar the last 2-3 seasons where City and Liverpool ran away with it the rest of the race has been closer than ever. With the league now basically having a top 7 or 8 it is inevitable that 3-4 top teams will miss out on the top four every season.
The beginning of the last decade, Man United are still the dominant force in Premier League football and they have won yet another title under Sir Alex Ferguson. Chelsea finish 9 points behind them in 2nd while City have also emerged as a force in recent seasons as they finish level on points with Chelsea and 3rd. Forever 4th Arsenal and Arsene Wenger quietly manage get into the top four as usual although now their fans probably know they took it for granted then.
You automatically notice that Liverpool are the team that have dropped out finishing 22 points behind United in 6th and are way off their glory days. Tottenham sit 5th and are in and around the conversation. Ferguson, Wenger, Ancelotti, and Mancini dominate the managerial quality in the league but Redknapp, Moyes, Houllier, and Dalglish probably make up the list although well below the previous 4 mentioned. Their is a clear break in quality as well with the top 5 losing around 4-9 games and then Liverpool losing 14 games as they lead the rest of the table. The 10/11 season saw City, and Tottenham pushing themselves into the conversation but the cracks have been showing for sometime.
That historic season where Aguero clinched the title for City in the final seconds of their game, ending United’s dominance in the City and completing a journey that the club had been on for a couple of seasons. City finished as Champions on goal difference with United right behind them level on points at 89. Arsenal finish 19 points behind them in 3rd and Spurs edge themselves into 4th for the season. Newcastle see themselves finish 5th with Pardew having had a brilliant season. Chelsea finished 6th that season but won the Champions League which saw Spurs drop out because at that time only 4 English teams were allowed, and positions couldn’t be passed on. Liverpool finish 8th in yet another poor season with their local rivals Everton finishing higher with Moyes at the helm.
Not the first season where two teams were clearly better than the rest but the rest having poor seasons allowed some mid table teams at the time get into the conversation. Ancelotti has since left, a certain Brendan Rodgers is making a name at Swansea but the rest are still very well around from last season.
United yet again get 89 points and this time they are Champions in that great Van Persie season as they finish 11 points ahead of City. The race for the rest of the top four is more interesting as City, Chelsea, and Arsenal finish in those places 5 points within each other. Tottenham miss out on Champions League football to their North London rivals by a point. Everton under Moyes yet again finish ahead of Liverpool while Rodgers now manages the historic club as they look to head back up the table.
Liverpool, and Spurs the casualties yet again with Everton, putting themselves in the conversation for European places as well which leads to Liverpool missing out on Europe as a whole for yet another season. The usual managers still around although Benitez is the new manager at Chelsea after Di Matteo is sacked, while one Mauricio Pochettino has entered the picture at Southampton.
A shake up of a season which really shifted teams around in the league and for seasons to come. Ferguson leaves with Moyes appointed but he is sacked with Ryan Giggs appointed interim manager. Pellegrini comes in for Mancini while one Jose Mourinho is back at Chelsea as the “Happy One”. Roberto Martinez is appointed Everton manager after his exploits with Wigan, while Pochettino is still around at Southampton.
City win the league by 2 points ahead of Liverpool as Brendan Rodger’s side slip in the final moments of the season (pun intended). Mourinho and Chelsea finish 3rd 4 points behind City with Arsenal finishing 4th 3 points behind Chelsea. The top four very close but well clear of 5th placed Everton who finish 7 points behind. United the original top four team to drop out in this season as they finish 7th in the table with Everton and Spurs ahead of them. The rest of the table is pretty standard but one Southampton has pushed themselves to 8th under Pochettino.
The Happy One Mourinho wins a 3rd Premier League trophy as Chelsea win the league with 87 points. City finish 8 points behind them with Pellegrini still at the helm while Arsenal under Wenger yet again manage top four as they finish 3rd. Louis Van Gaal is the new manager at United and he manages to get the club back into the top four at the expense of Liverpool who drop down to 6th under Brendan Rodgers. Tottenham finish 5th under their new manager Pochettino while Southampton are still around in 7th under their new manager Koeman.
