Three-team Premier League title races are rare – enjoy this while you can – The Athletic

By Jacob WhiteheadFeb 29, 2024

Tension, at last, genuine tension!

Not the words of Victorian industrialist Stephen Perry straight after inventing the rubber band — but an involuntary response to looking at the Premier League table after 26 games.

There are two points between Liverpool, Manchester City, and Arsenal with over two-thirds of the season gone — and all three are in ominous form, with just one league defeat between them in 2024. That defeat, incidentally, came when two of them played each other, Arsenal defeating Liverpool 3-1 on February 4.

For the first time in recent years, the Premier League looks as if it could be heading for a three-way title fight. These are rarer than you might think.

Premier League top six

Position Team Games played Points Goal difference
1 Liverpool 26 60 38
2 Manchester City 26 59 33
3 Arsenal 26 58 39
4 Aston Villa 26 52 21
5 Tottenham Hotspur 25 47 14
6 Manchester United 26 44 0

The last time the top three teams finished within five points of each other was 10 years ago in 2013-14. Chelsea were leading after 26 games in that season — but faded over the next two months to allow Manchester City and Liverpool into stronger positions. The title looked to be heading to Merseyside before Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea allowed City to take control and win the league.

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Before that, the 2007-08 season was the only other three-way battle in the 21st century: Arsenal were top at Christmas before being overhauled by Chelsea and eventual champions Manchester United.

In all 31 completed Premier League seasons — with the generous definition of teams finishing within five points of each other being a ‘title fight’ — there have been 18 processions, 10 two-way fights, and three three-way battles.

There has never been a four-way fight in the Premier League. Though the 1971-72 First Division season saw Brian Clough’s Derby County (58 points) pip all three of Leeds United, Liverpool, and Manchester City (all 57) on the season’s final day.

Similarly, just after the Second World War — when rationing was in force and Stanley Matthews was England’s greatest footballer — both the 1946-47 and 1949-50 seasons saw the top three finish within a point of each other.

However, since three points were introduced for a win (1981-82), the closest point spread between the top three teams has been four points — the examples from 2013-14 and 2007-08 listed above, as well as 1998-99 (Manchester United over Arsenal and Chelsea), and 1985-86 (Liverpool over Everton and West Ham).

The rarity of a three-way battle is not just unique to the Premier League. Out of the 115 seasons played across Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues from the 2000-01 campaign onwards, just 15 have seen three teams finish within five points of each other (13 per cent).

In Germany, Bayern Munich’s dominance has meant there has been just one three-way battle since 2008-09. That was last season when Borussia Dortmund’s final-day draw sent the title to Bavaria for an 11th consecutive season (with RB Leipzig finishing third). This year, despite Bayern’s regression, Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen appear to be running away with it.

La Liga was reliant on Atletico Madrid’s reemergence in the middle of the previous decade to provide competition for Real Madrid and Barcelona. While Serie A, arguably the most equitable of the big five leagues with four winners in the past four seasons, has had just three three-way title battles since 2000 (with Juventus emerging on top on each occasion).

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Of the big five leagues, Ligue 1 provided the most exciting title race this century back in 2002-03. Lyon (68 points) beat Monaco (67) by a single point — but Marseille (65), Bordeaux (64), Sochaux (64) and Auxerre (64) were all in the hunt until late in the season, with the six clubs separated by just four points.

Paris Saint-Germain’s financial strength since their 2011 takeover has largely ended the chance of any repeat; in 2015-16, the gap between PSG and second place was 31 points. Though, take a look at this Ligue 2 table from the start of the final day of the following season…

But back to England, where the likelihood of a three-way title fight is getting ever more infrequent. The following chart shows the spread between the top three teams at the end of the season since the Premier League’s foundation, with the gap growing wider.

Over the competition’s first five years, the average gap was 11.4 points. But in the most recent five seasons, the spread has almost doubled to 21.8 points. Why?

