The concept of the Premier League having a “Big Six” has been Big News at the time of writing (April 2021) due to the rather insane idea of the European Super League. That ill-fated scheme was rapidly binned following a rare demonstration of fan power but there is no doubt that the concept of the Premier League having leagues within the league is one that carries a lot of weight. Here we take a look at all things big six, including whether they really merit that tag and how the top flight might look without them.
Who Are the Premier League ‘Big Six’?
Before we begin, let’s be clear about which teams are included in the term ‘the big six’. When you hear this mentioned by fans and pundits, the clubs they are referring to are: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham.
It has come to be such a familiar and oft-used term because these six sides typically finish high up the table and enjoy far larger revenue streams than all other English clubs. For many years, Premier League discourse talked about the ‘big four’ but this newer concept of the ‘big six’ better reflects the current situation of the English top flight as we will now explore.
When Did the ‘Big Four’ Become the ‘Big Six’?
Before the age of the big six, we regularly heard mentions of the big four as there was a quartet of Premier League teams far more dominant than the rest, both on and off the pitch. This firmly established elite of English football involved Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Starting from the 2002/03 season and running through to the 2008/09 season these teams consistently occupied the top four places of the final league standings.
The exact order regularly changed but there was only one exception to the main rule, when Everton pipped Liverpool to fourth spot by three points in 2005. Even then, it should be noted that the Reds still managed to qualify for the Champions League on the account of being the defending champions. Aside from that though, no other side was able to temporarily pierce the dominance of this truly formidable quartet.
Then, in the 2009/10 season something rather strange happened. A struggling Liverpool finished way down in seventh place while Tottenham beat the now financially powerful Manchester City (who finished fifth) in the race for the vacant top four spot. Rather than being a mere one-off event like it was in 2004/05 though, neither of these clubs ended up going away.
Although their new found riches did not reap rewards in 2009/10, Man City went on to finish in the top four the following season and have not finished worse than fourth since. Tottenham, on the other hand, had to wait another six years before a Champions League return but they were regularly knocking on the door. In the 2011/12 and 2012/13 seasons, they missed out on a top four finish by a single point. By comparison, in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 seasons, there was an 11 and 9 point gap respectively between fourth and fifth.
With City transformed into a title winning side (they claimed their first PL title in 2011-12) and Tottenham now much improved, it no longer seemed appropriate to talk about the top four and instead a top six. So, the early 2010s was the period that really saw the emergence of the term and ultimately the demise of the ‘top four’.
How Strong Is the Concept of a Big Six?
We cannot speak about the future but certainly towards the end of the previous decade, this idea of the top six was well established and completely fit for purpose. During the 2010s, both establishment breakers, Man City and Spurs, secured a top six finish during every single season. Interestingly all of the original big four were unable to match that.
Arsenal, Chelsea and Man Utd only experienced one year outside the top six while a topsy turvy Liverpool still managed to secure a top six finish seven times. So, throughout an entire decade there were only six instances of a non ‘big six’ side finishing in the top six (Leicester x 2, Everton x 2, Southampton and Newcastle).
It was not simply on-pitch results that helped reinforce this concept of a ‘big six’ though, it was the clubs’ off-pitch financial clout too. The previous big four were far richer than any of the other sides in the league and it was this that helped cement their seven-year reign. The status quo first began to find itself under threat through when Man City were bought by Sheikh Mansour, who has an estimated net worth of £17bn.
Extremely willing to invest in players, he helped finance £320m in transfers between September 2008 to September 2010. Although this did not immediately lead to success on the pitch, it did eventually prove to be the lynchpin of their many successes during the 2010s.
Tottenham’s break away from the mid-table pack on the other hand was far more gradual and organic in nature. Despite lacking an incredibly wealthy chairman, they quietly went about their business, making a series of shrewd investments with Daniel Levy at the helm. In 2020, their commercial revenue stood at £161.5m, more or less triple the figure published in the 2013 annual report (£56.5m).
By 2016/17, the Deloitte Football Money League report highlighted that all of the big six had revenues exceeding €350 while the next closest side Leicester, despite the addition of Champions League money, trailed with €271m. Skip forward to Deloitte’s 2019 report and each big six side were among the 10 top richest clubs in world football. By this point, the gap between England’s sixth ranked side (Tottenham – €445.7m) and seventh ranked side (Everton – €212m) had grown even larger. Without Champions League money coming in, Leicester had slipped down a domestic place with revenues totalling €171m.
As discussed above, the idea of the big six not only reflects on field results but also the disparity in revenues. You might be wondering why finances really matter when football is a results driven business. After all, fans are here to celebrate wins and trophies, not revenue and annual growth.
