Thesis: the last few years of the English Premier League have seen some extraordinary results for points totals which have skewed our whole way of thinking.
Evidence: prior to the 2017/2018 season there had been only one time where a team accumulated 95 points in the Premier League’s previous 25 seasons. From 2018 through 2020, four teams had points totals of 97 or more (Man City 100 in 2018, Man City 98 in 2019, LFC 97 in 2019, and LFC 99 in 2020).
Result: we all go crazy any time our Mighty Reds drop points even though those seasons were more of an anomaly than we think.
I, like most of you, was incredibly frustrated and disappointed with Liverpool dropping points to Brentford on Saturday. The Reds were the better team and had tons of chances to put the game to bed. At the time, I tried to justify the loss by saying Brentford’s approach would really give them a puncher’s chance against anyone and the Reds just got a bit unlucky. However, I took a bit of time to think about it (harvesting soybeans for eight hours in the middle of Iowa will give you a chance to think) and I realized Brentford’s draw is more of a statement about the competitiveness of the Premier League than anything else.
The Premier League Era
Since the Premier League started in 1992 through the 2018 season, 87 points were the average total to win the league. During those years the league was always competitive even if there was a “big four” or “big six”. We always heard about those rough Tuesday nights in Stoke, but even a sunny day at Crystal Palace or chilly afternoon at Aston Villa could be a major challenge. The greatness of the Premier League was in the quality of depth and a wee bit of parity, especially when compared to Spain and Germany. Each time a team got really good; the pack would peg them back. Whether it was Wenger’s Arsenal or Mourinho’s Chelsea, even Ferguson’s Manchester United could never win more than three in a row, and even then, the pack was always right at their heels!
Everyone realized that there would be nights when you just had to grind out a draw on the road and move forward. The big goal was 80 points with three or four games to go, to have a chance at the title. Then a perfect storm of events came together in 2017/2018, and Manchester City exploded for 100 points. If that result skewed everyone’s thinking, then the following year 2018/2019 really blew all our minds as Liverpool only lost one game but drew a few too many so that their 97 points were not enough to win the league. 97 points were the third-highest Premier League points total at the time, and it was only the fourth time in the previous 26 seasons that a team had exceeded 93 points.
The Reds learned their lesson and in the 2019/2020 season, they quit settling for draws anywhere. They threw caution to the wind and chased every game to win it. This Ricky Bobby “If you ain’t first, you’re last” approach saw them take 82 of 87 points in their first 29 matches before a global pandemic stopped their run. Even after coming back to Earth results-wise during Project Restart they still won the league by 18 points (LFC 99, runner-up Man City 81).
These three seasons had amazing results and the performances to back them up. They were not fluke seasons in the fact that either team got particularly lucky to pile up that many points. However, the environment that led to those seasons was quite unique, and we should not start expecting 95+ point champions to become the norm. Manchester City and Liverpool had some perfect timing and some bad decisions by their competitors on their side to make those seasons happen.
A Look Back
First, let’s start with Manchester City’s 2017/2018 Centurions. 2018 was not a very good year for the other five teams of the traditional “big six”. As we all know, that was Jurgen Klopp’s second full year at Liverpool and while they were improving very quickly, they were still in the midst of his rebuild and suffered from defensive and goalkeeping frailties. Liverpool was about to turn the corner, but they were still not a serious challenger.
Manchester United was on their fourth manager in the five seasons since Alex Ferguson left. That manager was Jose Mourinho and he inherited a squad from Louis Van Gaal that played completely different football than he wanted to play. Van Gaal had inherited a squad from David Moyes/Ryan Giggs that played completely different football than he wanted to play. And Moyes inherited a squad from Ferguson that looked like it had run its race. United was not a serious competitor either – despite their second-place finish.
Arsenal was at the end of Arsene Wenger’s tenure, as he would hang it up at the season’s end, and it showed. While Tottenham was nearing the end of a very competitive cycle and we’re not spending money on the team, as they built their new stadium. The defending champion, Chelsea, was also in flux as this was Antonio Conte’s tumultuous final season in which they sold their best goal scorer, Diego Costa, in January as he and the manager could not get along.
