Is breaking into the Premier League top six an insurmountable task?
Background photo: Bradley Horrocks, cc-by-sa/2.0
Manchester United. Manchester City. Chelsea. Liverpool. Arsenal. Tottenham Hotspur. Since the 2009-10 Premier League season, at least five of these teams made the top six places. All six did in four of the nine full seasons, including the last two. This term, Arsenal and Manchester United sit 11 points beyond Watford in seventh. A third successive season as an exclusive club appears inevitable.
Everton threatened to take up permanent residence finishing fifth in 2013/14 and sixth the previous season. Aston Villa took sixth in 2009/10, Newcastle fifth in 2010/11. Of course, Leicester went all the way to the top in 2015/16.
It was, and still is one of the greatest stories in the history of sport. The Foxes completed a miraculous escape from relegation just the season before then surprised everyone by finishing ten points clear at the top. It’s a story that captured the imagination of football fans across the globe. It’s also a season that gave the traditional top six clubs the proverbial kick up the backside. They've become bent and determined to bar anyone else from their club for the foreseeable future. One key factor may allow them to do it.
All about the money?
There is probably enough dosh thrown around the Premier League to run a small country. According to Transfermarkt.com, Premier League clubs spent €1.587 billion in 2018. That converts to just over $1.8 billion. According to the IPFS, that's roughly what it cost to run Malawi in 2011, the last reported figure for most smaller nations.
It’s no surprise that the more successful clubs in the English top flight are the wealthiest. According to the latest Deloitte football money league, six of the ten richest clubs in the world play in the Premier League. The clubs? United, City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham. Everton appear next among British clubs, in 17th. The Toffee’s revenue for the 2017/18 season was £401 million less than United who were surpassed only by Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Such a revenue gap provides the top six with a significant advantage when it comes to transfers. Leicester’s title win sparked a spending spree among top-six clubs, Most notably, Manchester United spent a record £89m bringing Paul Pogba back to Old Trafford.
More personal to the Foxes, Chelsea swooped for N'Golo Kante and, the next season, Danny Drinkwater. the club subsequently fought an organised retreat against Manchester City for more than a year before surrendering Riyad Mahrez. Arsenal tried but failed to pry Jamie Vardy loose from the King Power.
The raids illustrated the power wealth and status hold in the game. The promise of extra money and the prospect of European football always tempts players at lesser clubs. A player pushing for the move makes it almost impossible for the selling club to say no. Leicester's luck lay in Vardy wanting to stay.
Other examples over the last few transfer windows include Virgil Van Dijk moving from Southampton to Liverpool and Romelu Lukaku from Everton to Manchester United.
With the top six able to cherry pick the best players from the Premier League and around the world, it makes the task to break into the elite group so much more difficult. Money doesn’t buy you success, but it definitely makes achieving it easier.
Teams make no secret of the fact that they want to be challenging for the European places come season's end. Everton, West Ham United and Leicester are the clubs that make the most noise. This season Watford, Wolves and Bournemouth are the trio with the best chance.
However, even with United's poor start, the gap between seventh and sixth is 11 points. The rest of the league is cut adrift.
On a given day, any club can beat another in the Premier League, hence its global popularity. Over the course of a campaign, however, quality reveals itself. The combination leads to inconsistent results for midtable teams. To break through, teams like West Ham and Leicester must be more consistent in achieving results among the lesser 14 while also claiming the odd scalp from the top six.
Having moved to a larger stadium, which offers greater revenue, West Ham may stand the best chance. Recent seasons suggest that cracking the top six is nigh impossible without strong financing. Leicester proved in 2016 that consistency can make up the difference in the short term but City, United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham have the resources and status to attract top players. As such, their dominance should continue for years to come.