Forget the ‘worst pillow fight ever’ talk, finishing fourth in the Premier League is a huge achievement
“It’s the top four race that no one wants to win!”
Variations on this theme have been commonplace over the past few weeks and months as Arsenal, Tottenham, Manchester United and other equally incompetent clowns have clowned around from one calamity to the next.
Where is the consistency?
Look at them, with their points dropped here, their non-elite players there – honestly the Premier League should just give the Champions League places to the top three and forget about fourth place.
I don’t know why these takes irritated me so much, but it does.
Actually, I think I know: mostly because they’re largely nonsense, and it’s time to remind some people what it means to finish fourth — Fourth remember – in a league of 20 teams.
First, you’re going to be inconsistent. Teams that have finished fourth in the past three seasons have averaged 68 points, or 71 if you expand on the previous five or 10 campaigns.
Even with the highest number of 71 points, that’s an average of just 1.9 points per game over an entire season. That might sound a bit abstract, so think about what that means for, say, a six-game stretch. This translates to the fact that if you win three games in a row, you will collect an average of two points (three if you are lucky) over your three games thereafter.
In other words, you’ll show precisely the kind of inconsistency that has been used as such a stick to beat the teams currently competing for the top four, which are now probably limited to Arsenal and Spurs. So if you embark on a race like winning six games out of seven, as the two North London clubs have recently done, a poor run of results is likely to follow. As for both teams.
Arsenal, the team currently fourth, have recorded a slightly below average points per game (over the past 10 years) of 1.8, but they are aiming to reach 69 points, which would exceed the average of the last three seasons. of 68. Spurs, meanwhile, are on course to reach 67 points – just below that average.
Compared to Europe’s other top leagues, Arsenal’s 60 points from 33 games are one less than Atletico Madrid’s from the same number of games, RB Leipzig have 54 points from 31 games and Juventus have 66 in 34. All pretty similar, basically.
It’s also worth saying that given there have been four – arguably five if we include Wolverhampton Wanderers – fairly even sides competing for fourth in the Premier League, it’s no surprise that they all withdrew points and weakened each team’s eventual point total. . There can only be a limited number of points earned in the league in a season.
In 2017-18 and 2016-17, when Liverpool finished fourth with 75 and 76 points, there were hardly any challengers for the job – no one came close in 2018, while only Arsenal pushed in 2017 after that Manchester United have decided to focus on winning the Europa League. The rest of the league was by this point well below the Big Six, who had collectively flexed their muscles following Leicester City’s shock title win in 2016.
It’s also a league that features three of the best teams in Europe – the winners of last year’s Champions League and the likely runners-up in this year’s competition. It’s 18 points that are going to be extremely difficult to get for the fourth-placed teams. Fair play for Spurs, then, to have won seven in those matches, with three more up for grabs before the end of the season. Fair play, too, at Arsenal for achieving the double against Wolves, Leicester and Aston Villa. “You’ll never sing that, etc…” but beating those kind of teams, any real Premier League team, isn’t easy.
Covering Spurs, I’m constantly extremely impressed with the level of training and organization of almost every team they play (apart from Frank Lampard’s Everton – that might sound like a cheap shot, but if you were there for the 5-0 mauling on mars, you’ll know i’m speaking entirely factually).
And while it’s fashionable to deride the ‘best league in the world‘ talk that surrounds the Premier League, evidence suggests it is a fiercely competitive division. Besides Manchester City and Liverpool, West Ham and Leicester are in the European semi-finals this season, and 10 of the top 20 richest clubs in the world are English. Matt Slater’s excellent article this week – Is the Premier League the real European Super League? – pointed out that according to the Nielsen Gracenote and Hypercube Global Player Index, 54 of the top 100 and 94 of the top 200 players are in the Premier League. La Liga is the only league that’s close – and even then it’s less than half, with 44 of the top 200 players.
It didn’t sound like platitudes when Spurs head coach Antonio Conte said last week before his side were held by Brentford, a mid-table side with seemingly nothing to play for, that: “In this league you can lose points in every game. Every game is hard. It’s not easy games where you are sure to go there and get easy points.”
Why, then, have the performances and results of teams chasing a top four earned scorn in a division when victories are not easy to come by?
Part of that is down to the Manchester United effect – the extent to which they dominate talks and the fact that they have remained in the top four despite seemingly horrendous results. This left the impression that Arsenal and Spurs must, given their closeness for most of the campaign to United, be equally inept. Jamie Redknapp said last week on Sky Sports that if United finished fourth it would be the “worst pillow fight ever”.
United’s horror, however, was particularly amplified by the fact that they were beaten in four of their matches by their two biggest rivals. Arsenal also picked up zero points from their four games against Manchester City and Liverpool, but nobody really cared. Certainly compared to the four separate meltdowns that made up for United’s losses. It is also a question of expectations. United should be aiming much higher than a battle for the top four given how much they’ve spent, their history etc, so regardless of how good the run is, it would probably still feel a little under of them and their many prominent and outspoken former players.
Typically, though, there’s also a healthy dose of hysteria whenever Arsenal and Spurs lose to a side below them, which can also skew perceptions about their good or bad state – by especially in victories like those against Wolves, Aston Villa or Leicester. are generally categorized as well-you-should-beat-these-teams.
That essentially leaves the top three, and possibly United, as teams that Arsenal and Spurs can beat will be deemed successful – with any points dropped as evidence of their inconsistency.
But it’s not Liverpool and City, two generational teams, who are aiming for the title – these are both flaws – by their nature, given that they aim to be the fourth best team in a division – and inconsistent teams.
Bad-mouthing fourth-placed teams has always been fashionable in the Premier League, not least when former Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said in 2012 that “the first trophy is to finish in the top four”.
But for either side in North London, it would be a big achievement to do so this season.
Although they continue to be inconsistent and pick up only nine points each, their form over the season suggests they will by the end of the campaign.
(Top photo: Simon Stacpoole/Offside/Offside via Getty Images)