‘Top four’ myth of the Premier League

22 03 2009

In response to the predictable grumbles that the Premier League has reverted to its boring tag, as the ‘top four’ dominate everything, I felt compelled to investigate and compare this predicament to overseas leagues.

This predominance of certain teams at the top of their tables affects all the best competitions in Europe, without fail. Nevertheless, Liverpool are an exception. They are invariably in or about the top of the league but have failed to finish first for verging on two decades now. So why does this trend of dominance occur? It may seem a little obvious, but success breeds success. And in this day and age, that means money, ensuring they remain at the top of the table.

Sky Sports' marketing campaign relies on the popularity of the clash between the 'big four'

As the leading domestic competitions of England, Spain and Italy illustrate, there are always dominant teams that compete for the trophy who excel more than the rest and move away from the chasing pack.

In England, despite the Red Devils’ dominance, the last eight years have seen the trophy been shared more evenly between Manchester United (four), Chelsea (two) and Arsenal (two). Although these three and Liverpool are regularly at the summit of the league, the latter’s singular success coming 18 years ago suggests that their status in the top four has not been decisive. Verdict: ‘Big Three’ unless Liverpool can overtake Manchester United in the remaining two months of the season.


In Spain, the two giants of the game, Real Madrid and Barcelona have traded blows and first places by a long distance from any other team with eight a piece in the last 20 years. Teams like Sevilla, Villarreal and Atletico Madrid, who are in and around the top of the table now, have struggled to turn this position into league winning campaigns. Valencia have been unable to rediscover the champion winning form of 2004 and find themselves in mid-table. Verdict: only really a ‘Big Two’.

In Italy, Milan, Juventus and Inter have shared the spoils fairly evenly for the last 20 years. Despite Juve being relegated in 2006 for match fixing, they have restored their status as one of the top teams in Italy this season, currently sitting a few points adrift of Inter in second, with Milan not far behind. Yet the past glories for Roma, Lazio, Napoli and Sampdoria appear to be merely fleeting moments of glory and they cannot make their presence felt at the top. Verdict: dominance of the ‘Big Three’ European heavy-weights.

Pie charts better

The  global recognition of the game has gone into hyper-drive since the turn of the century, meaning that the dominant teams with the history of glorious eras have been exalted above all other teams who have not received such recognition. Therefore, financial investment from the high rollers with the biggest bank balances have come calling to Old Trafford, Stamford Bridge and Anfield first. The top clubs on the continent have investment from the actual government or whole communities as if they were a religious institution. AC Milan are owned by the Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi no less, and Real Madrid’s huge debts were wiped by the city itself buying their training facilities from the club at astronomical expense and then leasing it back to the club. So clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and AC Milan, whose histories are steeped in unwavering glory, have likewise, been elevated to higher plains than their competition can cope with.

Ultimately, the modern game showers financial success upon the clubs whose past glories draw in the biggest crowds, the most sought after talent and the most privileged economic investment available – thereby solidifying their status at the top of the table – with consistent seasons in the Champions League evident of such stature. As a marketing goldmine, these teams have been built up as a global enterprise, crossing the boundaries between sporting recreation and lucrative business brands. Thus, they have become recognised by the companies fighting for TV rights (Sky/Setanta), and the billionaires looking for global investment, finding them adorned with the corporate tag of being the ‘big’ boys of the league.

So stop complaining about this establishment of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal as the top teams in the league. They are there because they are the top team in the league. If they were not there it would mean that the best teams were not playing the brilliant football they are capable of. Realise that Liverpool are yet to be truly deserving of this title during the Premier League’s lifespan and be grateful that there are at least three teams capable of taking the top spot.

So, as Fulham and Tottenham have shown recently, the other teams in the league must seize on any off day for the teams at the top. The onus is on these teams to step up to the plate. Take note Villa!




8 responses

22 03 2009

great Blog Sam, we are uploading this to Dexys Den on Tuesday

23 03 2009

A delightful read – i give this 3 soccer balls out of 5 and my own personalHOORAY! on a serious note… I like what you are doing here Sam, looks and reads fantastic

27 03 2009

nice article and looks like deep research! but still do you reckon anyone will topple the top four monopoly? As an arsenal fan – i hope not. Although Villa are only just running out of steam i think it will be difficult for a team not just to break into the top four, as everton did a few seasons ago, but to stay there. i reckon top four will stay unbroken for next 5 years at least tho

27 03 2009

That is pretty much what I mean I think Jamie. The teams in this ‘top four’ of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and to a certain extent Liverpool, are there because that is the way every European league works. The teams that were there or there abouts when the money from Sky and the money from the global market started pouring in (around the mid 90s), have had their successes consolidated at the top of the table.

