Could a club from outside the ‘big six’ really win the Premier League?


Southampton's Danny Ings and Che Adams, Leicester's Jamie Vardy and Aston Villa's Jack Grealish
Southampton, Leicester City and Aston Villa are all in the Premier League top six this season

There has just been that feeling in the Premier League this season.

From Aston Villa’s astonishing 7-2 win over defending champions Liverpool, to just one of last season’s top four occupying a Champions League spot after eight games – elements of the unpredictable and unusual have defined the 2020-21 campaign so far.

With several clubs from outside the established ‘big six’ of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham threatening the status quo, should we be bracing ourselves for a shock title triumph – or are we just getting carried away?

‘Big six’ under threat?

For just the third time since the Premier League was reduced to 20 teams in 1995, three sides from outside the big six could amass 16 or more points from the first eight games of the season.

League leaders Leicester City have taken an impressive 18 points from a possible 24, while fourth-placed Southampton have 16 points and Aston Villa, in sixth with a game in hand, could become only the 23rd ‘smaller’ side to reach that tally in the past 26 seasons.

Tottenham and Liverpool are one point behind Leicester, while Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United occupy fifth, 10th, 11th and 14th respectively – though City and United have played seven games.

Arsenal became the first big six team to miss out on the top six since 2016 last season, and at this stage in that campaign Liverpool were already eight points clear after eight successive wins.

In 2020-21 the Reds have seven points fewer – a deficit worse than all but Sheffield United – although they do have room for error having won the title by 18 points.

Also, Nielsen’s Gracenote’s Seasonal Comparative Results method, which compares a club’s results with the same fixtures from the previous season, shows the Reds are only two points short of their return in the corresponding fixtures in 2019-20.

Of the big six sides, last season’s runners-up Manchester City have endured the worst start comparatively. Four points down on last season’s total after seven games, they also have six points fewer compared to the same fixtures last term.

Things look much better for Tottenham, who are six better off in both regards, and Chelsea, who have an extra point on the board but four more than in last season’s match-ups.

Note: When comparing promoted teams, Leeds United (as the champions of the Championship) are compared to the results of Bournemouth (the highest relegated team in 18th), West Bromwich Albion with Watford and Fulham with Norwich City.

Foxes threaten another upset

Leicester City celebrating the Premier League title win
Leicester City won the Premier League title in 2016 but could the current league leaders do it again?

It is Leicester, four years on from causing one of the greatest upsets in modern football history as they won the 2015-16 title, who are leading the threat of another major shock.

The Foxes, three points better off than in their title-winning campaign, have made the best start to a top-flight season in their history – their six wins and two defeats eclipsing their previous best start of 90 years ago.

Brendan Rodgers’ side have also recorded the best start by a team outside the big six clubs for 19 years.

Excluding the big six sides, only Newcastle in 1995-96 (21) and Aston Villa in 1998-99 (20) have made a better start in the Premier League than the Foxes since 1995, while Newcastle, in 1996-97, and most recently Leeds, in 2000-01, also managed 18 points.

None of those sides eventually finished lower than sixth but – crucially – neither did they gone on to win the title, though Newcastle went closest with two second-place finishes.

Leicester, six points up on their results in the same fixtures last season, have four points more than at this stage in 2019-20. But after limping across the line last season, can Rodgers’ side convert their blistering start?

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Might Saints and Villa crash the party?

Sixth-placed Aston Villa are the standout surprise package this term, having bounced back from the brink of a return to the Championship on the final day of last season to being three points off top spot, with a game in hand.

After five wins and 15 points from seven games, victory against Brighton in their next match would mean Villa match Leicester’s eight-game haul and secure more than half the points they managed in the whole of last season – when they won nine games.

A draw against Brighton would still ensure they join Southampton on 16 points from eight games, an impressive tally bettered by only eight non-big six sides since 1995.

It is Southampton and Aston Villa who have shown the biggest improvements of all Premier League sides.

The revival of the Saints from a difficult start last season shows no sign of stopping, with Ralph Hasenhuttl’s side already nine points better off than at this stage of 2019-20. Meanwhile, Dean Smith’s Villa have taken 11 points more compared to the results they achieved in the same fixtures last season.

Villa have taken 16 or more points from their opening eight games four times, more than any non-big six side in the 20-team era, finishing fourth in 1995-96 and sixth in 1998-99, 1999-00 and 2009-10. A similar showing this season would represent an almighty turnaround for Smith’s men.

Could a ‘smaller’ team really win the Premier League again?

When Leicester won the title in 2016, Claudio Ranieri’s side sent shockwaves through football as they defied bookmaker odds of as much as 5000-1.

Before then, the idea of a side outside the big six winning the Premier League seemed almost impossible.

Even now, four years on, outsiders are given little hope. The Foxes’ fairytale triumph has felt a distant memory as near-perfect Manchester City and Liverpool sides have claimed the title with 100, 98 and 99-point hauls over the past three years, compared to Leicester’s winning total of 81.

But, while none of the 20 non-big six teams to take as many as 16 points from eight games have previously won the league, five have finished in a lucrative top-four position.

A top-seven placing has been achieved on 12 of those occasions, which would leave the door open to European qualification, while five sides ended in the bottom half. None have been relegated.

Leicester, pre-season candidates for relegation in 2015-16 and with a squad assembled for less than £30m, were fourth on 15 points, three behind leaders Manchester City, at this stage of their title-winning campaign.

Leicester’s squad is arguably better equipped in 2020-21, while there appears to be similarities in the inconsistency of the big six and the unpredictable nature of results. Champions Liverpool have already dropped seven points, despite giving up just 15 in the whole of last season.

Where these good starts will take the class of 2020-21’s surprise packages remains to be seen, but Leicester’s trip to Anfield on Sunday (19:15 GMT) should provide a significant indication of whether this season is ultimately set to shock.

The full comparative table:

Aston Villa +11 +6
West Ham +8 -1
Tottenham +6 +6
Leicester +6 +4
Chelsea +4 +1
Crystal Palace +4 -1
Leeds +3 -1
Arsenal +2 -3
Southampton +1 +9
Fulham +1 -2
Brighton +1 -3
Man Utd -1 +1
Liverpool -2 -7
Everton -2 +6
West Brom -3 0
Newcastle -4 +3
Wolves -4 +3
Man City -6 -4
Burnley -7 -7
Sheffield United -11 -8

Note: When comparing promoted teams, Leeds United (as the champions of the Championship) are compared to the results of Bournemouth (the highest relegated team in 18th), West Bromwich Albion with Watford and Fulham with Norwich City.

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