Has the Premier League’s lower tier shrunk?

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The table looks funny, doesn’t it?

Forget for a moment that Liverpool is running away with the Premier League, and that both Chelsea and Man City are double-digit points off the title pace.

Focus instead on Spurs, Arsenal, Manchester United, and the legion of teams living within a couple of results of either fifth of 18th.

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Consider that Southampton climbed out of the Bottom Three on Wednesday after beating Norwich City, and is now a Sunday win over Newcastle from rising as high as 12th. That Newcastle side sits 14th but beating Sheffield United on Thursday and Saints on Sunday could have them in the Top Seven (It won’t happen, but I digress).

If it seems odd to you, it’s because it is, indeed, extremely strange. First of all, take a look at the table before we give you a stark contrast of years past.

Team GP W D L GF GA GD Home Away PTS
 Liverpool 15 14 1 0 37 14 23 8-0-0 6-1-0 43
 Leicester City 15 11 2 2 35 9 26 7-1-0 4-1-2 35
 Manchester City 15 10 2 3 43 17 26 5-1-1 5-1-2 32
 Chelsea 15 9 2 4 30 21 9 4-2-2 5-0-2 29
 Wolves 15 5 8 2 21 17 4 3-4-1 2-4-1 23
 Manchester United 15 5 6 4 23 18 5 4-3-1 1-3-3 21
 Crystal Palace 15 6 3 6 14 18 -4 3-2-3 3-1-3 21
 Tottenham Hotspur 15 5 5 5 25 23 2 4-2-1 1-3-4 20
 Sheffield United 14 4 7 3 17 13 4 3-1-3 1-6-0 19
 Arsenal 14 4 7 3 20 21 -1 3-4-0 1-3-3 19
 Burnley 15 5 3 7 21 24 -3 4-0-4 1-3-3 18
 Bournemouth 15 4 4 7 18 21 -3 2-3-2 2-1-5 16
 West Ham United 15 4 4 7 17 25 -8 2-1-4 2-3-3 16
 Newcastle United 14 4 4 6 13 22 -9 2-4-1 2-0-5 16
 Aston Villa 15 4 3 8 22 24 -2 3-2-2 1-1-6 15
 Brighton & Hove Albion 14 4 3 7 16 21 -5 3-2-2 1-1-5 15
 Southampton 15 4 3 8 17 33 -16 2-1-5 2-2-3 15

 Everton 15 4 2 9 16 27 -11 3-1-3 1-1-6 14
 Norwich City 15 3 2 10 16 32 -16 2-1-4 1-1-6 11
 Watford 15 1 5 9 9 30 -21 0-3-4 1-2-5 8

Unless you’re Watford, Man City, Leicester City, or Liverpool, your table position could be wildly different within a week or two.

Let’s focus on that congested group of the bottom half to make the point (Watford’s low total is kinda screwing this up, but we’ll still try to stress the contrast).

2019/20 season after 15 games: Seven teams are within one win of the drop zone, while 11 are within six points (*Arsenal and Sheffield United could cut this figure to nine with Thursday wins).

The gap between 18th and 6th is 7 points.

2018/19 season after 15 games: Six teams were within one win of the drop zone (though all Bottom Three sides are on nine points). The number moves to just seven if you move the margin to six points.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 14 points.

2017/18 season after 15 games: Three teams were within three points of the Bottom Three, and seven within six.

The gap between 18th and 6th (and 7th) is 15 points.

Now perhaps… this is just a weird year. The top of the Bundesliga is incredibly congested, too, and that seems an anomaly. But is there something more to it?

A couple of years ago, I was one of several arguing that the massive money of the Premier League was bound to make more difficult than ever for newly-promoted teams to stay up, and that we were about to see a wildly competitive table from teams outside the so-called Big Six. Call it a shrinking middle class.

That hasn’t exactly happened. Why? Maybe because teams are spending more of that transfer money in the Championship, and thickening up the teams getting promoted.

Perhaps this season is simply down to Spurs, Manchester United, and Arsenal all underachieving, but take a look at 2015/16 when Leicester won the league and both Liverpool and Chelsea turned in woeful seasons: After 15 weeks there were more teams contending for the Top Six, yeah, but also a distinct lower class.

Or maybe it’s down to this just being an unusual year in terms of outcomes meeting expectations; A look at this season’s xG table shows a more familiar Top Four. But it still shows intense congestion.

Still, this could be the start of a new normal for the league, one in which the Big Six will still never sniff relegation but see increased odds of not qualifying for Europe due to squad investment from other sides. And that next tier — Everton, West Ham, etc. — cannot just be presumed capable of escaping early season slides.

Regardless, it makes this season’s congested month of December pivotal. Separation should occur by the time the FA Cup rolls around in early January, and we will return to four classes (Well, three and Liverpool): Relegation candidates, comfortably midtable sides, Top Seven hopefuls, and Liverpool.

That’s not to say the Reds can’t be harmed by their December and slip into a proper title fight, nor that Messrs. Mourinho, Solskjaer, and Ljungberg won’t go on a run befitting their payrolls and reputations to make the Top Seven’s only question where Leicester City will slot.

But this month’s status as the most decisive on the Premier League calendar seems like it has increased importance. Whether that’s a one-year rising of intensity or not remains to be scene, but buckle up.