A few weeks before Leicester City clinched its improbable, unforgettable Premier League title in the spring of 2016, an executive from one of English soccer’s dominant Big Six clubs was in a basement conference room at a four-star London hotel, explaining that it must not be allowed to happen again.
He was not immune to the romance of it all, he explained; he admired how Leicester had made the most of its comparatively scant resources to take its once-in-120-year shot. He even hoped that the international affection and attention the club had generated would benefit the league as a whole.
But a repeat, another uplifting underdog tale, he said, could not be sold as prima facie evidence of the Premier League’s strength, its innate competitiveness, its much-trumpeted unpredictability. It would, instead, be a sign of weakness, proof that the superpowers, for all their vast wealth, had fallen back to Earth.
Over the subsequent seasons, the Big Six — Manchester United and Manchester City, Liverpool, and Tottenham, Arsenal and Chelsea — have done all they can to make sure that does not, and could not, happen. The gap between English soccer’s elite and the rest has been turned into a chasm.
Between them, the six have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on players. Each club has broken its transfer record at least once. Their rosters now include the most expensive goalkeeper and defender in the world, and the most expensive player ever signed by an English club.
Five of the teams have changed their manager, some more than once, appointing a cadre of the finest coaches of their generation, men who have won multiple championships in Spain, Italy, Germany, and France, as well as a glut of Champions League and Europa League crowns. The one that has not, Tottenham, has built a stadium described as the most advanced in the sport, at a cost of 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion).
The impact has been seismic, most obviously manifested and most easily gauged by the relentlessness of this season’s title race. The searing pace set — and, more impressively still — maintained by Manchester City and Liverpool has burned off not only the contemporaneous competition; both have long since left behind the best teams in league history.
By the end of March, Liverpool had already surpassed the 75-point total that was enough for Manchester United to win the league in 1996. By the first week of April, both teams had more points than United’s famed treble winners in 1999. Manchester City’s win at Crystal Palace on April 14 meant each had surpassed Leicester’s points tally from 2016 with a month to play.
Victories this weekend, against Huddersfield and Burnley, would mean both will have more than Arsenal’s 2004 Invincibles, who went an entire season unbeaten. It is likely that whichever contender finishes second will do so with more points than José Mourinho’s first Chelsea team, which won the Premier League with what was then a scarcely credible 95 points. Only one mark is narrowly out of reach: the 100 points that Manchester City racked up last year.
Between them, according to figures compiled by data provider Opta Sports, the Premier League’s top two account for 17.9% of all the points won in England’s top flight this season. That is a level of dominance that has not been seen since the late 1890s. If anything, though, the season feels as if it is very much in keeping with a pattern.
By almost any metric one can conjure, there has been a fundamental, pronounced shift in the nature of the Premier League, one that stretches beyond Manchester City and Liverpool’s current campaigns.
It is visible in the records that are broken and the milestones that are set: In 2017, Chelsea won the league thanks, in no small part, to a run of 13 straight wins, a record feat. Last year, Manchester City managed 18 in a row.
And it is there, too, in the way games are played. Between 2004 and 2014, Opta recorded 26 matches in which one team had at least 70% of the possession. There were 26 such occasions in the 2017-18 season alone. With three rounds of fixtures still to play, there have been 26 already this year.
The ultimate proof, though, is the table. For the third year in a row, the same six clubs will occupy the top six slots. Behind City and Liverpool, the remaining four members of the Big Six are tussling for qualification for the Champions League. All have stumbled recently: Chelsea was humbled, in quick succession, by Arsenal, Bournemouth and City in February; Tottenham did not win for five games in February and March; Manchester United has won only two of its last six league matches, and Arsenal has lost three of its last four.
And yet, United, in sixth, is still 13 points ahead of the seventh-place Wolves. England’s elite teams no longer need to perform especially well to overpower most of their domestic opponents; they can all simultaneously be within touching distance of crisis and the Champions League.
It would, perhaps, be understandable if those condemned to a life as cannon fodder resented this state of affairs, if they felt that such a drastic contrast blunted their enjoyment and soured the Premier League’s appeal, but there is no bubbling sense of mutiny.
“I can’t disagree that there’s an inequality in the league, but I don’t know if it’s a problem: It’s a fact of life,” Roy Hodgson, the Crystal Palace manager, said this month. “Those of us who can’t get into that group for whatever reason — least of all financial — have to accept it, and find ourselves playing quite a few games where the chances of winning are not that great.”
It does not seem to be putting off fans; attendance rates remain consistently high. On Sunday, Burnley will host the seemingly unstoppable Manchester City; the game is sold out. “We took a point at Chelsea this week and, a few weeks ago, we were winning at Manchester United with just a minute to go,” said Mike Garlick, Burnley’s chairman. “We have beaten the reigning champion every season we have been in the Premier League. Game by game, week by week, it is still a great competition.”
That intensity, Garlick argued, will be further fanned by changes to the distribution of international television income, scheduled to be instigated from the start of next season, with more revenue awarded depending on where a team finishes, rather than simply shared equally. “There will be a big difference in the income for finishing 10th as opposed to, say, 16th,” he said. “The amount of money per place goes up considerably in value. That is a considerable incentive for us.”
To others, though, it is a move designed to cement the status quo, proposed and pushed through at the behest of the Big Six. Since Leicester’s championship, they have “collectively flexed their muscles,” according to Rick Parry, a former chief executive at Liverpool and head of the Premier League. “It was a real wake-up call,” he said.
The changes to the revenue-sharing agreement are concrete proof of that unified approach. “The idea came about at a time when the elite teams were not doing so well in Europe, and they felt, in part, that was because the league was too competitive,” he said. In Parry’s eyes, then, it is not a mechanism by which to increase the level of competition but to hamstring it.
“There is no perfect balance, and the pendulum is constantly swinging,” he said. “It can be beneficial if the top six are doing extremely well in Europe, but what you don’t want to do is dumb down the league.
“You can analyze it any which way, but the new agreement will have a negative impact on the smaller teams. To Manchester United, an extra 25 million pounds is one agent’s fee for a transfer. For Brighton, it could be half a dozen players. It will make them, in comparison, much less competitive. Bridging the gap to the top six will be extraordinarily difficult.”
It is just how the Big Six executive wanted it as he sat in that hotel conference room, the Premier League’s greatest miracle shimmering on the horizon. An elite so strong that they break records as a matter of course, that they win almost every game, that they can never be caught. Three years later, his vision has been realized. Perhaps, in hindsight, this season will not seem quite so exceptional. Perhaps this is just the new normal, the Premier League as the Big Six want it to be, whether anyone else likes it or not.