With Arsenal in 10th place in the Premier League and Manchester United below Sheffield United in seventh, the status of the Big Six as the division’s dominant forces has rarely felt under such threat.
The Gunners are three points closer to the relegation zone than the Champions League places and the Blades, Wolves and Leicester are seriously threatening the status quo.
So are we set for the end of the Big Six era? Has it actually been better than what went before it? And would a new power dynamic at the top be a good thing?
When there was a Big Five off the pitch – but not on it
It’s 30 years since plans to set up the Premier League were hatched at a clandestine dinner, with those culinary machinations attended by the ‘Big Five’ clubs of the 1980s: Liverpool, Everton, Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United.
At that time, neither of the latter two sides had won the league since the 1960s but their size and stature was enough to give them more influence than the likes of Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa, who had both been champions of England and the continent much more recently.
To be fair, Manchester United didn’t waste much time in the new league demonstrating that they could back up their big-club status with actual trophies, yet the primordial Premier League was a comparatively egalitarian period, with Villa and Norwich pushing Alex Ferguson’s team closest in 1992-93 and then Blackburn (newly wealthy and champions in 1995, but ultimately unable to maintain that status) and Newcastle taking up the mantle as the decade progressed.
Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996 and won the Premier League and FA Cup double in 1998
In stylistic terms, the first five Premier League seasons were, in truth, a continuation of the old First Division, so Arsenal’s decision to appoint Arsene Wenger as their manager feels like the moment when the league truly began the shift to its modern iteration.
Not only did Wenger win the league and FA Cup double in his first full season, his immediate and unashamedly cosmopolitan impact inspired a seething Ferguson to up his own game and, between 1998 and 2003, the two clubs finished first and second five times in six seasons, with the sole alternative entrant being Liverpool under Gerard Houllier and Phil Thompson in 2002.
The emergence of the Big Four
The Merseysiders never seemed like bona fide title contenders in this era but they were usually in and around the top four, and when Roman Abramovich purchased debt-riddled Chelsea in 2003, suddenly, there it was, the nascent Big Four, the divisional architecture that would dominate English and European football for the rest of the decade.
This escalation in strength at the top of the league is shown in the numbers below. There is remarkable consistency in the combined win percentage of teams finishing in the top four from the 1960s through to the 1990s but the 2000s saw a big relative increase to almost 51%, while the 2010s saw another huge leap to over 55%, even as the make-up of the top four became more varied.
Essentially, fans of the English league’s leading sides (whoever they were, or are) are considerably more likely to see their team win now than their parents or grandparents did in the post-war years.
You sense that Fan TV in the black and white television era would have been mayhem.
Click to see content: PLeras
Big teams but little drama
This age of the Big Four was awash with Grand Slam Sundays and the temporary reduction of the league to what often felt like a handful of dour games between the division’s upper class every month or so.
The fact that at least one Premier League team got to the Champions League final every year between 2005 and 2009 means this period is lionised for its domination but too often the frequent lack of entertainment and ambition is forgotten.
A low point came in December 2007 when, for the second season in a row, the fixture computer had mysteriously lined up Big Four encounters on the same day, namely Liverpool v Manchester United (0-1) and Arsenal v Chelsea (1-0).
Liverpool, Arsenal and United mustered just 10 shots on target between them and Carlos Tevez’s goal at Anfield that day was a collector’s item for the era, with a grim total of 13 away goals in 27 encounters between Big Four teams from January 2006 to March 2008.
Carlos Tevez’s goal at Anfield in December 2007 left Liverpool outside the top four, nine points behind United
A decade of the Big Six
The 2010-11 season was the first time in English league history that the top six comprised Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham, and since then it has been repeated in 2014-15, 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19, the first time the top six positions have been made up of the same teams in three successive seasons.
The only outsiders to break into the top six both came in 2015-16 – Leicester as champions and Southampton, who came sixth under Ronald Koeman.
And yet the Big Six era somehow feels more positive than the Big Four period 10 years earlier.
There are more goals, more away wins, more high-scoring games and fewer goalless draws. The league feels more competitive, even in an era when Manchester City can get 198 points across two campaigns and Liverpool look intent on hunting down and bettering the Big Four era’s crowning glory, Arsenal’s Invincibles of 2003-04.
The very concept of a ‘banter era’ between big clubs was born in the 2010s as formerly impregnable giants could lurch from highs to lows. In the post-2010 period even games between the traditional giants began to open up, sometimes to a ludicrous extent. Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal in August 2011, United 1-6 Manchester City a few weeks later, Chelsea 3-5 Arsenal just six days after that.
There were more big games with over seven goals in the space of a week in October 2011 than there had been in 2005, 2006 and 2007 combined.
Are we set for the most open decade since the 1960s?
Leicester’s title win in 2016 is possibly the most crucial event of recent Premier League history, especially as we near the final stages of a season in which at least two, maybe more, of the Big Six won’t finish in the top six (and Leicester almost certainly will).
It reinforced the idea of the Premier League as the most compelling competition in the world, which maintained the league’s broadcast revenue, which has allowed well-run clubs like Leicester and Wolves to progress through shrewd management and clever recruitment.
Liverpool’s current untouchable status at the top is largely down to the same factors, and it feels like any post-Big Six era will involve more clubs rather than fewer.
Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016 and are third in the table, two points behind champions Manchester City
Leicester, Wolves, Everton and possibly Newcastle and Aston Villa have got most of the building blocks needed to make the 2020s potentially the most egalitarian decade since the 1960s, when Burnley, Spurs, Ipswich, Everton, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City and Leeds all won league titles.
The great fear of the Big Four era was that Chelsea would dominate English football for decades, but that didn’t happen. The nagging anxiety of the Big Six era was that Manchester City would do likewise. Again, it didn’t happen. No team has won more than three league titles in a row in England, which makes it unusual among major championships.
The Bundesliga is often cited as a shining example of equality, yet Bayern Munich have won the last seven league titles and have just moved ominously into first place in the table.
In contrast, there’s an inbuilt competitiveness in the English top flight which seems to be able to survive any amount of financial disparity and wild investment.