While this is a fair point, there is so much evidence supporting the idea that more money leads to more success. Therefore, the fact that the big six clubs are significantly richer than the rest means that they are likely to stay largely on top, barring some financial disaster (see Leeds in the early 2000s).
Data from the 2020 Deloitte Annual Review shows us that in the 2017/18 season, the Spearman’s rank correlation coefficient, used to measure the link between league position and total wage cost, increased to 0.82 in 2018/19 up from 0.75 in 2017/18. Across the league, 14 clubs finished within two places either side of their ranked wage expenditure. In simple terms, there is a very strong link between paying players high wages and achieving success. Who would have thought it?
Deloitte went on to say that “at the top of the table there continues to be a strong relationship between league position and total wage costs”. They also noted that mid-table is where you see a far more competitive and unpredictable environment, prone to quite significant changes year on year. Sheffield United provide a very recent example of this, finishing ninth in 2019/20 but then relegated by mid-April the following season. While the big six are not completely immune to a major one-season slump like this, such instances are much, much rarer. And, seemingly, are becoming increasingly rare.
The Big Six & Trophies
The big six have not come to simply dominate the league, they have had a large stranglehold on domestic cup competitions too. Each year teams in the English top flight compete for three major honours: the Premier League, the FA Cup and the League Cup (often run under one of its many different commercial guises, e.g., the Carabao Cup).
Between 2010/11 and 2019/20, big six teams won nine of the 10 available Premier League titles, nine of the FA Cups and eight of the League Cups. It is worth mentioning that a trophyless Tottenham did not contribute to any of these figures despite their best efforts. Nevertheless, there has been a clear domination from the top six just like the top four before them. When looking at the seven seasons between 2002/03 and 2008/09, the old big four claimed all seven league titles, six FA Cups and five League Cups.
As we can see, there is an extremely strong correlation between Premier League performance and ability to win a trophy. It would therefore be safe to assume while the top six continues to exist, they are likely to claim the lion’s share of the available domestic trophies. This should hold true even though domestic cup competition’s hold lower importance than they once did. Rotation in cup games is a common sight, particularly in the early rounds, but the big clubs who typically have more strength in depth tend to see a smaller drop in quality when doing so.
The big six have the strength in depth to rotate, especially in the earlier rounds, and still have a far superior XI on the pitch than most of their rivals. What is more, given the financial rewards on offer in the PL, we now see more clubs employing rotation. Previously, it tended only to be the sides involved in European competition who were likely to field much-changed teams in the cups (especially the League Cup). In contrast, however, we now see most clubs prioritising the league, especially those battling to avoid EPL relegation and those pushing for promotion from the Championship.
Are ‘Big Six’ Clashes the Most Entertaining Watch?
In theory, having the biggest sides in the league facing each other sounds rather riveting. Not only do you see the many of the best players in the country in action but often these games are of significant importance in the race for the title/top four. These headline clashes are heavily marketed as central to “Super Sunday” and the like and tend to attract a larger audience as a result but do they deliver?
This depends on the season. The 2020/21 campaign, for example, was particularly woeful for the bigger contests for the most part. By April, top six clashes had averaged a mere 2.18 goals per game, significantly lower than the 2.63 league average. Even this low figure was skewed by a somewhat bizarre 6-1 win Tottenham enjoyed over a 10-man Manchester United. Take away this game and the average drops to a round 2.
While the 2020/21 season witnessed a definite tactical shift in big games with managers, such as Jose Mourinho, Ole Gunnar Solskjær and Thomas Tuchel, often cautious in their approach, it is important to remember not every season is like this. Even one year prior, the big six clashes averaged 3.03 goals a game, substantially more than the league average of 2.72. This same figure was also recorded in the 2017/18 season, so do not have this idea that big clashes are always cagey and chance-limited affairs. Also, consider that because of their often high-stakes nature, sometimes you can have a highly engrossing affair without goals, especially if it is towards the business end of the season.
What If the Top Six Didn’t Exist?
The team that would benefit most should the top six suddenly vanish (or scurry off to form their own money-grabbing Super League!) would be Everton going by previous data. According to research by betting-offers.com, between the 2010/11 and 2019/20 seasons, the Toffees would have topped the table three times if all matches involving a top six ride were removed. Just to stress this point for a moment, in their data the top six were not simply removed from the final standings. Instead, the league was recreated as though the top six ceased to exist. So the league is recalibrated removing all fixtures involving the big six, effectively creating a 26-game season.
