Of the 20 Premier League clubs this season, seven have played Champions’ League football, and thirteen have not. It so happens that the seven have been the top seven in the League for each of the past two seasons; none of the seven has been lower than eighth this decade. So there is a clear top seven, to be distinguished from the remaining thirteen.
Here are the results between the top seven this season:
The table shows that Chelsea had the best record of all seven teams against each other, despite coming third overall. Arsenal, on the other hand, missed out on the title by seven points but scored twelve fewer than champion Manchester City in these games – the Gunners’ record away from home was particularly atrocious, only Manchester United‘s was worse.
The distinction between the 12 games against top seven sides and the remaining 26 games is stark. As can be seen from the table above, against the remaining thirteen teams Arsenal actually had comfortably the best record, four points ahead of Liverpool and five clear of the eventual winner Manchester City. On the other hand, Chelsea‘s record is truly awful, securing on average fewer points per game against lower teams than against the top seven.
The difference for Arsenal and Manchester United is particularly marked.
Arsenal in fact only dropped five points against lower thirteen teams in the first half of the season, and a still perfectly acceptable seven in the second half. In the first half of the season, after which the Gunners topped the table, they had taken eight (from 18) against the top seven teams, albeit with four of the six games at home; in the second half of the season I had always reckoned they would need to beat that to have any chance of the title, but in fact they performed considerably more poorly, securing only five. In other words, almost two thirds of all the points Arsenal dropped were against top seven teams.
The difference is if anything even more startling for Manchester United. Despite having the worst away record in the table above, a final-day victory would actually have given United the best away record in the Premier League – in the end only dropping seven points (from 39) away from home at all in the thirteen games against lower sides, but taking only two (from 18) against the top sides. In fairness, United’s home form was notoriously awful against everyone.
For all the apparently excitement involved, in fact the Premier League was perfectly predictable other than Liverpool‘s remarkable run of eleven straight wins, the second longest streak in Premier League history. Although understandably disappointed by their apparent “throwing away” of the title, the fact is the Reds secured a scarcely believable 48 points in the second half of the season in a highly competitive league – thus dropping only nine. Yet for me the most unfortunate story of the season was over Stanley Park at Everton – in 1997 the Premier League was won on 75 points; this season it was good enough only for fifth place! It was a fine total, worthy of the Champions’ League.
The fact that an increasing number of points is required just to get into the top four (Arsenal’s 79 actually beats its total in two of its five most recent title-winning seasons) is indicative of the breakaway of the top seven from the rest of the League. I am unconvinced this is healthy for the League in the long run.