The Premier League’s top six teams are, as you’ll have no doubt noted, quite good. The upper end of the table is so thoroughly packed with quality now that, even though Arsenal improved on their points tally from last season by five points, they ended up finishing 5th as opposed 2nd in 2015-16. For the big boys it’s a question of how many points you can avoid dropping in silly circumstances on your way to a title challenge or a European football spot.
Yet there’s also something in it for the 14 other teams who push back against the elite, only to end up getting steamrolled more often than not. If you can game plan correctly and get an unexpected win or draw it could be huge in the battle against other relegation strugglers. Or for those treading water in midtable it could be key in an attempt to enter into the league’s upper echelon.
Now that the season is over we can take a look back at who got the most out of these matches. We’ll pick through the more interesting of these in a moment but first lets get you those juicy overall tables.
Premier League Top Six In Matches Against Non-Top Six Teams:
Rest of the Premier League In Matches against the Top Six:
Chelsea vs Tottenham
To win a title you need to be good enough to do so and you need a variety of things to go your way. Season after season the team who wins the PL has this combination of quality and luck, and Tottenham had that in 2016-17. The fantastic ability of their players and how well-drilled they are in Pochettino’s style is self-evident. On top of it all though Hugo Llloris posted the league’s highest save% (76.2%) and they had the second largest overperformance on their expected goals for (per ObjectiveFootball). They squeezed every last drop out of their season, as James Yorke put it.
There was, however, one respect in which they were spectacularly unlucky: They had this season at the same time Chelsea were having an even better one. To put this into perspective, here’s how many total points each PL winner dating back to 2010-11 gained from matches against non top-six teams: 67, 70, 67, 75, 65, 63. Tottenham’s tally of 71 is, by all rights, an obscene number. It just happened to fall behind a much more obscene one.
Big Sam’s Big Return:
Allardyce took over as manager of Crystal Palace on the 23rd of December 2016, with Palace sitting a point above the relegation zone. They only managed to scrape four points from their first eight matches under him, but so bad were the teams around them that at the end of those eight matches they were still a point above the drop. Yet many people considered them a major favourite for relegation. Why? At the time they had only played six of their unfortunately mandatory 12 matches against the PL’s top six. Surely strength of schedule would be too much to overcome.
Then, out of nowhere, they won three in a row against top six teams. A run that immediately jettisoned them to the second best record in such matches, and kept them there for the remainder of the season despite losing the rest. These weren’t lucky breaks either. The 2-1 win away at Chelsea was a bit so-so, but they matched Liverpool at Anfield and deservedly beat Arsenal at home. No team should expect to do well against the dominant teams, but if you can just do better than those around you it can make a huge difference come the end of the season.
Manchester United’s Home Woes:
Make no bones about it: there were times this season where Mourinho was a little too Mourinho. His ‘don’t lose as a priority’ tactics occasionally hurt United more than it helped, especially in matches against fellow top six teams. Yet for every match where they got what they deserved, they had one that looked like this:
This is the kind of errant luck that produced many of those 11 draws against non-top six teams, eight of which were at home. Mike Goodman wrote a great article going over this in detail that you should give a read. The overall point though is that if even just a handful of these matches swung their way the narrative on United would be wildly different, and Mourinho wouldn’t have to be sweating winning the Europa League to avoid not qualifying for the Champions League.
This is something that has been said previously on this blog but it bears repeating in this roundup: You have to do better against the top six than Stoke did this season if you consider yourself a candidate to leapfrog other midtable sides into the group of clubs looking at a Europa League spot. Again, no one does overwhelmingly great in these matches. That doesn’t excuse Stoke getting humbled over and over in them, conceding more goals than the team who finished bottom of the table.
Their highest home attendance of the season was a 4-0 loss to Tottenham. The second of three 4-0 thumpings in a row that Spurs have handed them. For the love of god, give your supporters some respite.
On the other side of the ‘you have to do better’ divide lies a dishevelled Liverpool. They were undefeated against other top six teams this season, winning five and drawing the rest. There’s no real question that they’re as good as those around them, but it didn’t stop them frequently dropping points elsewhere in stupid circumstances.
Six Losses against the rest of the league were characterised by sterile play in possession and bewildering mistakes in defence. If you’re Jürgen Klopp there’s no question about what needs to be improved upon next season to avoid dropping out of the title race prematurely (if you are actually Jürgen Klopp, thanks for reading. The beard is looking good mate).