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Premier League’s Top Six: Welcome to the new normal

Don’t look now, but the 4th place trophy is kind of a thing, again.

Arsenal v Sunderland - Premier League Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

There is only one story line left for the final day of the Premier League: who will be the top four? The title has been dusted off for Chelsea for some time now, Tottenham Hotspur decided to be their token challengers leading to second place and the miserable Hull City, Middlesbrough and Sunderland are off to the Championship.

But the final Champions League spots are up for grabs as Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal have all to play for. Man City have the easiest road, needing a point or Arsenal not to overturn a 5 goal advantage or Liverpool drop points. They’re all but in. Liverpool need a win to sure and Arsenal need a win with a Liverpool stumble. That’s a fun bit of pressure and gives a reason to tune in.

A far cry from the days where the Top Four was usually well established for weeks before season’s close.

It has long been the joke for Arsenal that Champions League football meant a successful season, regardless of trophies, which is a feat they’ve accomplished 19 straight seasons under Wenger. Financially, that made sense. Lots of money in the Champions League and it attracted talented players. For all the calls that Arsenal were about to drop out, they were likely penciled in every year. It was a mark of Arsenal doing “just enough” and never realizing potential to win championships.

Now, if you were a betting person, it’d be hard to bet on Arsenal to finish 4th, identifying the first truly “failed” season of Wenger’s tenure. Nor would their immediate return also appear likely; not because of the usual line that they are a stagnant team under Wenger but simply that the League has never had more top teams vying for the honour.

Top four expectations are very much in question now.

A short history of Big Clubs

At the inception of the Premier League, or more accurately the rebranding, there really only was one big club. Manchester United, already fairly consistent and wealthy, listed themselves on the markets, leapt forward financially and for the 90s was the team to beat. During the first decade, they won the league seven times and the three didn’t win, they were second. There was little answer to their dominance.

Until a relative unknown man name Arsene Wenger came along and revolutionized Arsenal into a consistently good team that began racking up their own trophy count, despite being still miles behind Man Utd financially. These years also saw strengthening Chelsea, Leeds and Liverpool sides, although none really were threatening to clinch the title.

Then, Roman Abramovich. It took a Russian Billionaire to shift some of the money power away from Manchester and, in rapid time, Chelsea were remade into the League’s big dogs. It cemented what would become a 13 year run of Champions League football. It also began the Big Four talk, as Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool made up the CL spots for six seasons running.

Liverpool would falter but, aside from a few pop up showings by Spurs, Manchester City would emerge as another strong power in England, on the backs of of the City Football Group’s oil money. With Arsenal flush with cash from the Emirates and (finally) strong sponsorship deals, it appears a new Big Four had emerged.

But that’s when things got muddled. Tottenham Hotspur jackpotted their way into the top table on the back of Gareth Bale: first through his play, then through his monster sale. Liverpool did similar with Luis Suarez, along with already being a pretty financially well off club. Coupled with massive TV money that mean around £120m per club, suddenly there was a jumping point for smart teams who could build on it. Especially when they can also attract top managers in Pochettino and Klopp.

The Top Six... or Seven?

What this culminates in is an increasingly tougher fight for Champions League football. Aside from the prestige, it is also a financial windfall that help keep a team afloat without selling talent. A few years missing could mean a long walk in the wilderness as Liverpool and Manchester United could attest to. (At least, until they find how to make big money on the Europa League.)

But where does this leave Arsenal when in a dogfight with Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Spurs and Liverpool for four spots?

If you had to pick shoe-ins, they’d clearly be Chelsea and Man City. Both have massive financial backing and star-drawing power. Likewise, despite their current troubles, Man Utd are also always going to be a threat. They are one of the richest clubs and are less reliant on TV money than any other English club by a long shot. If these three were to dominate spots, it would not be a surprise.

Arsenal only hold a slight edge in TV money reliance over Liverpool, only their stadium and marketing deals see them ahead in potential money. But the playing field is pretty level going forward.

Spurs find themselves in the most precarious position, albeit, perhaps not for long. More reliant prize and TV money and about to embark on a new stadium financing, should the results not follow, they could find themselves in a crunch, being unable to meet wage demands of their talented players. However, they have a lot of them and past history of building a competitive team seems to be in their nature that they likely will only need a few solid seasons before they firmly establish themselves as a consistent league threat.

Then there’s the wild card team. As Leicester City taught us, a run of consistency, a bit of luck and other teams deciding to falter, anything is possible for a fortunate team. Winning a League title seems just as improbable but a hot run might be all that separates them from 7th and 4th. Currently, that team is Everton, who seem perpetually on the outside for some years now. Still, turning TV windfall into one smart buy and perhaps that pushes them over the hump, particularly if any of the bigger names fall by the wayside.

So Arsenal may be destined for the Europa League this year, barring a Liverpool-like collapse from Liverpool. The future, doesn’t appear all that brighter. Unless the team is transformed into a contender, which should be the goal as difficult as it is, Arsenal will find themselves battling for an ever more competitive piece of Champions League pie. Misstep and Thursday Nights become the norm.

At the very least, a 5th or 6th should not be a surprise for Arsenal and the massive 19 year run of top four finishes is likely a thing of the past.