The English Premier League’s Fluctuating Top Four

Photo credit: Reuters/Darren Staples Do not reproduce.
Photo credit: Reuters/Darren Staples
Do not reproduce.

The English Top Four looked really different last season. Sure, you had the typical mainstay Arsenal and one of the new powers Manchester City, but two surprising teams joined them. In third was Tottenham Hotspur, who had done the Top Four song and dance a few times in recent memory, but were still quite the underdog for Top Four heading into the season. Of course, the biggest surprise of all was Leicester City, who not only cracked the Top Four for the first time since the league got a Top Four in the 2001-02 season, but won the title after marginally staying up the season before.

Heading into this season, many are wondering whether or not Leicester and Tottenham were one-hit wonders and could make the Top Four again, especially with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester United, who missed out on Top Four the year before, strengthening in the managerial and player departments. These topics of conversation are only just a small part of a bigger matter, though. The Premier League’s Top Four, for the first time since they were allotted four spots in the UEFA Champions League, is in a large state of flux.

The initial two years of the English Top Four’s existence saw Manchester United, Arsenal, and Newcastle — longtime mainstays at the top of the Premier League table up to that point — remain in the quartet. Season one, 2001-02, saw Liverpool round out the Top Four; the next year saw Chelsea, in the season before the Roman Abramovich era began, replace the Merseyside club. The following year would have room for both Chelsea and Liverpool in the Top Four, Newcastle would drop out of it once and for all.

Once Newcastle had left, a consistent Top Four was born. Minus the 2004-05 season, when Everton replaced Liverpool as one of the best four teams in England, everyone knew who would occupy the Champions League spots come May. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, and Manchester United rotated spots from 2003-04 to 2008-09, with Manchester United claiming three titles, Chelsea taking two, and Arsenal grabbing one. The traditional English Top Four were also enjoying success in the Champions League, going three consecutive seasons from 2006-07 to 2008-09 with three English semifinalists. English teams lifted the trophy on two occasions, first Liverpool in 2004-05 and then Manchester United in 2007-08.

The traditional Top Four was set, and it did not take people very long to get used to these four as the dominant teams in England. At first, it was Tottenham that disrupted the Top Four many were getting used to. As Liverpool sunk to seventh after a poor season, it was the Spurs who managed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in their history. Tottenham’s first appearance in the Top Four, though, was just a transition period for a new Top Four the people would get used to.

Three years after being bought by the Abu Dhabi United Group, of which the main subsidiary is City Football Group, Manchester City clinched their first finish in the Top Four, in addition to winning the FA Cup, in 2010-11. Under new ownership, Manchester City dethroned Liverpool as a Top Four regular and took the Reds’ usual place. Though the combination of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, and Arsenal has become somewhat of a regular in the five seasons since, appearing three times in that span of time, it has not been nearly consistent enough to call it the new traditional Top Four.

None of these years have fallen back to back, and while Arsenal and Manchester City have remained in the Top Four, the rest have shuffled around a bit. Tottenham have often been the ones to pounce on other team’s failures, making the Top Four twice, while Liverpool did so once in 2013-14, and Leicester broke into the quartet last year. Either Manchester United or Chelsea, or in the case of last season, both, finished outside the Top Four in those years.

So to answer the question: Can Leicester or Tottenham make the Top Four again? Both have employed similar strategies to do as well as they can in 2016-17 by keeping ahold of as many of their core from the season before as possible while making the necessary additions for depth’s sake. Spurs have done a better job of it than Leicester, who lost N’Golo Kanté to Chelsea while Spurs have let go of only youth players. It was, though, probably easier work for Spurs than Leicester, because, as Claudio Ranieri put it bluntly, “it’s easier for ET to come to Piccadilly Circus” than for the Foxes to repeat as champions.

There is the added factor that the likes of new Top Four constant Manchester City and new Top Four irregulars Chelsea and Manchester United made managerial changes heading into the new season. Manchester United are now under the control of José Mourinho, who has racked up trophies everywhere he’s gone and has experience in England after two stints with Chelsea. Meanwhile, Manchester City and Chelsea have added Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte, respectively, both who are well decorated as coaches, but lack Premier League experience. All three have been tasked with revamping unperforming squads from the year before.

If we are to take Ranieri’s quote seriously while believing another team from outside the combined Top Fours of the two seasons before will not be part of the mix this season (which, if last year proves anything, may be ill advised), five teams will be competing for four spots. There’s little we know to back up any claim that any one of them will finish in the Top Four. We know even less when it comes to a third generation of a consistent group of Top Four finishers in the Premier League as the league continues to be as competitive as ever. Perhaps a resurgence of the Arsenal/Chelsea/Manchester City/Manchester United quartet is in order. Perhaps Tottenham can stick it out amongst the best, boasting little squad and managerial changes. Maybe some other team, out of nowhere, can be a surprise Top Four team.

However it ends, the lesson from last season rings true just three months later. Anything can happen, and perhaps that’s what the allure of the 2016-17 Premier League season is.

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