Manchester City was also helped by a massive amount of upheaval amongst many of the traditional middle pack of the Premier League. West Ham, Everton, Leicester, Crystal Palace, Southampton, and Stoke all changed managers mid-season. Finally, the competitiveness at the bottom further helped City as each of the relegated teams scored over 30 points and each was within five points of staying up. Teams seemed to go into their games with City as a training game and hold off their full efforts for the “games they could win” against other bottom sides.
Credit to Man City
Now, some credit does need to go to Manchester City and Pep Guardiola. They had a wonderful squad, and Pep was entering his second year with the team. They also spent more on that squad than any team in history! The 2017/18 City squad is estimated to have cost approximately $970 million (just shy of a billion!). This includes about $580 million that Pep personally was able to spend in his first two seasons at City. All it took for City’s 100-point season was a unique combination of spending over almost a billion dollars while at the same time getting lucky with most of the league being in flux.
Many of those same factors were still in place for 2019 when City came back with 98 points. However, one very big thing had changed; Liverpool took advantage of their own great timing to exploit the tumult throughout the table to pile up an obscene amount of points. The two teams together ran roughshod over a league that was in transition.
Liverpool’s timing came down to three things. First, Jurgen Klopp had organically been building his squad to learn his tactics and keep improving. He coached up the players he had rather than having a fire sale and completely rebuilding. Second, LFC was on the leading edge of using analytics to find the right players for them to implement their system. At the time, Liverpool really was smarter than their competitors as the field had not caught up to the analytics revolution yet, and it really shows when you look at their success rate of transfers from summer 2016 (Klopp’s first summer) through 2019. The third and most important thing was the hubris of Barcelona paying somewhere between $150 and $190 million (depending on bonuses and which report you to believe) for Phillipe Coutinho. Liverpool turned this windfall into Virgil Van Dijk, Fabinho, Alisson, Naby Keita, and Xherdan Shaqiri.
LFC moved to a new level
The Reds rode their fortuitous timing to a second-place finish and 97 points in 2018/2019. The following season of 2019/2020, some of the league stabilized under Liverpool and Manchester City, and City came back to Earth with only 81 points. Liverpool however, who were still smarting from coming so close after a 29-year title drought, played as a team possessed. They rode momentum, an incredibly complete squad, and their internal stability to 99 points. Those three seasons (2018-2020) saw four of the eleven 90-plus point totals in Premier League history, and all four of the times teams achieved over 95 points.
Last season saw a return to a more normal Premier League season in terms of points totals, with City winning the title on 86 points. Liverpool faced horrendous injuries, but even with a more moderately healthy squad, they did not look capable of putting up 95+ points again as their squad looked worn out from such an extended run of playing at obscenely high levels. They would have challenged for the title with more health, but 90 points would have been a more expected point total. The biggest effect on the points totals of City and Liverpool has not been them getting worse, but it has come from what the league has done below them.
The Premier League is without a doubt the most financially dominant of the major European leagues, and despite the pandemic, most English sides are on much more stable ground than their European competitors. The popularity of the league worldwide has led to their TV and licensing profits to dwarf the other leagues and much of this has to do with the historic competitiveness of the league.
Teams like Aston Villa, Wolverhampton, West Ham United, Crystal Palace, Everton, and Southampton, who traditionally finish sixth to fifteenth in the league, have been able to pick off stars from across Europe and consistently spend big in the transfer market. They have also taken advantage of the pandemic on other leagues (and the financial craters of Real and Barcelona) and brought strong new talent to the Premier League. Even the teams that are newly promoted from the Championship routinely outspend Champions League teams from other countries.
This spending across the league has been paired with Man United and Chelsea going big in the offseason, and those two along with Arsenal and Tottenham sticking to a bit of stability at the manager spot. Throw in Leicester City and West Ham both making concerted efforts to make the top four and the Premier League has really leveled out.
Every team in the title race has already had some unexpected dropped points. We should all expect this trend to continue. Not because Liverpool, City, or Chelsea have gotten worse, but because the general quality of the league has never been higher. Brentford is going to swipe points from the big boys, so are Southampton and Crystal Palace and Brighton. West Ham, Villa, Leicester, and even Everton truly think they are one of the big boys. This is going to be an exciting season.
Liverpool will drop points we do not think they should this year. While that will suck, it will be okay in the end, because all the other teams around them will also drop points. I still believe Liverpool has the best first team in the Premier League. I also believe that while a title with 100 points would be awesome, we will all be darn near as happy winning a title with 92 points!