It was in the early seventies when newspaper columnists began talking of English football as being dominated by a big two. In those days it was Liverpool and Leeds United and their status was only partially related to finance but after the headily open days of the sixties—nine different sides won the league between 1959 and 1969—but the sense that two teams had edged ahead of the rest was palpable. More recently the league has gone through phases of Liverpool plus challengers, then Manchester United plus challengers, then a Big Two of United and Arsenal increased to a Big Four with Chelsea and Liverpool and then a Big Six with Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. It feels this summer, however, as though that designation may no longer quite reflect the reality.
Big Six was always a slightly awkward designation. With four qualification slots available for the Champions League, the Big Four was effectively self-sustaining. Aside from 2005, when Everton broke the hegemony but Liverpool competed in the Champions League the following season anyway by dint of having won it, United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool finished as the top four in every season from Roman Abramovich arriving as Chelsea owner in 2003 to Tottenham sneaking into fourth in 2009-10. When six must squeeze into four, as Arsenal has found, it’s much harder for a big club to maintain its status, particularly as the Premier League’s middle-classes continue to invest.
In the last two seasons, City has set the highest two points tallies in Premier League history. A combination of the extraordinary resources of Sheikh Mansour, smart investment plus the genius of Pep Guardiola has taken City to unprecedented heights. Two years ago, City finished 19 points clear of the field. Last season Liverpool closed that gap to a single point but only by achieving the third-highest points total in history. Significantly, the gap to third was then a further 25 points.
City is an overwhelming favorite again this season, a status emphasized by success in the Community Shield, and it would be a huge surprise if anybody other than Liverpool can challenge. In that sense the Big Six is itself tiered. There is a Big One plus One, then the four others, each of whom has issues it must resolve. Chelsea pinched third from a Tottenham distracted by the Champions League final last season but with a ban on registering new players and Frank Lampard in his first season managing in the Premier League, it’s very hard to have any confidence about how its season may go.
Tottenham has at least held on to Mauricio Pochettino, but it is undergoing a mini-transition and is yet to put together an entirely consistent season. United is in familiar flux. Perhaps Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s new emphasis on fitness will pay off but there are plenty of doubts about his suitability for the manager’s job even before the taking into account the vast overhaul of the squad that’s required and the sense of a lack of direction from the boardroom.
And then there is Arsenal. Poor Unai Emery. His best two players last season are both center-forwards but he has always played with only one. His best-paid player doesn’t fit his system but seemingly can’t be sold—and was only saved from knife-wielding thugs last week by the intervention if his left-back. His captain is refusing to play in an attempt to force a move away from the club. And the transfer budget is limited but is being splurged, as it always was, on technically gifted creative players when there is desperate need for investment in the defense. Nicolas Pepe is a very exciting prospect, but he probably isn't what Arsenal needs. Arsenal looks dreadfully vulnerable.
And there are predators waiting. Wolverhampton Wanderers came seventh last season, 13 points behind Arsenal in fifth, but there is a sense there of a project building, even if the Europa League may prove a distraction this season. Similarly, Everton showed signs toward the end of last season of beginning to develop under Marco Silva and making permanent the signing of Andre Gomes while picking up Fabian Delph suggests it has the makings of a squad that could challenge for sixth. Leicester City, too, having landed Youri Tielemans has a quick and technically gifted midfield that showed signs toward the end of last season under Brendan Rodgers of being more than a mid-table side.
Structurally, with the Emirates and its history of regular European participation, even its position in London, it’s hard to imagine Arsenal being supplanted in the medium term by a Leicester or an Everton but equally its economic advantages are no longer so great that it can simply assume it will finish above those challengers.
Rather than an inviolate Big Six, it feels this season as though there is a Big One Plus One, then a slightly Less Big Three, then Arsenal, followed by a Three Who Might Be Bigger Than Medium With A Fair Wind. Eleven years after Mansour arrived to shake up English football, that seems a fairly major shift.