Premier League title race: How important are games between the top six?
With Liverpool having recently beaten Manchester City to breathe some life into their season and the Premier League title race, we have created a top six mini-league for each of the 30 completed Premier League seasons to assess the importance of games between title rivals.
Do title hopefuls have to beat their rivals to win the league?
On average, the Premier League title winner earns 1.90 points per game against other members of the top six, compared with the runner-up’s 1.58. Champions also have an edge on their rivals in meetings with teams outside the top six, but the difference is much smaller.
Last season’s title race was a case in point, with Man City edging Liverpool by a single point on the back of a superior record against the big six (20 points to 18). Jurgen Klopp’s men actually earned more points in games against the rest of the league than Guardiola’s City (74 points to 73).
Man City’s recent supremacy has been built on their performances against the top six. Guardiola’s side have won 30 out of 50 matches against their closest rivals in the past five seasons, lifting four Premier League titles along the way.
Liverpool are the only side that comes close to matching City’s record, while Arsenal and Tottenham – who are both contending in the early part of this season – have struggled in recent years in meetings with the top sides.
It is very difficult to win the title without beating the teams around you. Across the past 30 seasons, 97% of champions have finished third or better in the top six mini-league.
Leicester’s miraculous title in 2015-16 is the only exception. The Foxes could only manage 14 points from 10 games against their rivals – a record bettered by Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United. Importantly though, Claudio Ranieri’s side only lost two of those games which meant that their challengers were unable to claw back ground.
No team has ever won the title having lost more than 50% of matches against the top six.
Games against close rivals are especially important in tight Premier League title races. There have been 12 seasons in which the Premier League champions have won the league by five points or fewer.
Focusing only on matches between the winner and the runner-up, nine of those campaigns have seen the champion emerge with a superior or an equal head-to-head record, while only three have seen the runner-up come out on top.
The last time that a team finishing second in a close Premier League title race had a winning record over the champions was 2008-09, when Liverpool beat Manchester United home and away under Rafael Benitez. The Reds won 4-1 in the latter fixture at Old Trafford, with Fernando Torres memorably giving Nemanja Vidic a torrid time, but they were unable to catch United in the remaining nine games of the season.
Is there such a thing as a ‘relegation six-pointer’?
We see the same sort of pattern in the bottom six mini-league, with teams that avoid the drop doing slightly better against their rivals than those that end up being relegated.
However, it is unwise to prioritise games against rivals towards the bottom of the table at the expense of other matches, given that a team’s record against the rest of the division appears to be just as important for their survival chances.
Five of the past 13 teams that earned less than a point per game against their bottom six rivals went on to survive. Brighton engineered two of these escapes in 2018-19 and 2020-21, earning just three victories in a combined 20 meetings with the bottom six (15%) compared with 15 wins in 56 matches against better sides (27%).
Stoke are the only team to go unbeaten against the bottom six and get relegated in the same season (2017-18). Under Mark Hughes and then Paul Lambert, the Potters managed five wins and five draws in meetings with teams that finished 15th or below, but only two wins and seven draws in 28 games against the sides that finished higher.
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