There was a remarkable coincidence at about 9.15pm on Wednesday evening. At the Etihad Stadium, Cardiff City broke forward and Oumar Niasse struck a shot that stung Ederson’s palms. At almost exactly the same time, some 200 miles away, Brighton & Hove Albion crossed the halfway line at Stamford Bridge and Bernardo, the substitute, tested Kepa Arrizabalaga from long range. Both efforts, late in the game, were greeted with mock hysteria by the away fans. “We’ve had a shot,” came the chant from both sets of supporters.
It was Brighton’s ninth match this season against an opponent from the Premier League’s big six (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur) and their seventh defeat. Chris Hughton, the manager, lamented that “the quality can wear you down”. Neil Warnock, the Cardiff manager, said something similar.
They were not wrong. Between them, Cardiff, Fulham and Huddersfield Town, the Premier League’s bottom three, have played 31 league games against the big six this season and have lost every one. Rafael Benítez guided Newcastle United to a stirring victory over Manchester City in January, but they have lost their other ten games against the elite. Even Watford, in eighth place, have lost nine out of nine since beating Tottenham at Vicarage Road in September.
Equally alarming is the one-sided nature of so many of these matches. In this week’s fixtures against Newcastle, Cardiff, Brighton and Crystal Palace respectively, Arsenal, City, Chelsea and Tottenham scored nine goals without reply — and that barely reflects the nature of the contests. In terms of attempts on goal, it was 77 to 15.
On one hand, this level of domination suggests that the top teams in English football are as strong as they have been for a long time, as their resurgence on the Champions League and Europa League stages indicates. Even Warnock found himself gushing on Wednesday about the quality of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool.
On the other hand, all the hype around the Premier League revolves around its claim to be uniquely unpredictable — the league where, on any given day, anyone can beat anyone. That has not been the case over the past couple of seasons as the big six have pulled away. This term, the gap has got bigger and bigger.
So far this season, the big six teams have played 70 games at home to the rest. They have won 59, drawn eight and lost only three. The exceptions were all achieved in December — Leicester City’s 1-0 victory over Chelsea, despite the winners having only 27 per cent of the possession; Palace’s 3-2 win at City, when they had 21 per cent of the possession and scored with all three of their shots on target; and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ 3-1 win away to Tottenham in which, from 1-0 down, they scored three times in 15 minutes. That all three of those games came within eight days over Christmas, when the fixture list is at its most congested, is quite striking.
Wolves are an exception, given that their victory over Manchester United at Molineux on Tuesday took their record against the big six to three wins, four draws and three defeats from ten league games. They seem to find it easier against the bigger teams than the strugglers, having been beaten twice by Huddersfield and once by Cardiff. Psychologically and tactically, those big matches appeal to a Wolves team containing João Moutinho, Rúben Neves, Diogo Jota and Raúl Jiménez. It is in the lower-profile games, when they are expected to take the initiative rather than counterattack, that their limitations are shown.
Wolves have performed creditably for a newly promoted team but the gap between the top six and the rest has never seemed so unassailable. The same teams are set to occupy the top-six positions for the fourth time in five seasons. That extraordinary 2015-16 campaign, when Leicester won the title and Southampton finished sixth, with Liverpool eighth and Chelsea tenth, has been followed by a reassertion of the usual order.
The next season featured a gap of eight points between sixth place (United) and seventh (Everton). Last season it was nine points between sixth (Arsenal) and seventh (Burnley). At present there is a 14-point gap between sixth (United) and seventh (Wolves).
The Premier League prides itself on the equality of its financial model but it was damaging, at a time when commercial revenue and prize money had already taken the bigger clubs into another stratosphere, to change the overseas broadcast rights distribution model last year to one that only increases the divide. The bigger clubs had no right to push so hard for that. The smaller clubs should never have caved in.
Unfortunately, that was the modern Premier League in microcosm. The biggest clubs have the political clout to dominate the debate. The smaller clubs are grateful for whatever scraps might fall from the top table.
There is excellence at the top of the division, but the gulf in quality is deeply troubling. The more that financial divide widens, the worse it is going to get.