News analysis

Yawning gap between EPL's top and bottom

LONDON • In some ways, this has been the season that the Premier League got its mojo back. Performances in the Champions League, where all five Premier League entrants have reached the knockout stages, have encouraged the view that, for the first time in a long time, English teams rank among Europe's best.

And in Manchester City, the Premier League boasts probably the best football team on the continent.

There is, though, another side to all this. If the best teams are better than ever, their improvement has come at the cost of the league's reputation as a competition where any team can beat any other.

There is a sense that the smaller teams are less adventurous than ever against the big teams, with an increasing number of games playing out to a pre-set pattern of defence against attack.

Wednesday's match between Newcastle and City, in which Pep Guardiola's side had 78 per cent of possession and 21 shots, felt typical of the new norm.

Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher said at half-time: "The Premier League now is becoming a bit of a joke league, with the top teams being so far ahead of the ones at the bottom. For those clubs, it's almost like they are accepting they are going to lose the game, as long as it is only one-or two-nil."

Is Carragher right in his general premise? Here is a look at some statistics.

ARE GAMES BETWEEN THE BIG SIX AND THE REST LESS COMPETITIVE?

This season, the 87 games between the big-six teams (the two Manchester clubs, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur) and a non-big six team have yielded 64 wins for the big teams. That is a win rate of 73.6 per cent - up from last term (72.6 per cent).

The number was trending downwards, from 70.2 per cent in 2013-14, to 64.9 in 2014-15, culminating in a low of 52.4 in Leicester City's title-winning season of 2015-16.

When you look at the goal difference, the reality is even starker.

The "shot on target differential", a decent measure of the general competitiveness of a match, has risen from 2.2 to 4.2 in just two seasons.

In 2014-15, the average scoreline between a big-six team and another team was 1.86-0.93.

In 2015-16, the gap narrowed to 1.79-1.04. But, in each of the past two seasons, it has widened: last season, it was 2.27-0.80, and this season it is 2.43-0.71.

Put another way, in two seasons, the average goal difference in a Premier League match between a big team and a smaller team has more than doubled, from 0.75 to 1.72.

DO THESE GAMES FOLLOW A SET PATTERN: ATTACK V DEFENCE?

In 2015-16, big-six teams were having an average of 15.9 shots in matches against the rest, with their opponents attempting an average of 10.3 shots.

But in the past two seasons, the disparity has grown. Last season, the big-six teams had an average 17.8 shots in these games, with the rest attempting 8.3. This season, the gap has widened: 18.3 shots per game to 7.6.

Looking at shots on target in these matches, a better measure of high-quality chances, the story is the same.

In 2014-15 and 2015-16, the numbers were steady: 5.6-3.3, and 5.5-3.3. Last season, the big teams managed 6.4 shots on target, compared with 2.8 for their smaller opponents. This season, these games are more imbalanced, with the big teams averaging 6.6 shots on target, and the smaller teams averaging only 2.4.

The "shot on target differential", a decent measure of the general competitiveness of a match, has risen from 2.2 to 4.2 in just two seasons.

In terms of possession, the gap is also growing. In 2013-14, the average possession percentage share in a match between a big-six team and others was 58.3-41.7. In 2015-16, it was 60-40. This season so far, it is 64.8-35.2.

You could argue that, given the financial gulf between the Premier League's haves and relative have-nots, the smaller teams have every right to play defensively.

Newcastle might have been dominated by City, but equally they hung in the game and could easily have nicked a draw at the end.

"The crowd accepts it," Arsene Wenger said after Arsenal's 0-0 draw with West Ham this month. "They start with the idea that if it's 0-0, it's a good result.

"You would say as long as you don't score the first goal, you're in a position where you have to take a gamble. It is a modern problem."

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Yawning gap between EPL's top and bottom'. Print Edition | Subscribe