The greatest English Premier League side?

Football fans can debate the respective merits of teams from different eras till the cows come home, go out and come home again. I thought I’d apply a little (pseudo-)science to the question of which has been the greatest side in the 21 years of the EPL. To this end I compared the respective performance of each league champion since 1992 against their toughest opponents, namely the teams finishing in 2nd to 6th positions.

The results make for interesting reading. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the number of titles they have won, it is a Manchester United team that comes out on top. Not, however, the lauded treble-winning side of 1999, which performed relatively poorly against the toughest opposition (15 points out of a possible 30 home and away versus 2nd-6th).

Rather, it is Alex Ferguson’s other Champions League winning unit, the 2007/8 side, that has performed best in those crunch games, securing 25 points out of a possible 30 that season (the only blemishes being a defeat against Chelsea and a draw against Arsenal).

The second and third spots in this all-time list go to Manchester City’s epic 2011/12 title winners (24 points out of 30, with 24 goals scored versus 9 conceded); and Mourinho’s dominant Chelsea side of 2005/6 (24 points; for 20 goals, against 6).

Level with those two in terms of points but just below on goal difference are Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’ of 2003/4 and the record total points holders for a Premier League season: Chelsea 2004/5.

At the other end of the scale, the three least impressive Premier League champions in terms of results against the rest of the top six have been the 2000/1 and 2012/13 Manchester United teams (both with 14 out of a possible 30 points; indeed last season’s champions were actually outperformed by runners-up City – 15 out of 30 – in these big games), just above the bottom-ranked 2008/9 United squad.

More than one way to skin a full-back

What then can we infer, given that United’s 2009 side was virtually identical to the 2007/8 team which leads this ranking, also reached a Champions League final and actually finished with more points in total (90 versus 87)? Perhaps it just goes to show that the importance of ‘big games’ is overrated when it comes to winning a league campaign – that it is all about consistency. Being a flat track bully may not be as thrilling, but it is just as effective.

The strong get stronger

A second conclusion to be drawn from the data is that the top team has been getting comparatively stronger than the rest of the league over time: In the first 10 seasons of the Premier League (or Premiership as it was first known), only one side (Man United in 1999/2000) won 20 points or more in matches against the rest of the top six; in the 11 seasons since, this has happened no fewer than eight times.

EPL winners’ results against the rest of the top 6 (2013-1993)

  • 2012/13 – Manchester United: 14 points out of 30 (vs City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton
  • 2011/12 – Manchester City: 24 out of 30 (vs Man United, Arsenal, Spurs, Newcastle, Chelsea)
  • 2010/11 – Manchester United: 23 out of 30 (vs Chelsea, Man City, Arsenal, Spurs, Liverpool
  • 2009/10 – Chelsea: 18 out of 30 (vs United, Arsenal, Spurs, City, Villa)
  • 2008/9 – Manchester United: 13 out of 30 (vs Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton, Villa)
  • 2007/8 – Manchester United: 25 out of 30 (vs Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Everton, Villa)
  • 2006/7 – Manchester United: 20 out of 30 (vs Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton)
  • 2005/6 – Chelsea: 24 out of 30 (vs Man Utd, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, Blackburn)
  • 2004/5 – Chelsea: 24 out of 30 (vs Arsenal, Man Utd, Everton, Liverpool, Bolton) – 14 goals for; 5 against
  • 2003/4 – Arsenal: 24 out of 30 (vs Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool, Newcastle, Villa) – 18 goals for; 8 against
  • 2002/3 – Manchester United: 23 out of 30 (vs Arsenal, Newcastle, Chelsea, Liverpool, Blackburn)
  • 2001/2 – Arsenal: 17 out of 30 (vs Liverpool, Man Utd, Newcastle, Leeds, Chelsea)
  • 2000/1 – Manchester United: 14 out of 30 (vs Arsenal, Liverpool, Leeds, Ipswich, Chelsea)
  • 1999/2000 – Manchester United: 23 out of 30 (vs Arsenal, Leeds, Liverpool, Chelsea, Villa)
  • 1998/99 – Manchester United: 15 out of 30 (vs Arsenal, Chelsea, Leeds, West Ham, Villa)
  • 1997/98 – Arsenal: 19 out of 30 (vs Man Utd, Liverpool, Chelsea, Leeds and Blackburn)
  • 1996/97 – Manchester United: 16 out of 30 (vs Newcastle, Arsenal, Liverpool, Villa, Chelsea)
  • 1995/96 – Manchester United: 17 out of 30 (vs Newcastle, Liverpool, Villa, Arsenal, Everton)
  • 1994/95 – Blackburn Rovers: 15 out of 30 (vs Man Utd, Nottingham Forest, Liverpool, Leeds, Newcastle)
  • 1993/94 – Manchester Utd: 15 out of 30 (vs Blackburn, Newcastle, Arsenal, Leeds, Wimbledon)
  • 1992/93 – Manchester Utd: 19 out of 30 (vs Aston Villa, Norwich, Blackburn, QPR, Liverpool).
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