Interestingly, when looking at the title races, there would have been fewer one-horse races virtually decided by February/March but also fewer that featured a truly nail-biting finish. Without the big six therefore, the battle for the title would generally be a more competitive affair but lacking in anything extremely high on drama like we witnessed in 2018/19 and 2011/12 (for example).
That said, there is the chance that had the teams known they were actually in a title race the extra pressure would have helped make the real battle closer, especially in a number of the campaigns listed below where the winning margin is relatively small.
Top Six vs Other Teams Winning Points Margin
|Title||Actual Winner||Winning Points Margin||Without Top 6 Winner||Winning Points Margin|
|2011/12||Man City||0 (+8 GD)||Newcastle||7|
Another aspect to consider is Champions League involvement. Far from having a bunch of regular representatives from England, the top European stage would have seen far more variety without the big six. Again, we will take a look at the data between 2010/11 and 2019/20 to see who would have secured a place among the European elite (or at least for the qualifying stages) without those pesky big boys. For the purposes of this, we will assume that despite the decrease in quality, England would retain all four Champions League spots.
Top Teams Aside from Big Six
|Team||Champions League Qualification Without Big 6|
Clearly and by a huge margin, Everton would be the biggest beneficiary of a non-top six Premier League when looking at Champions League inclusion. The Toffees would have been an absolute mainstay of the competition, qualifying in nine consecutive years starting from 2011/12. Southampton are perhaps not the side you would expect to follow the Merseysiders but they would have clinched automatic qualification four times courtesy of top-two finishes.
Over the entire decade, assuming the fourth placed side navigated the qualification stages, we would have seen 16 unique English (or Welsh) sides on Europe’s elite stage. In reality, due to the top six dominance, we only saw seven different teams, the top six plus one sole appearance from Leicester in the 2016-17 season.
The Future of the Top Six
One thing to remember is that things do change in football. Sometimes the change is sudden and largely unexpected. Who would have guessed, for example, when Sir Alex Ferguson lifted a 13th Premier League title during his farewell campaign, that the Red Devils would finish seventh the following season? You also have cases such as with Manchester City and Chelsea when new, extremely wealthy owners come in and drastically change the club’s future.
Then, there is more gradual change like we have seen with Tottenham. Between 1999/00 and 2008/09 their average league finish was 9th (9.3 to be exact) with an average points tally of 52.1, so firmly mid-table. Look at the following 10 years, however, and this jumped to 4th (4.1) with their average league points total jumping up massively to 71. Although chairman, Daniel Levy, does justifiably come under fire now and again, his steady transformation of the club is well worthy of much praise.
Will Another Team Squeeze Their Way Into the Pack?
At this stage, given the strong correlation between wealth and success, it seems unlikely any of the current big six are likely to fade into mid-table obscurity, at least not for an extended period. Any side is of course liable to have a poor season or two but we would not expect them to finish outside the European places for several years running. So, with the current top dogs unlikely to be responsible for their own demise, it is up to one of the outsiders to squeeze their way into the pack to form a top seven or even top eight.
This could perhaps occur if an extremely rich individual or group, content with taking losses in pursuit of glory, decides to buy a Premier League (or even Championship) club. Newcastle were one side heavily linked with a Saudi takeover during the 2020/21 season, a deal which would have likely resulted in much greater transfer activity for the Magpies. However, whilst many consider them to be rather toothless, the Financial Fair Play rules that have been brought in over the past few years have somewhat reduced the capacity for a rich owner to invest wildly.
Alternatively, you could see clubs like Leicester break their way into the current establishment through smart spending, scouting, development and selling, and consistent results. Despite lacking the riches of their big six rivals, the Foxes have managed a top six finish in 2015/16 and then again in 2019/20 and 2020/21. If they were able to manage this again for let’s say, three more years, then this would perhaps trigger a rethink of the ‘big six’ term, especially if the revenue gap decreases too (which it surely would, especially if the Foxes were able to regularly secure Champions league football).
Everton are perhaps another side who might fancy themselves to squeeze their way into the ruling class. Although they are not a major threat to the status quo at the moment, they still managed eight top eight finishes during the last full decade (2010-2019). With this level of consistency, they do have the foundations to push on but the step up will be a big ask. They have a committed and wealthy owner in Farhad Moshiri though, and with a new stadium being built they will be able to increase their revenue too.
So, all in all, whilst the big six may seem firmly entrenched, there are a number of clubs who will hope to force their way into the elite within the elite in the coming years. We have not mentioned Leeds or West Ham either, whilst other clubs some consider to be sleeping giants could also hope to challenge. Perhaps the big six are worried, something which would certainly explain their desire for the closed shop of a Super League?