Despite anybody’s protestations to the contrary, there is a very clear and obvious monopoly that the ‘big six’ in the EPL enjoy. Indeed, other than Leicester City’s incredible title win of 2015/16, you have to go back to the 2004/05 season to find the last time that either Manchester City or United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham or Chelsea didn’t make up the top four of the division and thus qualify automatically for the Champions League.
‘Leicester City’ – Peter Woodentop via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The last two sides to battle into the top four, Leicester and Everton, currently sit third and sixth in the EPL table after four gameweeks, and while this is very much early days in the campaign there are whispers that this could be the year in which the big six are infiltrated once again.
Usually, the best judges of such things are the sportsbooks, who employ some of the sharpest analytical minds around to compile odds on their various markets. As far as the EPL’s top-four finish market is concerned, the bookies have the big six as their favorites, but with Leicester at +650 and Everton at +1100 they are clearly hinting that it’s not an open-and-shut case – if you read the rest of this article and agree, you can always bet on football at Space Casino and other such sportsbooks, where that top-four finish category is available among other outright options if you have strong views on how the season will pan out.
So can anybody gatecrash the Champions League party? And who is most likely to do so?
They created history in 2016 when they clinched a first-ever top-flight title, and Leicester’s EPL glory – a +500000 shot with the sportsbooks – made headlines around the world. And it made supporters of all clubs think: maybe one day my team can completely confound expectations?
As for the Foxes today, it’s a case of all change with Brendan Rodgers taking Claudio Ranieri’s place in the dugout and a high turnover of players coming and going since they got their hands on the trophy. Rodgers has reinvented the way Leicester go about their business, with a dynamic young team looking to play a more possession-based style than the counter-attacking class of 2016. They have started in fine fashion too, defeating Bournemouth and Sheffield United and gaining credible points from Chelsea and Wolves.
There are concerns, however. Even though it’s a small sample size of four games at the time of writing, Leicester seem to lack creative flair: they average just three shots on target per game, which ranks them at 14th of all EPL teams, and they take 60% of their shots from outside the penalty box – that is very much a low percentage play.
Until they become a more potent attacking force, Leicester’s hopes of a top-four finish might remain a pipedream.
If you ever needed evidence of a home-field advantage in the EPL, just take a look at Everton’s first four games of the season. They have been irrepressible at Goodison Park, seeing off Watford (1-0) and Wolves (3-2). But on the road, they have failed to score in more than 180 minutes of football at the time of writing, with a goalless draw at Crystal Palace followed by a 0-2 loss at Aston Villa.
So the Toffees will need to improve on their travels if they are to have any chance of finishing inside the top four, and like Leicester, their attacking output will also need to be enhanced. Like the Foxes, they average just three shots on target per game, and they also boast the unenviable statistic of failing to have a single shot from inside their opponents’ six-yard box this term.
Those are what are called big chances, and by virtue of failing to carve open their opposition in such a way Everton are handicapping their chances of finding the net – hardly a recipe for a finish in the Champions League places.
And finally, a word about Wolves, who did remarkably well to finish seventh last season in their first campaign in the EPL for quite some time. That gained them qualification into the Europa League, and ultimately that might be the reason why their bid for a top-four finish fails.
Those six group games – and possibly more should they progress to the knockout rounds – will place extra pressure on what is a thin squad, and boss Nuno Espirito Santo may indeed favour the continental competition over progression in the EPL.
So those are the reasons why, sadly for neutral spectators, once again it looks as if the EPL’s big six will continue their monopoly on the lofty league placings.