Six graphs that show this is the most competitive Premier League season in history
One of the curiosities of this year’s Premier League is that despite Liverpool’s glorious spring offensive, despite Manchester City’s record-breaking goal glut, despite Chelsea’s persistent habit of snatching triumph from the jaws of crisis, none of them have actually qualified for the Champions League yet.
Obviously, they all will. Probably. But it does raise the very pertinent question: is this the tightest Premier League in recent history?
“Yes,” I immediately answered. But for some reason, we wanted more than that. We wanted graphs.
We've produced six graphs to perfectly illustrate what has made this one of the most compelling Premier League campaigns ever.
(* 2013/14 figures are projected, based on average points per game)
This first graph shows how many games it took for the first team to secure their Champions League place for the following season. All these graphs relate to the period since 2001/02 season – the first season that four Premier League teams qualified for the Champions League.
You’ll notice that in 2004 and 2005 Chelsea qualified for the Champions League with nine games to spare. Liverpool will need to play at least 35 games before their top-four spot is confirmed.
It’s becoming harder and harder to break into the top four. This graph shows how many points a team would have required to finish in fourth place over the last 13 seasons (ie one point more than the team that finished fifth).
We reckon either Everton or Arsenal will need to get to at least 75 points to make the top four this season. That would be a record. Last season, Tottenham got 72 points and finished fifth. A decade ago, Liverpool got 60 points and finished fourth.
“Bunching,” my old PE teacher used to shout as 18 players would melee for the ball. “You’re all bunching!”
These two graphs basically tell the same story. The first graph shows how tight the top five and top seven have become over time. The gap between this season’s champions and this season’s fifth placed team is likely to be around 12 points. That’s incredibly slight. Similarly, the gap between the champions and the seventh-placed team is also closing. If it’s any comfort to David Moyes: however bad Manchester United have been this season, they’re still better than Liverpool were last season.
By way of context, here’s a top-to-bottom view of how the Premier League table has shifted over the seasons. Most positions have stayed fairly constant in terms of points tally (with an honourable mention to the Derby County team of 2007-08). But note the widening gap between 5th and 10th. The elite of English football may be more crowded these days, but it’s getting harder and harder to break in to.
So, one final question: why has this happened? Well, there are plenty of possible theories, but here’s mine. The Premier League’s top five may have got gradually closer over time, but it hasn’t been a smooth trend. The 2002-03 season was pretty competitive. So was the 2009-10 season. The link between them? They came immediately after sudden explosions in the transfer market.
The first transfer explosion came in the wake of the new television deal in 2000-01, and the growing allure of Champions League revenue. Leeds, Manchester United and pre-Abramovich Chelsea would be the biggest spenders, and even smaller teams would hand over obscene sums of money in an attempt to gild their mid-ranging squads. Huge fees were exchanged for the likes of Juan Sebastian Veron, Steve Marlet, Robbie Keane. And the result was one of the most competitive leagues in years.
Then towards the end of the decade, fuelled by the adrenalin-charged spending of Manchester City and another TV windfall in 2007-08, the market began to overheat again. Huge fees were exchanged for the likes of Jo, David Bentley, Robbie Keane, and Robbie Keane again. The result? The Big Four became a Big Six, with Everton hitching their wagon a little later.
A nice theory, of course. But the Head of Sport has no time for theories. He wants graphs. So let’s have a look.
A clear trend. Spending and competitiveness appear to be mutually reinforcing: the wider the gap between the top teams and the rest, the more money required to haul them in. As total transfer spending goes up, the number of points separating the top five appears to go down. Money, it seems, is the great leveller – at least at the highest level.
With more money flowing in to the game, especially at Champions League level, it may be that the next few seasons see a further narrowing of the gap between England’s elite teams. The flip side of that, of course, is that over time it will become increasingly hard to break in to the cartel.