We’ve all seen it before. A man or lady approaches a burly fellow holding a clipboard. He is the gatekeeper and behind him is a passageway into an exclusive club where the music is loud, the drinks flow freely and the people seem to be having the time of their lives. For the patrons hoping to coerce the bouncer into letting them through, the velvet rope is more than a divider, it is a status symbol.
In the modern-day Premier League, that club has generally had four consistent members (Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool) with Newcastle United (3rd place 02-03), Everton (4th place 04-05) and Tottenham (4th place 09-10) all dropping in for a beverage or two.
However with the emergence of Manchester City as a title contender, the resurgence of Liverpool under King Kenny and Tottenham trying desperately to hold onto Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, the Premier League may be moving into the era of party-crashers and away from the dominant 90-point clubs of the past decade.
Last year’s campaign featured statistical anomalies that are quickly evolving into trends. First and foremost, Manchester United won the league with only 80 points. That is the lowest total for a champion since United won the league with the same total in the 00-01 season. I don’t think that United tallying 80 points is an indictment of how “this year’s squad wasn’t as great as past teams” as it was an indication of how much parity there was within the league.
All clubs had ups and downs, United just managed them better than the rest. Chelsea slumped through the winter. Arsenal provided its annual late season collapse. City came on strong late in the season. Liverpool spent some time in the relegation zone early in the year but found its legs under Kenny Dalglish. And Tottenham seemed to wear down after a successful foray into Europe’s premier competition.
The difference between first-place United and sixth-place Liverpool this past season was only 22 points. The gap between first and sixth was the same in 09-10 when Chelsea (86 points) held off the Red Devils (85 points) from securing a fourth straight title. In United’s other 80-point season a decade ago, the gap was a paltry 19 points. The parity wasn’t just at the top of the table in 2010-11 either. The final day of the season featured 80-plus different permutations for the final two relegation spots. When the smoke cleared and the fans were done celebrating on the pitch at Molineux, it went down as one of the craziest final days in recent memory.
And despite becoming the casualties of the dramatic climax, Birmingham City, Blackpool (how we will miss you Tangerines) and West Ham still managed to tally 111 points between them. The total was the highest since Sunderland, Middlesbrough and Nottingham Forest carried 114 points with them into the Championship following the 96-97 season (not coincidentally, United won the title that year with 75 points and the gap between first and sixth was only 16 points).
As with most things in life, football is cyclical. Sir Alex Ferguson probably said it best after United were thrashed by the Catalans in the Champions League Final in May. “I think it is the best team we have ever played,” he said after the match. “They are at a tremendous peak in the cycle of their team and you get teams who elevate themselves to that status and I think Barcelona are that team. We were well beaten. There is no other way to address the situation. We were beaten by the better team, a fantastic team of course, but I expected to do better. We expected to do better, it’s as simple as that.”
With all the grumbling over United’s 80 points last season, it’s easy to forget that in mid-1990′s the league champion registered 82 or less points for four straight seasons. In fact, the 90-point titans didn’t arrive in full force until Arsenal’s “invincibles” busted onto the scene in 03-04. The Gunners were followed by Chelsea, which wrapped a pair of impressive seasons (95 and 91 points respectively) under The Special One and United (90 points) in 08-09.
Given this data and the recent European Cup Final, casual observers will assume that the Prem is not in a position to promote a “truly great” team to carry the mantle for English football. However, I think that this conclusion is misguided. Case in point, United’s treble winning team of 1999 won the league with 79 points and is still regarded as one of the best clubs in a generation.
Maybe sometimes you don’t need a 90-point behemoth after all.
Tell me what you think. Does a club need to rack up 90-plus points to be classified as a great club? If not, then what makes a club great? And with seemingly more teams hoping to enter the championship conversation next season, will the league have more parity as time goes on?