Is the “top six” a Premier League fixture or is something about to change?

by Tony Attwood

I am not sure when people started talking about a “top six” rather than a “top 4” or any other designation for clubs that regularly finished near the top of the Premier League, but it seems to have become a permanent feature of the way in which the Premier League is thought about.

Go back to the 1970s and the notion of a Big Four existed, but that was as much based on general public interest as anything else – a notion that was vaguely put together through a consideration of past achievements and public interest.

The Big Four at that time were seen to be Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Everton.  When interlopers came along and won the league, as Tottenham did twice and Burnley did once in earlier eras, they were not considered to be part of the Big Four.  And indeed when Manchester United were relegated they were still part of the elite group in the mind of the hacks.

Which makes it easy to forget that in fact we have only had the Top Six of the same six clubs entering the European competitions (with of course the 7th club sometimes qualifying if the FA Cup is won by a top six club) for the last three years.

This little chart sets out the new world order…

Season Distance 6th to 7th Incomer Outlier
2011/12 8 points Newcastle (5th) Liverpool (8th)
2012/13 2 points Everton (6th) Liverpool (7th)
2013/14 5 points Everton (5th) Man U (7th)
2014/15 2 points
2015/16 1 point Southampton (6th) Liverpool (8th)
2016/17 8 points
2017/18 9 points
2018/19 9 points

The “incomer” is a club from outside the top six entering that select arena, and the “outlier” is one of the current “top six” which actually did not quite make it at that time.

So to get a grip as to what is going on, in order to have a clearer notion of what might happen in the future (rather than the typical journalist approach which is “the past will be the same as now only bigger”) we need to appreciate that we are currently in a phase that is not that well established.   It is only in the last three seasons that the distance between the sixth and seventh club has been in the eight or nine point range.  A serious challenge from the lower orders could change it all.

Another way to look at the top six clubs is to see the results of their games against each other, for if the Big Six are going to dominate again, it is these results that will be rather significant.

For 2016/17 and 2017/2018 Arsenal did very poorly against the other teams in the top six, and I think that if one asks quite a few supporters they might tell you the same happened last season.  But in fact it did not.

Pos Club P W D L GD Pts
1 Man C 10 8 1 1 15 25
2 Liverpool 10 5 4 1 9 19
3 Arsenal 10 3 3 4 -3 12
4 Chelsea 10 3 3 4 -7 12
5 Tottenham 10 2 1 7 -4 7
6 Man Utd 10 1 4 5 -10 7

Tottenham for example, beat Man U away, lost to Liverpool at home, lost to Man City at home, beat Chelsea at home, lost to Arsenal away, lost to Man U at home, lost to Chelsea away, drew with Arsenal at home, lost to Liverpool away, and lost to Man City away.  Yet to read the general comments of the media about Tottenham one would assume they were right near the top of the minileague.

So far this season only Arsenal and Tottenham have played two games in the minileague – Arsenal of course drawing one and losing one.  Tottenham have drawn both their games against other members of the minileague.

My point is that although the dominance of Liverpool and Manchester City, and the existence of a minileague of six clubs cannot be denied at present, these things are not fixed in stone, and that general media presentation of clubs – such as Tottenham’s rise and rise, are sometimes not 100% a reflection of the statistics.

The other thing I think we might look out for at the moment is the change in the way the division of home and away results is working.   Here are the home and away results thus far this season, and comparable figures after four games of the last two seasons.

Season Home wins Away wins Draws
2019/20 37.5% 57.5% 30%
2018/19 42.5% 37.5% 20%
2017/18 47.5% 57.5% 20%
In the last three years the number of home wins after each club has played four games (meaning either everyone has played 2 at home and 2 away, or just two teams have played 1 and 3 each because of ground closure or European games) the number of home wins has been declining.

It is just possible that if clubs are tending to fail at home a little more it could mean that this could help Arsenal’s away form.   Certainly the change in personnel will mean that any dread of away games following the past two seasons of poor away form, could have diminished.   And it is interesting that Tottenham and Manchester United have both played two away games each this season, and not got a single win between them.

Of course these are very early days, and you may feel that one can prove anything with statistics – in which case it probably wasn’t worth reading this piece all the way through.  But if like me you find stats fascinating and insightful, you might feel that this could turn out to be quite an interesting season.

4 Replies to “Is the “top six” a Premier League fixture or is something about to change?”

  1. not sure about the 2015-2016 line of your first chart, tony … weren’t leicester ‘incomers”, and chelsea “outliers”? about arsenal’a away form, we might start to have a clue after the watford game; although we’ll probably be able to assess the team correctly, only after bellerin/tierney/holding are back

  2. Tony

    2015-16 was indeed a turning point.

    Leicester won the league, Southampton finished 6th with West Ham just behind them. Liverpool finished 8th, mostly because their new manager Jürgen Klopp was brought in a few months into the new season so they focused on the European campaign (lost EL Final to our own Mr Emery). Chelsea also finished outside Top 6, mainly due to Mourinho’s antics. It was also the last season for Pellegrini at City and Van Gaal at Man United.

    What happened next was years of serious investments in Pep’s and Klopp’s machines to fit their respective philosophies. Arsenal, United, Spuds and Chelsea have also spent some money themselves strong enough for Top 4.

    More importantly, they ripped apart teams that finished above them or around them. Southampton sold their best players to Liverpool (Van Dijk, Mane), Tottenham (Wanyama and, via Atletico, Alderweireld). Leicester lost Kante and Drinkwater to Chelsea and Mahrez to City. West Ham were done once they became Tax Payers FC.

    Last season, rest of the league became more competitive v Top Six only when fatigue and latter stages of European competitions kicked in.

    Now, we can say there are three tiers in PL:

    Top Six
    Seven to Ten (Wolves, Everton, Leicester, West Ham)
    Rest of the league

  3. Well as far as untold is concerned, I’d say top 6 entered the your vocabulary 3years ago, after arsenal dropped out of the champions league places. Prior to that it used to be top 4.

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