Why do clubs that come 5th in the PL always then sink lower?

By Tony Attwood

I haven’t seen this analysis done anywhere by journalists – but then to do it does take a little bit of time and some looking up of data, so perhaps that isn’t too surprising.

But the issue is an interesting one: what happens to clubs that come fifth in the Premier League?  Do they rise up into the top four the following season, or is fifth the height of their achievements, beyond which they slip back down?  And if that is the case, then why is fifth not a stepping stone.

The clubs listed in the table below all came fifth in the year stated – but how many of them moved up into the “not a trophy” slot as the people who forced Mr Wenger out of the club, used to call it?

Well the answer is … not a single one of them rose immediately into the top four.  Having come fifth the clubs then came fifth again in three instances, went down one place into sixth, again in three cases, subsequently came eighth in two seasons, and in two other cases went on to be real failures, coming 11th in one case and 16th in another.

Fifth it seems is not only not a trophy, it is not a stepping stone.

Club Year Coming 5th Points Next season Points
Arsenal 2022 69
Leicester 2021 66 8th 52
Leicester 2020 62 5th 66
Arsenal 2019 70 8th 56
Chelsea 2018 70 5th 70
Arsenal 2017 75 6th 63
Manchester U 2016 66 6th 69
Manchester U 2015 70 5th 66
Everton 2014 72 11th 47
Tottenham 2013 72 6th 69
Newcastle 2012 65 16th 41

Only twice in all these years have the clubs that have come fifth then got more points the following year.  Leicester coming fifth in 2020, added four more points the following year, and Manchester United in 2016 added three more points the next season.  But they slipped down a place.

Indeed several clubs have had significant declines in the points they gained having come fifth, so rather than building on that fifth position, coming fifth means they have actually sunk into the mire.

Newcastle dropped 24 points in the season after coming fifth, sinking to 16th.  Everton went one better and dropped 25 points after coming fifth as they sank to 11th.

Arsenal’s biggest drop was 12 points from being 5th in 2017 down to sixth in 2018 – that being the year Mr Wenger left Arsenal.  In my view (although of course others disagree) much of that decline came about because of the way the fans and media united in disparaging the manager and the players – it was one of the most successful knocking campaigns ever, and showed to me, if no one else, that knocking the manager and players of the club one allegedly supports, is never a very clever idea.

Although to be fair, we should also note that Arsenal dropped 14 points after coming fifth in 2019.

So clubs that come fifth don’t normally rise up to the top four the following season.  But why is this?

I can’t give a statistical answer, but I think the evidence does point this way.

First, the players who have taken the club up the table to fifth have normally done well, and so the manager is reluctant to reward such players by replacing them.  Although teams that have come fifth do buy a few new players, they often don’t undertake a major overhaul.

Part of the reason of course is to reward those who achieved the leap up to fifth, but also although coming fifth may mean being only a point or two below the Champions League places, that doesn’t bring in the money.  Indeed I have had conversations that suggest the Europa is, for many clubs that don’t make the semi-final, a money loser.   

In the summer before each new season, the top four bring in new players who can keep them in the top four, using the Champions League money in advance.  The clubs that finished fifth down, don’t have those resources, and limit their buying, but often find they have an extra ten or 12 games to play, and so need a bigger squad.

Linked to this is the fact that managers tend to be cautious, and few have the nerve to get rid of players who have been credited with getting fifth place, not least because if one gets this wrong, then it inevitably means the blame is heaped on the manager.   “He had a team that was going up – we missed the Champions League by just 3 points – and then the idiot sold off two of those players and brought in rubbish.”   That is how the commentary goes.   Nerves set in with the first few defeats, and after that it is downhill all the way.  Just look what happened to Leicester after winning the league.  

So fifth leads to decline, and that is what Arsenal has to face this season.  And indeed it seems they have recognised this with the complete refashioning of much of the team, spending more (at least so far) than anyone else.

But there is another point.  Arsenal also totally refashioned their entire defence a year ago, so the club enters 2022/3 with virtually a totally new squad compared with two years before.  That for a fifth-placed team is quite unusual.  Maybe we will be one of the few to show that fifth really can be a stepping stone.


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