The Big Six is becoming the Top Four again
Since about the start of this decade, pundits have coined the phrase ‘Big Six’ (or sometimes the ‘Sky Six’), referring to teams which will, in some order, claim the top six places of the Premier League table. Those teams are Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. Conventional wisdom holds that those teams will battle amongst themselves for places and the remainder of the table will be more fluid and less predictable. Due to their global fan-base and increased powers of spending, these clubs will always be ‘there or thereabouts’- the top six of the Premier League becomes the archetypal ‘mini-league’, splintering off from the rest of the table to fight their most meaningful battles amongst themselves.
Although this is a piece of inherited wisdom which has justifications, it also has its obvious flaws. At the start of 2010, Martin O’Neill’s Villa team may well have felt aggrieved not to be included in this bracket; elsewhere, Everton’s consistent performances over the last ten years (which included that infamous 4th place finish in 2005) could give credence to those who believe that the phrase ‘Big Seven’ is more appropriate. Even since the start of the 2010s, when the concept of a ‘Big Six’ started to gain traction, any cursory glances at league tables will reveal complications. In 2011-12, Newcastle had an excellent shot at the Champions League, eventually finishing fifth, and Liverpool, in a campaign marred by the Suarez controversies, could only manage eighth place in the league. In 2012-13, a surprising West Brom team managed to stay in the top six for most of the season, before eventually losing steam and ending up eighth. In both of these seasons, Everton finished above their Merseyside rivals and, in 2013-14, came close to a Champions League place with their highest ever Premier League points total. Recently, Southampton have also challenged the omnipotence of the ‘Big Six’ with a couple of outstanding seasons, and Swansea have cemented their right to challenge for European places- again, the concept of a ‘Big Six’ loses stability.
Perhaps this is because the idea of a ‘Big Six’ was doomed to fail almost as soon as it was conceived. When it first came into being, it was essentially in order to cater for the collapse of the ‘Top Four’- the equivalent top ‘mini-league’ which ran from about 2005 onwards. This year was the first of Mourinho’s money-laden titles at Chelsea, which announced the club (to the consternation of many football fans) as a new superpower of the English game. Moreover, 2005 was the year of Liverpool’s famous Champions League success, meaning that they were re-inserted into the competition even though Everton managed to beat them to 4th place. Despite Everton’s success in this season (which was proven to be short-lived with a Play-Off loss against Villarreal), their 4th place finish marked the last time for five years that anyone would challenge the hegemony of the ‘Top Four’ of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Again, a common knowledge developed that these clubs would battle amongst themselves for the top places in the league, and the best any other club could hope for was one place below them.
By 2010, however, the nascent wealth of Man City and a resurgent Tottenham side meant that the ‘Top Four’ had ceased to be a valid marker, and Spurs capitalised on Liverpool’s fall from grace at the end of the Benitez years to snatch the last Champions League place. A year later, Roy Hogson’s disastrous spell at Liverpool failed to reassert their power and both City and Tottenham finished above the former Merseyside giants to claim 4th and 5th– it was here that the idea of a ‘Big Six’ really came into focus. Yet it can be appreciated now that this marker was perhaps illusory- rather than viewing season 2010-2011 as the dawn of a ‘Big Six’, perhaps it was only the first step in reshuffling the ‘Top Four’, by inserting City at Liverpool’s expense. This bears problems, of course; Tottenham capitalised on Chelsea side in disarray after Abramovic’s ill-advised appointment of Villas-Boas and finished 4th in 2011-2012, and Liverpool fed on both the fall-out from Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure at United and the incredible form of Luis Suarez to mount a campaign that saw them narrowly miss the title in 2013-2014. Nevertheless, subsequent problems for both clubs (mainly hinging around the sale of their best players) has suggested that these should perhaps be seen as the exception rather than the rule.
From this standpoint, a new ‘Top Four’ can be seen to have arisen- Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United. Tottenham and Liverpool are being caught up at the level of Everton, Swansea, Southampton and perhaps even Stoke, clubs with first teams filled with the quality of regular internationals and exports from top foreign clubs (Swansea’s capture of Gomis from Lyon and Stoke’s signing of Shaqiri from Inter spring to mind). Even below this bracket, teams have been showcasing an increased spending ability in the last few seasons, and the Premier League is now a real attraction for foreign talent at even the level of newly promoted clubs. This is probably a good thing, and the league is becoming much more competitive- expect to see the amount of points needed for a title win decrease over the coming years as the ‘top’ teams struggle to go away to their ‘lesser’ counterparts. Having said this however, the fluidity of the Premier League only really extends to the Europa League places; one may very well see the likes of Southampton and Swansea challenge Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton for 5th or 6th place, but one feels that the gap between these clubs and the Champions League place will only increase.
This is all, obviously, subject to change. Perhaps when Tottenham and Liverpool get new stadia, or Arsenal are tasked with replacing Wenger, or FFP becomes more strict, this model will again collapse. Perhaps new foreign investors will pump money into a club in the same way as City or Chelsea. These things are always tenuously balanced, and liable to change in football. At this precise moment, however, make no mistake; we are now well and truly under the reign of a ‘Top Four’.