What makes a Premier League title race?
There have been several epic two-horse title races over the years, but surely to be objectively better, a race must have three clubs, all of which have a genuine chance of lifting the trophy until very close to the end.
That level of extra intrigue is something even the most dramatic two-horse races – such as Manchester City and Manchester United in 2011/12 and Manchester City and Liverpool in 2018/19 – cannot possibly match.
By the same token, the fewer teams involved and the bigger margin of victory, the objectively worse the title race is.
Here’s a look at the three best – judged by the fewest margin of points between first and third – and the three worst – judged by the biggest margin of victory between first and second.
The 1998/99 has its place in history because of the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League treble that Manchester United achieved, but it also one of the best domestic title races the modern era of English football has seen.
It wasn’t just United and Arsenal who were battling for the title as Chelsea were also there in the mix almost to the very end as well.
The destination of the trophy wasn’t decided until the final day of the campaign, but with only two games to go Chelsea still had a chance of winning their first league title since 1955, several years before Roman Abramovich flushed the club with money.
In the end, Arsenal finished one point behind United, with Chelsea four points off top spot in third. Fourth place that season, not that it equated to Champions League qualification in those days, went to Leeds, who were 12 points off the pace.
2007/08 is famed for the titanic domestic battle between Manchester United and Chelsea, who were also the two best teams in the whole of Europe at the time. But the role of Arsenal in that title race is often overlooked as the Gunners finished only four points behind the champions.
That season remains the last serious title challenge that Arsenal have put together. A poor five-game winless streak from late February to late March, which included a narrow defeat to Chelsea in a contest they had led, was ultimately the difference.
Chelsea actually beat United with only two games left to play to put the top two level on points. But United held their nerve and their remaining fixtures to claim the trophy on the last day.
The 2007/08 season was that little bit closer than in 1998/99 as fourth place Liverpool were marginally closer to the top, 11 points back.
As few as seven points separated all of the Premier League’s top four teams in 2013/14.
It was Liverpool’s incredible surge of 11 consecutive wins from February to April, inspired by an unplayable Luis Suarez, that turned this one into such a spectacle. Chelsea were also well in the race, leading the table in February, March and into April.
The Blues, under the management of Jose Mourinho in the first year of his rollercoaster second spell in charge, ultimately dropped away to finish third, four points off the top. Arsenal finished fourth, only seven points behind champions Manchester City themselves.
City were remarkably only top for three weeks throughout the entire season, but two of those were the final two when it mattered most. They were beaten by Liverpool in April, yet won all five of their final games to capitalise on Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip and then the ‘Crystanbul’ collapse.
In only one other Premier League season has just seven points separated the top four. That was in 1996/97, but champions Manchester United were actually seven points clear of every challenger.
Manchester United set new Premier League records for points, margin of victory, goals scored and earliest title win when they romped to victory in the 1999/00 season.
It came straight after the treble campaign, but where Arsenal and Chelsea had pushed Sir Alex Ferguson’s team all the way then, the challenge simply wasn’t there a year later.
The final gap between the champions and second place was 18 points, while third place Leeds were 22 points adrift of the top of the table. That was the largest gap between third and first in any Premier League season until 2017/18, more on which now…
Manchester City set the tone for the non-existent 2017/18 title race by winning what was then a Premier League record 18 consecutive games in the first half of the season. By the end of the calendar year 2017 they were already 14 points clear of the competition.
Manchester United eventually finished second with a points tally that would have been enough to win the Premier League in five other previous seasons, yet it was still nowhere close to the century of points put up by their own neighbours.
That was the first and only time any club has recorded 100 points in a Premier League season, while it also produced new records for margin of victory and goals scored, as well as equalling the record for earliest title win with five games to spare.
There were 23 points between City and third place Tottenham that season.
Liverpool have completely obliterated the competition in 2019/20, which remains paused as a result of the coronavirus crisis. Even when football was suspended in March with nine (or 10 for some) games left to play, the Reds had built up an astonishing 25-point lead at the top.
There has been no title race to speak of and the season has been a procession since autumn.
It is an incredible achievement for Liverpool, but being so far ahead doesn’t make for an objectively captivating spectacle. Drama and intrigue is what makes football so entertaining and there has been…none.
There are 29 points to third place Leicester and 34 to fourth place Chelsea. If the season had continued as normal, those gaps would likely have got larger rather than smaller.
Chances are that Liverpool will be awarded the Premier League title even if the season doesn’t resume, although it will not be possible to recognise any records they would have set if remaining games have to be cancelled are left un-played.
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