Since the inaugural 1992-93 Premier League season, the English top flight has brought us many thrilling title races, and as the importance of the Champions League has also grown over recent decades, so has qualifying for the elite European competition, meaning that the battle to finish amongst the Premier League top four gets fiercer with every passing season.
What sets the Premier League apart from many of the other top leagues in Europe, is the strength and depth of competition in the top half of the table, often meaning that up to six or seven teams might be still in with a genuine chance of finishing within the top four, right up to the final weekends of the league campaign.
For the leading English sides, finishing amongst the top four in the Premier League is often considered to be a minimum requirement for managers at their helm, as clubs demand continued qualification for the Champions League, especially given the lucrative financial rewards and added prestige the elite European competition brings. The most ambitious clubs also want to attract the very best players, and most of those only want to play at clubs regularly competing in the Champions League.
The early Premier League years
When Manchester United won the inaugural 1992-93 Premier League title, there was just one Champions League place available to English clubs, after the competition itself had also been rebranded at the start of the same season, having previously been known as the European Cup. Meanwhile, the remaining teams finishing in the top four would have to settle for a place in the UEFA Cup, prior to it too being rebranded and merged with the UEFA Cup Winners Cup several years later, eventually becoming known as the Europa League.
As the popularity of the Champions League began to grow, so did the desire of leading clubs throughout Europe to compete in the competition, which eventually led to the first expansion for the 1997-98 edition, UEFA granting entry not only for the English Premier League title winners, but also the runners-up. Further expansion of the Champions League then granted English clubs three spots in the competition from the 1999-2000 season, then four from the 2002-03 season.
Throughout this period, traditional favourites such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool were regularly amongst the top three, but they were also joined frequently by Newcastle United and Leeds United, then Chelsea as Russian billionaire Roman Abramovic began to invest heavily in the London club after his arrival in 2003.
Habitual contenders in the Premier League top four
By the time Sir Alex Ferguson finally retired from his position as manager of Manchester United, a role he held from 1986 to 2013 during a glittering era for the club, the top four in the Premier League largely looked familiar each season. The Red Devils were pretty much a permanent fixture, while they were also joined by their greatest title rivals, Chelsea and Arsenal, along with Manchester City following the Abu Dhabi United Group’s purchase of the club in 2008, which brought massive spending.
Those four clubs have frequently dominated the battle for the top four and the available Champions League spots, for most of the last decade. The only other clubs to force their way into the top four have been Liverpool and Tottenham, before Leicester City achieved their miraculous and unexpected title win during the 2015-16 Premier League campaign, upsetting all the odds set against them by achieving such a feat. However, being a title contender or even pushing to be amongst the top four, is an accomplishment they haven’t been able to repeat since.
The dominant six
For the last two seasons, the battle to finish in the Premier League top four has once again featured the most familiar faces, and it’s no coincidence that they’re also the wealthiest and most powerful clubs in English football. 2016-17 title winners Chelsea were joined by Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester City and Liverpool at the summit, while Arsenal missed out on 4th spot by just a point and Manchester United finished in a disappointing 6th position. However, they still earned entry to the Champions League by virtue of having won the Europa League.
Manchester City have romped the 2017-18 Premier League title race, with Pep Guardiola’s side seemingly unstoppable at the top of the table, but the chasing pack jostling to finish amongst the top four has once again featured the habitually strongest English sides. Manchester United under Jose Mourinho, Liverpool managed by Jurgen Klopp, and Tottenham Hotspur led by Mauricio Pochettino, have provided the most consistent challenge, while during the latter half of the season, Chelsea and Arsenal lost ground on their rivals.
Outside the top six teams, Burnley have perhaps most surprisingly provided the most robust bid towards breaking into the habitual monopoly of usual suspects, remaining within touching distance of fighting for a Europa League spot until the end of the season, with Leicester City pushing to finish as high in the Premier League as possible. Nevertheless, both have remained a considerable distance in points from seriously aiming for the top four.
The difference in spending power
Aside from the phenomenal Premier League title achieved by Leicester City during the 2015-16 season, the most financially powerful clubs are often most likely to be battling for a top-four finish. The side assembled by Pep Guardiola could very well dominate for a number of years, depending on how long the Spanish coach plans to remain at the club. Meanwhile, and across town, Manchester United with Jose Mourinho at the helm will always be a title challenger, as well as a permanent fixture in the top four.
Chelsea are likely to make lots of changes ahead of the 2018-19 season, in a bid to not only recover their habitual position in the Premier League top four but also as a serious title contender again, with Abramovic set to spend big to ensure that objective is met consistently over the coming years. Liverpool with Klopp are once again a force to be reckoned with. For Tottenham, though, regular and continued top-four finishes over the coming seasons could depend on whether Pochettino remains as manager, given the Argentine coach has been linked regularly with the Real Madrid and PSG jobs.
Throughout the Premier League era, Arsenal have proven to be one of the most consistent in securing top-four finishes, particularly under Arsene Wenger, but how long he will remain at the club is a bone of contention for many fans of the Gunners. However, no matter who is at the helm in the future, they are a club with sufficient spending power to remain amongst the leading sides in England for many years to come.
As the wealthiest clubs in English football, Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur are habitually the top six Premier League clubs for good reason, with few other clubs able to outlay as much on transfer spending each season, in order to sustain a consistent enough challenge.
Can others potentially challenge?
Well, a surprisingly unique season akin to that of Leicester City’s title triumph is always a possibility, even if remote and infrequent. The most likely clubs to break into the top four are those capable of flexing their financial muscles, with Everton seemingly the most willing to do that.
During the 2017-18 season, the fifth highest transfer spending in Europe took place at Goodison Park, suggesting their Iranian majority shareholder, Farhad Moshiri, is serious about making his club a genuine contender. If not for a title push, then at least in a bid to ensure the club can regularly secure Champions League qualification, as they pave the way for a new stadium move.
Beyond a potentially resurgent Everton in years to come, it’s difficult to look beyond the habitual Premier League top four and even top six challengers of the last several years. Although, with a fairer distribution of TV wealth compared to practically every other leading league in Europe, the Premier League still has the potential for clubs to realistically push themselves amongst the most powerful in English football, even if only briefly.