If anything, only the ridiculous amounts of money that City’s Sheikh Mansour have been able to conjour up will ever enable anyone else to break into the market that the top teams have established across the continent. Even then, it may take quite a few years before they have the pulling power to lure the Kaka’s of this game to their stadiums.

19 04 2009
Mac Daddy

Hmmm… Can you do this with the main titles? Try and include the league cup, Association cup, and UCL? I reckon you’d get a better picture of the elite clubs

18 05 2009

Yes, United have only been so successful over a long period of time because of the era that their original success happened – i.e. when the money was flowing in and when they were on the TV every week, making every public school boy and glory hunter support them. If the money was around in the 70’s and 80’s no one would have heard of United because Liverpool would have killed everyone (consistently….forever).

18 05 2009

…. There are plenty of teams with a great history (Notts Forrest, for example) that are not even in the premiership anymore, so its not so much to do with prestige and history (although that plays a part in drawing in crowds and to a small extent some investors – although truthfully they are businessmen and will go where the money is – i.e. QPR, decent history [but compared to other clubs?], little crowd but BIG potential). I believe it is, to a large extent, down to when that success happened. United were lucky in that their winning formula happened when it did. If it happened during the 1950’s can we really say that they would still be at the top? I dont think so.

[N.B.] its top 4, not top 1. Liverpool finish in that top 4 consistently (the obvious prize being champions league football) henceforth they are part of the top four. If we finished in 4,6,8,9,4 then it I would agree with you but if 4 teams dominate the top four spots in the league like they do then top four is a perfectly justifyable name (Although I wish our league was as competitive as it was before all this money – how is 4 teams competing for the title better than 20? – thats why the championship is so fun, lots of teams have a chance of winning).

p.s. Its all liverpool next year! Lets hope that 5 year old girl Ronaldo leaves, and Tevez comes to his senses and joins a decent team…although who needs him when Dirk Kuyt has scored double his tally. Only 2 losses this season, scored the most goals, Reina needs one more clean sheet to equal van der sar and if you compare the prices of our players…18 and 5! Come on Barca!

p.p.s I love you x Keep up the good work.

18 05 2009

I guess the issue I have with the conundrum of the “top four” is that it suggests these teams are consistently the ones who are competing for no. 1 spot. But Liverpool have not got their hands anywhere near the top prize until this year – where they admittedly have put up a mighty challenge and must be kicking themselves for throwing away a massive lead – and so it frustrates me that a team that has not secured top spot should claim to be deserving of this title.

What frustrates me more is when people complain of a top four dominance. The’re there because they are the teams with the best ability and if they were not in and around the top they would be letting the league down. Every top league has teams that dominate consistently and that is just the way it is. The league system will inevitably shuffle the pack and the finishing standings will not lie about who has been the best and who has not produced. The reason the Prem is so good is because every team is pushed to produce their very best and it would be a shame if this was not the case.

And lastly, with all due respect, for someone who harks back to the history books to remind them of what their club is capable of you should pay more attention to the pages of your rivals. As I quote you:

“United were lucky in that their winning formula happened when it did. If it happened during the 1950’s can we really say that they would still be at the top? I dont think so.”

United won the old First Division in 1951/52, 55/56 and 56/57 and still had to rebuild a whole new team after the Munich air disaster in 58 and won the European cup 10 years later. If that tragedy had not happened, maybe the glory years would have been sustained ever since. The money coming in did influence proceedings by rewarding the teams who acheived success more richly than ever before but it was more down to the stability at the club and the development Fergie had put in during the five years previously that allowed us to go from strength to strength.

Rafa has been at Anfield for approaching five/six years now so you never know Cockney Scouse, you never know.

ps. let me direct you to my contributions on another blog if you want to scrutinise my comment further: http://blog.ukfootballfinder.co.uk/?p=949

Cheers lad

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