For one thing, it is taking more points to win the league. The table below shows the number of points won by the league winners in every Premier League season. There is a steady growth — capped by City earning 100 points in 2017-18 and Liverpool achieving 99 points in 2019-20.

Over the Premier League’s first 10 years, the average points gained by its winners was 83.7 (and the first three campaigns were 42-game seasons). Over the last 10 seasons, that number has grown to 91.2 — close to three extra wins each season. In 1996-97, Manchester United won the league with 75 points; each of the last seven seasons has seen its champions exceed that by more than 10 points.

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At the same time, the points needed to avoid relegation are falling. It is almost a cliche to talk about 30 points becoming the new 40-point mark.

What does this show? That the Premier League is becoming an ever more unequal league.

In March 2021, FIFA released a Competitive Balance Report, intending to map the level of competitiveness in every country around the world. One metric showed the percentage of points won by the top three clubs over the previous five seasons; the higher the percentage, the less competitive the league.

The Premier League saw the top team win 83 per cent, second win 73 per cent, and third win 64 per cent — numbers which render the competition as the seventh-least competitive league in Europe, and bottom of the big five leagues.

Similarly, the report showed that across all European leagues, the average points difference between 1st place and 3rd place was 15 points — but in England, it was 22 (Germany’s was 21, France’s 19, Spain’s 14, and Italy’s 12).

These are all multiple ways to say one thing. With the gaps between the league’s winners and losers greater than ever before, teams are less likely to be neck-and-neck come the end of the season.

Finances play a central role here, with a strong correlation between finishing position and wage spending.

While Luton Town spend just £25million ($31.6m) each year, Manchester United and Manchester City tip over £206m, more than eight times that of the Bedfordshire club. In comparison, back in the 2000-01 season, the most expensive wage bill, Manchester United’s again, was just over three times larger than the cheapest (Bradford City’s).

Two things are true here. One of these is the gap between the ‘Big Six’ and the rest of the league is growing larger — but the other is that the gap between members of that ‘Big Six’ is growing.

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For example, this season, Liverpool’s wage bill of around £136m is worth two-thirds of Manchester City’s, while Arsenal’s (£166m), is just over three-quarters. In 2000-01, the top four’s wage bills were all within £7m of each other.

It is an oddity — and testament to the work of Mikel Arteta and Jurgen Klopp — that Arsenal and Liverpool have been able to compete with Manchester City this season, an exception rather than a rule.

Last month, Premier League clubs held a strategy day, intending to work out a replacement for profit and sustainability rules (PSR). The proposed new financial fair play rules (FFP) will likely include a “squad cost ratio”. Effectively, it is a targeted soft-salary cap, in which teams are only allowed to spend a certain sum of their revenues on player and coach wages.

Though the Premier League’s FFP rules are more focused on sustainability than equality, the new measure may make a small move to close the gap. But the reality of that remains to be seen.

As things stand, by all the available evidence, three-way title fights (and even two-way title fights) are getting ever rarer.

There is no guarantee that the existing two-point gap in this season’s Premier League will necessarily lead to a three-way battle come the final weeks of the campaign. For example, the five-point gap at this stage in 2018-19 became a 26-point gap as Manchester City and Liverpool careered away on winning streaks.

However, going by Opta’s predictions supercomputer, three teams do still have a realistic chance of winning the league (City: 51.1 per cent, Liverpool: 35.2 per cent and Arsenal: 13.7 per cent).

With 10 years since the last three-way fight, and the league only shifting one way, it may be longer still until we have the prospect of another. Enjoy the coming weeks while you can.

(Top photos: Getty Images)

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Jacob Whitehead covers Newcastle United for The Athletic, and previously worked on the news desk. Prior to joining, he wrote for Rugby World Magazine and was named David Welch Student Sportswriter of the Year at the SJA Awards. Follow Jacob on Twitter @jwhitey98

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