premier league title race man city liverpool

The stratification of the Premier League is becoming irreversible

With Liverpool and Man City setting an unforgiving pace at the top of the table, the Premier League is becoming more stratified – and it’s only going to get worse. 

Following another routine win for Liverpool on Friday night, this time a 2-0 defeat of Wolverhampton Wanderers at Molineux, Jurgen Klopp joined the Sky Sports punditry team for a quick word.

The German manager said the club were in the midst of enjoying a “special season”, having amassed a “crazy” points total of 48 before Christmas.

“But there are other teams,” Klopp helpfully pointed out, adding “Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham, Arsenal, will probably win, so then they have 40-something points, nobody is dropping points down to fifth or sixth. You will probably need 105 to be champions at the end of the season, you don’t know.”

You read that right: one hundred and five points.

Liverpool have been earning a frankly ridiculous 2.66 points per game up to now, meaning they’re on pace to reach 101 points at the end of the season, which would be one more than Manchester City’s record-breaking haul in 2017/18. But it could still not be enough.

In winning their third Premier League title earlier this year, Man City broke ten records, as clear an indication of their domination as any. Liverpool will have to break at least three of them (and possibly a few more) to rip that coveted trophy from their grasp, and the fact that it’s not entirely outlandish they could do that is, frankly, wild.

Whatever happens come May, one thing we know for sure is that Santa wont be the only jolly red man over the holidays, but there’s a worrying underlying current to the ridiculous pace-setting by the clubs in first and second.

With Fulham sitting at the foot of the table with 10 points, there is a cavernous 38-point gap between top and bottom. That’s not just a chasm – it’s the Grand Canyon on steroids, and may very well be an indicator of the growing disparity in quality between those dining at the top table and those swilling the warm remains of a can of Dutch Gold.

I accept that such a gap can be misleading; on occasion the best team is just ridiculously good, while the worst are horse manure, as was the case in 2007-08. That Champions League-winning Man United side captured the league with a highly creditable 87 points, while the contrastingly terrible Derby County ended the campaign with 11 points and the most unwanted record of all.

This season we have to ask whether or not it’s just a case of two teams pushing each other to their absolute limit, or whether it’s a sign of a more deep-rooted problem that will only get worse.

Last year’s story was the seemingly unbridgeable gap between first and second, when Manchester City were 19 points better than the next best team, Manchester United, whose haul of 81 points would have been enough to win the title in five different seasons. That was construed as evidence of City’s utter dominance, but there’s an argument to be made that the rest of the league is slipping further and further away.

While the two-horse race is much welcomed by the so-called neutrals, by focusing on the rest of the table we can see the re-emergence of another trend that we thought had disappeared.

With the materialisation of a true mid-table for the first time in a long time, the table can be split into three sections; the Top Six, the Middle Seven, and the Bottom Seven. (Considering United are as close to Brighton as they are Arsenal on points, they should technically be included in the middle of the pack, but in any other season they sit firmly in the top deck.)

This is a consequence of having more good sides, ironically, who have been able to firmly pull away from the bottom third of the table; the likes of Everton, Bournemouth, Watford, Leicester City, Wolves and West Ham have formed this new middle-class. I don’t expect any of the bottom eight teams to break into that group barring a total over-performance by one of them between now and the end of the season.

Perhaps this season just another outlier, as it was in 2008, but the teams at the wrong end of the table seem to be further away than ever. Since the introduction of a 20 team top flight in 1995/96, the average point differential between top and bottom is 60. The last two seasons it has been 69 each, the joint-4th biggest gaps overall.

With Fulham and Huddersfield currently on course to reach a measly 21 points each, and Liverpool on course for a record-breaking 102, we could have the first ever 80+ points gap in the Premier League. While that will narrow as form changes in the latter half of the campaign, it would not be surprising to see a 70 point rift come season’s end.

The league’s division of revenue from television money has largely been seen as a great equaliser between the 20 teams and helped to create an aura of competitiveness upon which the league has been heavily marketed, but the burgeoning financial muscle of the top clubs is far outpacing that of the rest. The Top Six have a lot, but they just want more and more and more, as evidenced by the most recent overseas TV deal, which granted that sextet of clubs a bigger share of the pot.

The gap will only widen as a result, and grow further should the Top Six choose to leverage the Premier League for more money with the threat of a breakaway European super league. The consequences are clear: the top clubs raid those lower down the chain to stockpile talent to a level never seen before to remain successful and thus keep the cycle running on and on forever.

In order to compete at this level Fulham spent over £100m on transfers in the summer, yet remain rooted in 20th.

The gap between top and bottom was most stratified between 2003 and 2008, when the three biggest gaps – all over 70 points – occurred. That period did, however, include Arsenal’s Invincibles, José Mourinho’s original star-studded Chelsea, and a Europe-conquering Man United side, while Sunderland and Derby, who set record-low points totals respectively, were among the relegated.

This mix of all-time great sides mixed with some of the worst ever potentially skews the numbers in a way that makes it seem like the type of anomaly unlikely to repeat itself, but those five years were also the age of the Top Four (United, Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal), a group of teams that were so far ahead of everyone else their place at the top was impenetrable. Those same four teams plus Man City and Spurs have now created something akin to that once more, resulting in three teams on 40 or more points before Christmas for the first time ever in the Premier League era.

Somehow I can’t see that cartel being broken up anytime soon.

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