Is the Premier League more weighted in the top sides favor than ever?
The nadir of this Premier League season will likely be the first half of Newcastle United vs Manchester City, the game that launched a thousand think pieces about the state of English football.
Pep Guardiola’s side was at their most-dominating at that point of the season, and Rafa Benitez sent his side out to defend. And that’s where the instruction stopped. And defend they did.
Right from the start of the season though, when both of the Manchester sides were rolling over the weaker opposition in a feast of goal-difference boosting gluttony, the question has been asked about whether the top sides are pulling away from everybody else.
Were Arsenal performing a little better, the answer to that would almost certainly be an emphatic yes. Whereas in past seasons the strata of the league has involved a (revolving) Top 3 or 4, a couple more who were spending that season subbed out of the top tier, and then another couple who had realistic pretentions of joining the cast of the elite, this season that last group has largely consisted of Burnley and Burnley alone.
In the past few weeks, Leicester and Everton have joined them, but until Sam Allardyce got his teeth into the Toffees it looked like this season would be the one where the ‘wannabe Top Six-ers’ of the last few years – them and Southampton – would fall away from the contest, leaving the league asking itself some existential questions.
There’s no doubt that Manchester City is something that the Premier League has not seen certainly in a long time, possibly ever. They’ve cooled a bit as the season’s worn on, but no side can ever perform well enough to win 5-0 every week.
They’re currently getting into the final third with 55% of their possession sequences, something that no team in the last three years of the Premier League* has done or even come close to.
The only other team to break the 50% mark is the current Tottenham side, but City also has a couple of percentage points on them on the defensive side too (only 35% of the possession sequences of City’s opponents touch base in the final third; the figure is 38% for Spurs).
This particular stat is a useful addition to this particular question of Premier League parity as the defining image is of teams sitting back, letting the big sides to push up onto them, and failing for long periods to get out of their own half.
Taking 2017/18 City out of the picture though, and things aren’t too different from last season.
Liverpool, Tottenham, and City of 2016/17 have a similar difference between the rate they and their opponents got into the final third as Spurs and Liverpool of this season of around a 10 percentage point difference or over.
With a difference of five-to-ten percentage points is a host of teams from several seasons. City, Liverpool, and Manchester United of 15/16; Arsenal of this seasons; United and Chelsea of last campaign.
If anything, this current season is just copying the pattern of last year, with the exception of the goings-on at the Etihad… as well as the falling-off of Southampton.
Of the 60 teams to have played in the Premier League in the past three years, 20 got to the final third at a rate more than a couple of percentage points higher than their opponents.
The Top Six, of course, and Southampton in 15/16 and 16/17, with differences of +2.9% and +2.4%.
Below these sides are a small handful of teams who manage to get a positive, though negligible, difference: 15/16 Norwich City (bizarrely), Leicester, and Crystal Palace; and 17/18 Watford and Southampton, the latter barely scraping into the black.
The Top Six has, somewhat, flexed their muscles this season, but perhaps not to the extent as it’s been feared compared to last season, although compared to 2015/16 the picture looks less rosy and egalitarian (although that should be no surprise considering who won the title that year).
Southampton though, once members of a genuine second tier of Premier League teams, are in it no longer, and their loss of this status might be what’s opened our eyes to the true nature of the English top flight.
*last three years, including this season (2015/16 – 2017/18), used for reasons of data availability.
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