So half way through the decade we have seen –
Manchester United – 2 titles (Top four – 4 times)
Manchester City – 2 titles (Top four – 5 times)
Chelsea – 1 title (Top Four – 4 times * manage Champions league 5 times)
Arsenal – Top four – 5 times
Liverpool – Top four – 1 time
Tottenham – Top four – 1 time * still get Europa league
These 5 years basically see Manchester City replaces Liverpool’s position over the last decade while United, and Chelsea go through a season each where managerial turnover sees them miss out. Arsenal are still very much the untouched team from the last decade in terms of finishing in the top four, while Liverpool start to bring themselves back into the game and Tottenham are always around but never manage to take the final step.
A season quiet like no other as Leicester City go from relegation survivalists to Premier League Champions under Claudio Ranieri. It’s a fairy tale season for them as they manage 81 points. Arsenal under Wenger finish 2nd in the season their highest finish in the decade but 10 points behind the champions in a season where all the top teams do poorly. Tottenham also manage to break into the top four proper as they finish 3rd, 11 points behind Leicester a season in which Spurs bottled the title. Pellegrini managed to guide City to a 4th placed finish in his final season in charge of the club. United finish 5th under Louis Van Gaal while Southampton finish 6th with Koeman. Liverpool sacked Brendan Rodgers half way through the season and appointed one Jurgen Klopp as that journey takes its first steps but they finish 8th this season. Chelsea finish a lowly 10th after Mourinho is sacked due to a dismal start and Hiddink is appointed as the caretaker manager.
A truly remarkable season with Ranieri, Wenger, Pochettino, Pellegrini, and Van Gaal leading the managerial tier list. Klopp only joins half way through, while there is one Benitez at Newcastle but they are relegated. West Ham manage to have a good season under Slaven Bilic as they finish 7th.
Chelsea go from 10th to Champions in one season as Italian manager Antonio Conte evolves the team with his 3-4-3 formation and takes it by storm. After a lacklustre start a switch of formations proves to be a masterstroke and his infectious attitude guides Abramovich to another title as the owner. Chelsea manage to get 93 points this season the highest so far during the decade while Pochettino and Tottenham finish 7 points behind them in 2nd. City flex their muscles as they appoint the legendary manager Pep Guardiola at the club but he can only manage a 3rd place finish as he adapts to the Premier League. Liverpool also manage to get themselves back into the top four as Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool begins to take shape. Arsenal for the first time under Wenger this decade miss out on the top four as they finish 5th just a point behind Liverpool. While Manchester United having sacked Van Gaal appoint Jose Mourinho in the most unlikely circumstances but he can only manage a 6th place finish for them. This happens to be the first time where the top 6 essentially takes shape.
Liecester finish 12th under caretaker manager Shakespeare after a turbulent season. A great season for managers though Conte, Klopp, Pochettino, Guardiola, Wenger, Mourinho, along with the likes of Koeman still around.
A season where City utterly dominate the league as Pep goes full throttle and wins it with a 100 points. 93 by Conte was a feat on its own and people thought that would not be beaten but Pep went and got a 100 points losing twice. United were the next best team as they finished 19 points behind the champion with 81 points which ideally would have you in closer to the title in recent seasons. Tottenham finish 3rd under Pochettino as they yet again manage the top four while Klopp finishes 4th once again.
Conte and Chelsea drop to 5th as they struggle to replicate their 3-4-3 magic due to multiple reasons while Arsenal finish 6th under Wenger as he retires at the end of the season. Benitez, and Dyche are probably the two managers that stand out this season as from Newcastle and Burnley as Burnley finish 7th in the league.
A season where the title race went till the final moments, but City and Pep managed to retain the title managing 98 points in the season. A remarkable feat once again from the legendary manager. Liverpool themselves lose only 1 game compared to City’s 4 and finish a point behind City with 97, as they feel hard done because any other season would have seen them be champions comfortably. Klopp and Pep set the standards high and Chelsea finish 3rd with Sarri as they manage 72 points. Tottenham finish 4th in a point behind Chelsea while Arsenal under Unai Emery finish a point behind Spurs. United once again drop out of the top four as they finish 6th with Mourinho being sacked half way through the season and Ole Gunnar Solksjaer taking his placed as manager.
