It was a season of historic, record-shattering highs for Manchester City and Liverpool in the pursuit of the Premier League titles but - in contrast to how it’s been portrayed - it was not a season of historic lows for the other four foundering clubs in chasing pack.
Liverpool’s 97 points would have been good enough to win the title in every single Premier League season bar this one and the previous one. It was a runner-up campaign wildly out of sync with the norm and, if repeated, one which threatens to cut the big six to a big two.
But while Liverpool and double-champions City took the standard at the top of the league to new heights, the rest of the top six came in as you would expect.
If it were a golf tournament, you could say it would now be harder to make the cut, considering the gap that yawned between second and third place. But those positions from third to sixth were occupied by teams who did not perform an awful lot better or worse than teams finishing there in recent Premier League seasons.
The problem now is simply keeping up with historical standards might no longer be good enough. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City team have taken 198 points over two seasons. That is not normal. This year Liverpool joined them in the 90-something club and still that was only good enough for second. Those are norm-defying improvements. The rest of the teams have only committed the crime of standing still.
In the 10 seasons covering 2009-10 to this, an average of 74.5 points would have been enough to get you third place. This season Chelsea earned 72 points, within a single win of that average. The best third-place team of the last 10 years were Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea in the 2013-14 season when City again pipped Liverpool to the crown.
That team won 82 points, a total bigger than the 80 points accrued by Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2010-11 when winning the league and also greater than Leicester City’s 81-point total in their historic title-winning campaign in 2015-16.
By contrast, the lowest number of points a third-place team has finished on in the past decade was just 70. Two teams share that dubious honour, with those campaigns coming for Arsenal in 2011-12 and Tottenham in 2015-16.
Tottenham’s 71-point total as the fourth-place team this season is pretty much in line with the 10-year average of 71.7. There is no great shame in finishing with that number of points. It’s not quite the fourth-place high of 79 points that Wenger’s Arsenal won in 2013-14, nor is it the low total of 66, got by Manchester City in 2015-16 under Manuel Pellegrini.
Arsenal ran out of steam with a number of damaging results in the final third of the season consigning them to fifth place and the prospect of life outside the Champions League yet again. That eventuality depends on the Europa League final in two weeks’ time. But Arsenal’s final total of 70 outranks the 10-year average of 68.3 needed to finish fifth. It was Wenger’s Arsenal in 2016-17 who earned the biggest points total of any fifth-place team with 75. The lowest was Tottenham’s 62 in 2010-11 when coached by Harry Redknapp.
The 10-year average to finish sixth has been set at 64.1 points, which is lower than the 66 points taken by Manchester United this season. While much has been made of United’s struggles under Mourinho and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, they still managed to outperform historical standards. One of the best sixth-place teams of the past 10 years were Tottenham in 2013-14 when Tim Sherwood took over from Andre-Villas Boas and guided them to 69 points.
Mourinho and United matched that total during Chelsea’s title-winning season of 2016-17. So even though United’s season looks bad by the current standard, they were still only one win off matching the best total achieved by a sixth-place team in the past 10 seasons. The lowest was the 58 points taken by Liverpool in 2010-11 after Kenny Dalglish replaced Roy Hodgson as manager.
So, it’s not necessarily that the teams ranked three to six are falling behind, it’s that the ones ranked one and two are pulling away. The points gap between second and third, by way of illustration, has never been as wide in the history of the Premier League. The chasm between Liverpool and Chelsea was a mammoth 25 points this term.
The only gap that comes close is the 19-point difference that separated United and Arsenal when City won the title in 2012. A closing-stretch capitulation from United – who lost eight points from 12 including three to City – handed a first-ever Premier League title to their rivals.
The relentlessness of City and Liverpool this season – with the former winning 14 games in a row and the latter not dropping points from March to May – conjured a new reality. The exceptional qualities of their seasons – taken together – have never been seen before.
And that’s made the troubles at other clubs – such as Chelsea’s wonky implementation of Sarriball, Spurs’ stretch of five games without a win, Arsenal’s inability to match home results on the road and most of all United’s institutional meltdown – look all the worse in contrast.
But it is those other four clubs who – more or less – are matching and even exceeding the totals of seasons past. The bar however has been significantly raised.