Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur have comprised the final table’s top six in each of the previous three seasons. And although the gap is more pronounced now, this dominance goes back to City’s emergence as a financial force. Of the 60 top-six slots occupied by Premier League teams over the past decade, the Big Six has occupied 54.
But just when the Big Six are threatening to break away, either from the Premier League or within it, there’s a chance this space between the best and the rest could shrink – or disappear altogether. The 2019/20 season may well bring a sudden end to the established top six… and even their hold on Champions League qualification.
Six into four doesn’t go, and it’s often hard imagining which two clubs will miss out on a Champions League spot. This year, it’s hard imagining who will join City and Liverpool in the top four. The conclusion to 2018/19 hinted as much: the final five fixtures for Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and United brought a combined three wins, seven draws and 10 defeats. Some elite. This quartet either stumbled over the finish line or fell short. Now they may need Google Maps just to find it.
At Chelsea, talk around Frank Lampard and transfer bans ignores the elephant in the room: replacing Eden Hazard. He contributed directly to half of Chelsea’s league goals (all right, 49.2%) in his final season, and their attack was almost totally reliant on him. The incoming Christian Pulisic cannot, will not, carry Chelsea this way.
It’s tempting – because it’s exciting – to think that Chelsea’s young guns will fire, given the opportunity. Pulisic, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ethan Ampadu, Mason Mount, Fikayo Tomori, Tammy Abraham, Reece James… these are all mouth-watering prospects. They’re also between 18 and 21 years old, and, like Lampard, most would need to learn on the job if they’re to reverse Chelsea’s deterioration.
Still, Lampard is probably better equipped than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, another club-legend-turned-manager. Journalistic shorthand sees Manchester United’s 46-year-old coach described as inexperienced, but there’s concern that ‘inexperienced’ may be a linguistic disguise for ‘inadequate’. His initially successful reign, based largely on arm-around-the-shoulder anecdotes about ‘the boss’ and 1999, induced a three-year contract as Ed Woodward sought to ward off the zero clubs competing for Solskjaer’s signature – just as things were going south. In short: is he good enough?
But problems at Old Trafford extend beyond Solskjaer and slow WiFi. The whole squad has question marks over aptitude or application. Meanwhile, unneeded players are given new contracts, unwanted players lack suitors and wanted players no longer see Manchester United as a dream destination.
Arsenal are favourites to finish sixth, although their front two alone could power them back into the Champions League – if Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette tighten up some lax finishing, their combined 2018/19 total of 35 league goals could easily become 40-plus. The defence is in disarray, however, with limited funds to fix it. Last season, only four Premier League teams conceded more away goals than Arsenal, who lost more than they won. They’ll miss Aaron Ramsey’s midfield dynamism and big-game performances, neither of which they’re seeing from Mesut Ozil, who’s too expensive to shift.
Down the road, even the Champions League runners-up have a few worries. The Year Without Signings was retrofitted with a narrative apportioning credit for Tottenham’s success, when in fact it burdened them in the season’s latter stages (see: Midfielders, No) and left them with plenty to do this summer.
Mauricio Pochettino probably wouldn’t say no to four new full-backs but certainly needs a couple, as well as a reserve striker, another wing option and one or two central midfielders unless Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama rediscover their form/legs. Christian Eriksen apparently wants to leave, too, and transfer funds are tied up in stadium debt. Spurs should finish third, but they could have a season after the Lord Mayor’s Show.
Any or all of these four teams could tumble.
Two or three clubs will believe they’re ready to exploit this moment.
Wolves finished seventh when they weren’t even at full tilt. ‘Deep pockets’ and ‘friends in high places’ are the competing clichés used, but they also have homegrown talents and a canny manager, even if Garth ‘still here’ Crooks thinks Nuno has taken Wolves as far as he can – a curious way to look at two seasons in which he’s delivered a Championship title and European qualification.
The Europa League may hold them back. Nuno’s reluctance to rotate suggests they need better alternatives to the starting XI, especially as they could go deep into the competition. They have the resources, though, and most of the ingredients: Wolves beat five of the top six in 2018/19, and learning how to beat weaker teams (two of Huddersfield’s three league wins came against Wolves) is easier than learning how to beat the best.
Leicester are, justifiably, dark horses. They have relatively few issues to fix: holding onto erstwhile loanee Youri Tielemans is massive, in importance and difficulty, but if they can do that and also lighten the load on Jamie Vardy, they’ll be a threat.
Meanwhile, Marcel Brands and Marco Silva seem to have put Everton on the right track, capturing Andre Gomes on a permanent deal and turning around the club’s miserable record against top sides. There are even hints that West Ham are getting their ducks in a row. An organised West Ham is thought to be one sign of an impending apocalypse, but we’ve had all of the others.
The likeliest scenario is that these teams all threaten, but only in bursts. Sustaining results over a season is hard and chasing Champions League qualification relentless, requiring virtually two points per game. Any challenger must take every opportunity, not just beating the big boys but taking points off one another and regularly dispatching bottom-half teams. Breaking the Big Six hegemony requires all of these things, not some.
But if we need inspiration, look to 2015/16 and its two surprise packages from outside the Big Six. While Leicester wound up as champions (you may have heard), West Ham were also in genuine contention for a Champions League place with only a few games remaining. One club failed; one achieved the impossible.
It won’t require a Leicester level of miracle for an upper-mid-table hopeful to displace a faltering giant in 2019/20. Three or more may challenge; one may succeed. Wouldn’t that be nice?