The trajectories of the top four
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By Tony Attwood
No matter what the final outcome of this season, the trajectories of Tottenham and Arsenal have been rather different.
Last season Tottenham finished in fourth, two points and +16 goal difference ahead of Arsenal in fifth.
This season however it is Tottenham who are in fifth, 21 points behind Arsenal. And Arsenal, having been 16 goals behind Tottenham in the goal difference table, are now 37 ahead! That’s an amazing leap of 53 goals.
But it is not just Tottenham that have slipped back. Liverpool and Chelsea have also slipped down the table. Liverpool you might recall were just one point and five goals behind Manchester City last year. Now they are seventh, 22 points behind the leaders. Chelsea were third and now are 11th, 36 points behind Arsenal.
But are such changes normal? Is this really what we see every season?
For the past six years, Liverpool and Chelsea have been “top four” clubs but in each case we can see their recent run is over. Tottenham on the other hand don’t have that pedigree. In the past three years they have come 4th, 6th and 7th, so lower finishes are normal for them – and that is what they will probably get this season.
But journalists listen to their own hype. They hype up Tottenham all the time, forget Tottenham really are not historically a top three club, and that the run of third, second and third in 2016 to 2018 was absolutely out of the normal context. With Tottenham you’d have to go back to 1990 to find another third place finish before that.
Chelsea are different, from 2004 onward they have had top three finishes every year except for three. But between 1955 and 2004 the only times they got into the top two was when they were paying one of their occasional visits to the second division.
The point is that clubs do go on runs of success but mostly these are short. However, the media then designate certain clubs as big clubs aiming for success, and their historic positions are forgotten, so a demand and expectation of regular top-four finishes is created.
But in reality, if Tottenham finish 5th, 6th or 7th that will be in keeping with their general performance in recent years. For them top four is the oddity, not the other way around.
If Arsenal finish first or second that will feel like a return to what we were used to between 1997 and 2016 but for the media it is deemed a shock because they predicted 5th or 6th. The media is in fact writing the current story to excuse their own ludicrously inaccurate predictions of last summer.
Liverpool have shot up with a first, two seconds and a third in the last four years, but look at the whole history of the Premier League and Liverpool have had 11 seasons finishing outside the top four. But again the media expect Liverpool to continue to be second challenging for top spot, so a slip back down to the norm of earlier PL seasons feels like failure.
Arsenal’s constant presence in the top four however was not seen as success – the most common phrase from much of that era was “fourth is not a trophy” – and that for the team that had the longest run in the Champions League of any club other than Real Madrid.
So a constant presence at the top is what the media has told the supporters to expect, and anything less is failure. For Tottenham that sequence of 3rd, 2nd, 3rd between 2016 and 2018 was considered the norm – it wasn’t, it was an overachievement.
So what goes wrong is that clubs believe the media hype suggesting they have a right to be in the top four, all the time as Arsenal did for all those years. When it doesn’t happen they keep changing managers in order to get what they believe is theirs by right. But in fact there is no “by right.”
There are seven clubs who demand a place in the top four as part of their natural heritage and seven into four don’t go. So the three that slip out of the top four (at the moment Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham) all then scream “crisis”.
However of these three clubs there is only one that will face a major crisis if it has no European football next season and that is Tottenham, simply because, (as far as I can see, and of course,I might be wrong), their financial model of paying for the stadium is based on a) Champions League football, b) having a stadium sponsor, c) having a stable team which obviates the need to spend megadollars on new players and new managers each year, and pay off fees for sacked managerial teams.
Tottenham seem to claim that they are the one team that has come in from the cold – outside the elite group for a while, and then back into it (1999 to 2002). But Liverpool went from 2011 to 2016 being 8th (twice) 7th, 6th (twice) and second once, before bouncing back. Yet bounce back they did.
Tottenham is doing some good local work, such as sponsoring a local school which I am told is indeed doing excellent work with underprivileged children and that is how it should be. But nothing gives them the right to constant top four finishes.
Just because Mr Wenger created the record for consecutive years in the Champions League by a PL team, doesn’t mean Tottenham or Liverpool or Chelsea are anywhere near being able to do the same.
My headline says, “Unrest down Hotspur Avenue. But whose fault is that?” But it could say the same about Liverpool and Chelsea. As for whose fault it is, I would say the fault of the people who don’t let the manager and his team settle, but instead keep changing them and demanding success now, now, now. It doesn’t work like that – as Mr Arteta showed by finishing 8th, 8th and 5th. Eighth certainly wasn’t a trophy. It was the start of the rebuild.
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