Is the Premier League becoming less competitive?

Is the top level of English football becoming less competitive? Nerds of Sport examines the data
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When Manchester City retained the Premier League trophy in 2019, it was the first time an English champion had successfully defended the title since 2011. And in that time, 4 different clubs (Man Utd, Man City, Chelsea, and Leicester) have won England’s top division.

On the surface, these statistics seem to demonstrate that the Premier League is very competitive. That is certainly true when you compare it to Germany and Italy, where Bayern Munich and Juventus are running up new records for consecutive title wins.

But several footballing experts worry that Premier League competitiveness is under threat. They see the emergence of a ‘Big Six’ of clubs who will now occupy the top positions every season and stop any club from breaking into this new footballing cartel.

And within the Big Six, some worry that Manchester City’s financial strength – allied to Pep Guardiola’s coaching skills – will mean a sustained period of dominance.

But does the data suggest the Big Six are pulling away from the rest of the pack in terms of points as well as revenue? After all, it’s only 3 years since Leicester enjoyed their 5000-1 title win, so is this fear really justified?

And is there a credible threat of City dominating English football in the same way that Bayern Munich does in Germany or Juventus in Italy? Both Bayern and Juve enjoy significant financial leads over the other leading clubs in their countries, whereas City aren’t even the biggest earners (or spenders, in recent years) in the Premier League. And while Guardiola is a good coach, he won’t be around forever.

To answer these questions, we need some data. Let’s start with the points totals.

Premier League Points Totals Data, 1995-96

The table below shows the number of points gained by each team finishing in positions 1-20 for every season since 1995-96, when the Premier League first switched to a 38-game season. We have thrown the number of draws in there too since less draws mean more points available for teams to win.

The raw data in the chart above illustrates some well-know developments in the Premier League, as well as throwing up a few surprises.

80 points are now the absolute minimum required to win the Premier League

In 1997, 1998 and 1999 the champions managed to win the Premier League with points totals in the 70s.

These days, 80 points seem to be the absolute minimum requirement to win the EPL – and that’s in an easy year. Since the turn of the century, only Manchester United (2001, 2003 and 2011) and Leicester City (2016) got away with points wins in the low 80’s.

Amazingly, Man Utd’s 75-point winning total from 1997 has been bettered by the fourth-placed team on no less than 3 occasions, in 2008, 2014 and 2017.

Jose Mourinho raised the standards in the mid-noughties

Man Utd’s 91 points total in 2000 looked historic at the time, and not even Arsenal’s Invincibles season (90 points) could shift it.

But the arrival of Roman Abramovich at Chelsea in 2003 and his recruitment of Jose Mourinho a year later set new standards in how many points were needed to win the Premier League. Ninety-five points were won in 2004-05, and Chelsea broke the 91-mark again the following year.

Winning points totals plateaued once Mourinho left England, bouncing around between 80 and 90 points for another decade before a new set of continental gentlemen raised the bar higher again…

Conte, Klopp, and Guardiola raised standards again in the middle of this decade

Ten years after Mourinho made champion points totals in the high 80s and 90s the norm, the arrivals of Klopp (2015), Conte and Guardiola (2016) raised the bar again.

Higher/lower first-place points totals and second-place points totals seem to correlate

Curiously, when the Premier League champions gain more points than the champions from the previous season, the same is usually true for the runners-up. Why this is the case is unclear, although it could be a case of an improved runner-up pushing the eventual champions to a higher level of performance than the previous year.

On the two occasions when the champions increased their points total, but the runner-up received fewer points than the previous season, there was much wailing and gnashing of teeth that the Premier League was getting less competitive.

These two instances were in 1999-00, when Man Utd finished 18 points clear of Arsenal, and 2017-18, when Man City finished 19 points clear of Man Utd. In both cases, the following season saw the gap between champion and runner-up narrowing.

West Ham got really, really unlucky in 2002-03

It is often said that 40 points will guarantee Premier League safety. Claudio Ranieri even had a party in 2015-16 when his Leicester side reached this tally, as it meant he had achieved his primary goal for the season.

But West Ham won 42 points in 2002-03 and yet still went down in 18th place.

Premier League Point Trends

It’s easy to cherry-pick examples from the raw data, but to identify trends, we need to smooth it down a bit.

The table below shows the same points data but with a 5-season simple moving average (5 SMA) applied. The advantage of a 5-season SMA is that the effects of outliers are smoothed out, so trends easier to spot. The downside of a 5-season SMA is that takes 5-seasons for the data to show up, i.e. the 1999-2000 season.

Want to learn more about moving averages and how they help show trends? Check out this moving average explainer on Investopedia.

Draws are becoming less frequent

When Spurs went 30 Premier League games without drawing, people started to pay attention to the fact that draws were getting less frequent. From an

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