Are Arsenal in line for a return to the top four?

By Tony Attwood

In the last couple of weeks we’ve been looking, off and on, about how the Premier League has changed over the last ten years.  Most recently we’ve started to ponder the possible move from the traditional “big six” of Manchesters City and United, plus Liverpool, in the north west, with Arsenal, Tottenham and Chelsea in London across to a “big seven” with the addition of Newcastle. (See for example Arsenal’s opposition in the coming season: Newcastle)

This raised the question of just how dominant the top clubs had been, given the difficulty other teams have had in breaking into that group.

Certainly as Arsenal supporters, we got used to the Champions League in the Wenger era, as between 1998/9 and 2016/7 Arsenal qualified in nineteen successive UEFA Champions League seasons, which was not only an English record, but one that was only beaten anywhere in Europe by Real Madrid.

But then it fell apart – although it wasn’t just Arsenal that dropped out of the top six.   After all in 2020/21 both Arsenal and Tottenham failed to make the top six.

On the other hand the notion of the dominance of the big six is not a myth, for the last season before that in which any of the six dropped out was Liverpool who came 8th in 2016.  Prior to that, it was Chelsea who were tenth in 2015 along with Liverpool who were eighth, and prior to that Manchester United who were seventh in both 2014 and 2013.

So in other words in the last ten seasons, the majority of the seasons have had at least one team from outside the big six, finishing in the top six positions.

However, in the last ten years of the Premier League, only six of the 60 top six positions have been occupied by outsiders, these being

  • Everton (2014, 2013)
  • Leicester City (2021, 2020, 2016)
  • Southampton (2016)
  • West Ham United (2021)

So although Arsenal’s problems with maintaining a top six presence in 2019/20 and 2020/1 may have felt like a real oddity to us long term supporters, this sort of thing happens.  The dropouts have been

  • Chelsea (2016)
  • Liverpool (2013, 2016)
  • Manchester United (2014)
  • Arsenal (2020, 2021)
  • Tottenham (2021)

What the numbers confirm is that although clubs might have a year or two of difficulty, in the long run the old order of the big six is maintained.

But then I wondered if the clubs at the top were pulling away from the rest.  Are the top clubs gathering more and more points each season?

To work that out I took the total number of points earned by the top three, top four and top five across these last seasons.

Season Points of top 3 Points of top 4 Points of top 5
2021/2 259 330 399
2020/1 229 296 362
2019/0 246 312 374
2018/9 267 338 408
2017/8 258 333 403
2016/7 257 333 408
2015/6 222 288 354
2014/5 241 311 375
2013/4 252 331 403
2012/3 242 315 387


And yes there is a tendency for the number of points gathered by the top three clubs to be increasing.  Across the last ten years the seasons in which the top three clubs together got the most points were all in the last five years.  But if we look at the top four that is less emphasised, and by the time we look at the top five, we find that the most points gathered the top five clubs between them were four, six and nine years ago.

So there is a degree of pulling away at the very top but this is not reflected across the whole of the top five.  And it has not been getting tougher to get into the top four in the last three seasons.

So let’s look at the record of the fourth placed team in the last five years…

year Team P W D L F A GD Pts
2018 Liverpool 38 21 12 5 84 38 46 75
2019 Tottenham Hotspur 38 23 2 13 67 39 28 71
2020 Chelsea 38 20 6 12 69 54 15 66
2021 Chelsea 38 19 10 9 58 36 22 67
2022 Tottenham Hotspur 38 22 5 11 69 40 29 71


  • Most points by a fourth-placed club, 75.  Lowest: 66.  Arsenal in 2021/2: 69
  • Most goals by a fourth-placed club, 84.  Lowest: 58.  Arsenal in 2021/2: 61
  • Most goals conceded by a fourth-placed club: 54.  Lowest 36.  Arsenal in 2021/2: 48
  • Best goal difference by a fourth placed club: 46.  Lowest 15. Arsenal in 2021/2: 13

So the only parameter where we were outside the range of fourth-placed teams over the past five years was goal difference, which certainly ought to improve this coming season with the defence now used to playing together, and the attack not having the trauma of the removal of its best player, and playing without a goal-scoring centre forward for much of the season.

I’d say we are now pretty well placed for a return to the top four.  Of course we still have contend with the big six becoming the big seven (through the addition of Newcastle) but I still think the chances are good.

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