Wolves are the shock team this season with Nuno Espirito Santo taking them to 7th. Pep and Klopp are well clear of the rest this season, but Sarri, Pochettino, Emery, Nuno, Pellegrini, and Silva are all managers that have some positive experience in the game. Leicester City themselves finish 9th but they have one Brendan Rodgers at the helm as he makes a return to Premier League football. Hassenhutl also enters the picture as he becomes manager of Southampton while Sean Dyche is still around.
The final season of the decade sees Liverpool reach 99 points as they become Champions for the first time in decades, a season which is marred by a global pandemic and which sees football paused for 4 months. Nevertheless a remarkable accomplishment by Jurgen Klopp. City finish 18 points behind them in 2nd while Manchester United finish 3rd on goal difference 15 points behind Man City and level on points with Chelsea who finish 4th. Leicester finish 5th under Rodgers after a poor end to the season while Spurs finish 6th after Pochettino is fired midway through the season and Mourinho makes yet another comeback. Arsenal finish 8th as Emery is sacked and Arteta is made manager. Wolves stick around in the top 10 while Sheffield United have a remarkable season. Burnley and Southampton are also in the top 10 conversation.
A season which really lacked quality in many ways and also saw young managers at the helm of some of the worlds biggest clubs. Klopp in a league of his own with Pep behind him, Ole, Lampard, Mourinho, Arteta, Rodgers, Nuno, Dyche, Hassenhutl, Wilder all managers with varying levels of experience.
These 5 seasons saw a change in the make up of the top four –
Manchester City – 2 Titles (Top four – 5 times)
Liverpool – 1 title (Top four – 4 times)
Chelsea – 1 title (Top four – 3 times)
Leicester – 1 title (Top four – 1 time)
Tottenham – Top four – 4 times
Manchester United – Top four – 2 times
Arsenal – Top four – 1 time
As opposed to the firs 5 seasons the latter half of the decade sees Leicester win a surprise title while Arsenal drop out of regularity and Tottenham take their place as regular in the top four. United drop down from their glory days while Chelsea also suffer a blip or two. Liverpool are the big improvers as they grow and become a dominant force in English football once again while City along with Pep reach new heights and are the only team that can boast a 100 percent top four success rate.
The 2000’s had seen Man United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Liverpool finish as the top four 5 times in 10 years and 4 times from 2005 to 10. A decade in which the 90+ point mark was touched 4 times, it took 70+ points to finish 4th 4 time, and 60 plus was enough 6 times. In the 2010’s the 90+ mark has been touch in 4 seasons and that would be the last 4 seasons. It took 70+ points to reach the top 4 in 6 seasons while 60+ was enough 4 times.
For me three seasons that stand out would be the 15/16 season a season where the top teams were well short and Leicester had an amazing season. That season there was not much out of the ordinary outside the top 6. The other two seasons would be the last two seasons in which City and Liverpool have dominated. Fair enough the top 2 have been in a league of their own but in 18/19 the 4th placed team needed 71 points to make it to the top four which is on par with the average. It was a season which had some experienced managers around which made the task possible while in 19/20 that was switched. A pandemic, novice managers, turmoil at certain clubs and the fact the quality of management in the Premier League has generally improved meant that 66 points got you the top four, and 54 points got you 10th the highest total needed in 20 seasons.
The top four monopoly is well and truly broken, this season has yet again seen teams in inconsistent form and hampered by Covid. Young managers are still trying to sort themselves out at big clubs while the experienced ones are also finding it hard. Teams like Villa, Southampton, Leicester, West Ham, and Everton are all involved in the race and managed by managers that are exciting and experienced. Have Premier League teams lost their quality in the last few seasons, possibly yes, but teams below the traditional top 6 are also ran better and have attracted managers that actually have quality. These teams are getting results as well which is making life hard for the top 6 teams, causing an ever changing top 10 this season. More often than not 4 out of Chelsea, Man United, Man City, Arsenal, Liverpool and Spurs will finish in the top four while two will inevitably miss out but that has become tough because tough for the reasons mentioned above.