The 2018-19 Premier League season is upon us. Kickoff, believe it or not, is just days away. To get you set for the planet’s most enthralling 38-game soccer circuit, Yahoo Sports’ Premier League XI will delve into the 11 most compelling questions ahead of the coming campaign. Next up is the gap between Big Six and Other 14, and the candidates to bridge it.
Back in the day, there was no gap. No definitive distinction. And therefore very little significance attached to sixth place. Six was just a number, no different than five or seven.
But back in the day, the Premier League’s landscape was different.
Even 10 years ago, when the Big Four – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool – ruled England’s top flight, there was no $100-plus million revenue gap between them and the rest. There were no market restrictions – Financial Fair Play – that cemented it.
And there has surely never been anything like this: Heading into the 2018-19 season, bookmakers have set the point total over/under for their projected sixth-place team at 71; for their seventh-place team at 52; and for their 20th-place team at 34.
Think about that for a second.
And then think about the logic and evidence behind it. Think about the widening financial chasm. Think about the fact that, for the first time in league history, only six EPL teams finished with positive goal differentials last season; and that, per Understat, only six had positive non-penalty Expected Goal differentials.
The gulf between elites and non-elites is as large as ever. We said it last year. We’ll scream it even louder this time around. And we’ll pose a question …
In 2017-18, for only the second time in Premier League history, the top six were unchanged from one year to the next. Never before have the same six maintained their grip on the top of the table three years in a row. Can anybody prevent such a unique threepeat in 2018-19? Are there any disruptors lying in wait?
Are there any candidates to break up the Big Six?
Spoiler alert: The answer is probably no.
Consider the question for two minutes, and that’s the conclusion at which you’ll arrive. Dive deep into research and analysis, and it’s still the verdict to which you’ll come.
The inhibitive problems are multifarious. Everton, under majority owner Farhad Moshiri, has had the ambition. It has spent over $400 million on transfers since the summer of 2016. But under manager Ronald Koeman and director of football Steve Walsh, it was woefully mismanaged. All that money was, for the most part, misspent. The result is a still-incoherent squad recovering from last summer’s incompetence. In theory, Everton is the most talented of the Other 14. But unless new coach Marco Silva works magic, it’s tough to envision a 60-point season.
Elsewhere, Leicester and Southampton were the last two clubs to crack the top six. But the Foxes lost their best player from a 47-point team, and the Saints have lost their way.
West Ham, meanwhile, has matched Everton’s ambition, but is even more dysfunctional. Burnley, last season’s surprise seventh-place finisher, was as fluky as can be. Crystal Palace might be sneaky good, but not top-six good – certainly not after a quiet transfer window in which it lost more than it gained.
And then there are Wolves, half-newly promoted side, half-watered down Portuguese Liga all-star team. They are the wild card. The great unknown. They, too, have the necessary ambition, and devious means to satisfy it. They have a recent history of resounding success, albeit at a lower level. Could a team three months removed from the Championship really be the most likely disruptor? It has the seventh-best title odds. It may very well be. (More on Wolves later in the week.)
But only because we’re grasping at straws, and looking for high ceilings, irrespective of floors. Wolves, West Ham and Everton are our best bets. In London, there’s a non-zero chance Manuel Pellegrini pulls off a 2011-12 Malaga, with former Lazio playmaker Felipe Anderson pulling the strings. On Merseyside, there’s a case to be made for the Toffees’ talent. But none of these cases is particularly good.
So to answer the question, the better strategy might be to search not for the disruptor, but for the disrupted.
The Other 14’s best hope is a Big Six implosion
It was only three seasons ago that Chelsea spun into disarray. Jose Mourinho was sacked in December having lost nine of 16 league matches. The Blues finished 10th, essentially forcing insurgents to emerge – though Leicester, of course, needed no invitation.
For there to be a Big Six interruption, one of the six has to slip. At the very least, it has to meet the overachieving mid-table plebe halfway. And that’s certainly not unthinkable.
Of the six, Mourinho’s Manchester United might actually have the lowest floor. Envision the worst-case scenario: Mourinho’s relationships with his players deteriorate to untenable levels. Paul Pogba and agent Mino Raiola engineer his exit in January after a tumultuous first half. Mourinho goes full Conte on United executives and is axed. The 2015-16 Chelsea potential is real here, especially considering United’s xGD from Oct. 1 onward last season was only plus-2.0. David De Gea regression could realistically drag it down below 60 points.
Elsewhere, Chelsea could be a mess in year one under Maurizio Sarri. The squad doesn’t suit his style. The mismatch, akin to a NASCAR driver attempting to race in a Honda Civic, could yield strings of disappointing results and a frustration-fueled snowball effect. You’d bet on Sarri’s ability to solve vexing puzzles, so a sub-60 point total seems like a bit of a stretch. But low 60s certainly isn’t out of the question.
And then there’s Arsenal, drained of top-notch talent by the final phase of Arsene Wenger’s reign. The Gunners, frankly, just weren’t very good last year. They’re the worst of the Big Six. At the same time, 2017-18 felt like a nadir. If the nadir is 63 points, that’s not much encouragement to the Other 14.
All of which is to say that there are plausible scenarios, albeit unlikely ones – sort of like Chelsea’s implosion under Mourinho. In one sense, that 2015-16 campaign is recent evidence that the top six aren’t entrenched.
But the issue with that reasoning is that Chelsea’s collapse was a one-in-a-hundred occurrence. Everything went wrong. And yet, even if the Blues or Mourinho were to replicate it to a T in 2018-19, there’s a non-zero chance they’d still finish sixth. Only wildly overperforming Burnley finished above 50 points among the Other 14 last season.
The Premier League’s unpredictability has made fools of us all before, often enough to temper assumptions of continued dominance by the elite. But it will take a confluence of improbable series of events to unseat any of the Big Six this season.
Monday: What could derail Man City’s title defense?
Monday: Can Sarri revolutionize or stabilize Chelsea?
Monday: Who’s getting relegated?
Tuesday: Who, if anybody, can break up the top six?
Tuesday: Is Liverpool closing on City?
Tuesday: What to expect at Arsenal post-Wenger?
Wednesday: Is a Mourinho flameout already underway?
Wednesday: Is Spurs’ trophy deadline approaching?
Wednesday: Wolves: Shady, brilliant, or both?
Thursday a.m.: Predictions
Thursday p.m.: Transfer window winners/losers
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