With the Premier League now in the third year of its financial bonanza, the Big Six have become Big Five and Big Four, with a few more teams joining the party. But not all of them have been able to sustain their early-season form, and the race for the coveted Champions League places is tightening up.

It’s been a while since we last looked at the Premier League. What a difference a few months can make, as the gap between the Premier League’s elite and those at the bottom is now wider than it has been for many years. Despite the Premier League’s revenue increasing at an average of 12% per year since 2001, the gap between the Premier League’s richest teams and those at the bottom has increased in recent years, as the graph above shows.

Even as the Premier League enters its 22nd season, its top six teams remain as dominant as ever. With Chelsea and Manchester City battling to win the title for the third time in a row, the race looks a whole lot closer than it did in its first two decades. And yet, at the other end of the table, gaps are opening up, with the likes of Leicester City, Everton and West Ham United climbing into the top 10, among others.. Read more about premier league season length and let us know what you think.

The idea that the Premier League’s “Big Six” were all on board was discreetly slipped into the arguments supporting the creation of April’s failed European Super League. Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, and Tottenham Hotspur were all involved in the project, which collapsed in a matter of days after fans across Europe expressed their displeasure with the plan’s sheer arrogance in sacrificing genuine competition for unprecedented financial gain.

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The notion that “founder member clubs” could never be demoted was based in part on the assumption that each of the major European leagues already had an impenetrable hierarchy in place. Few would dispute that Manchester City, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea remain at the top of the Premier League, but Arsenal and Tottenham’s inclusion in the Super League’s English sextet was clearly based on lineage (and, let’s be honest, money) rather than current sporting success.

The Premier League teams were divided along an obvious fault line: those that needed their strength and influence to give the Super League legitimacy, and those who thought they couldn’t afford to be left behind. The financial ramifications of COVID-19 are reshaping the picture even further, as some teams take advantage of the weaknesses of others to strengthen their own position.

Is it time to rethink or perhaps reject the idea of a “Big Six”?

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It’s a nickname that may have its contemporary origins in the formation of the Premier League itself, when the country’s top teams banded together to create a breakaway league due to a lack of funding in the sport.

Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Everton were known as the “Big Five” in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Representatives from this group met with then-television executive Greg Dyke at a now-famous covert dinner in October 1990, which led to the creation of the Premier League less than two years later.

In the years after the Premier League became a worldwide sensation, the Champions League grew to the point where, by 1999, four clubs from the top three divisions (according to UEFA rankings) were permitted to participate. In England, it didn’t happen until the Premier League’s coefficient was high enough in 2002, and given the income available from European competition, the top four had strong claims to becoming the “Big Four” every year.

Aside from Leicester City’s stunning 2016 title success (an achievement that looks more remarkable with each passing season, standing as the most wondrous outlier), Everton’s fourth-place finish in 2005, and Newcastle United’s third-place finish in 2003, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, Man United, Spurs, and Arsenal have shared the top four spots every year since. Chelsea and Man City, owned by Roman Abramovich and Sheikh Mansour, respectively, gatecrashed that order in 2003 and 2008, effectively purchasing a seat at the top table with owners who are now well-positioned to assist counterbalance the effects of the coronavirus epidemic on revenues.

Due to the epidemic, UEFA has modified its Financial Fair Play regulations, enabling the 2020 and 2021 financial years to be evaluated as an one period, with the total debts from the two years being averaged. Man City were able to spend £100 million to acquire Jack Grealish from Aston Villa while chasing an even larger deal for Tottenham captain Harry Kane because to the wriggle space provided by these and other measures. Chelsea have broken their transfer record by signing Internazionale striker Romelu Lukaku for £97.5 million, with the Serie A club pushed into a fire sale due to a drop in earnings over the previous year despite winning the title for the first time in a decade.

Manchester United’s position as one of the most profitable clubs in the world is based in part on fierce marketing skills that have weathered the epidemic rather well, enabling them to spend £73 million on Jadon Sancho and another £34 million on Raphael Varane. Liverpool have yet to make a significant transfer outside of the £36 million signing of Ibrahima Konate from RB Leipzig, but they have committed significant sums to wages with long-term contract extensions for Alisson, Fabinho, Trent Alexander-Arnold, and Virgil van Dijk, with the biggest extension yet — Mohamed Salah — yet to come.

As a result, these four teams seem to be in the greatest position to compete for the Premier League championship in 2021-22, while the other two members of the “Big Six” are trying to avoid relegation.

Spurs are still fighting to retain Kane in North London, with manager Nuno Espirito Santo hoping to reverse a slide that started at the end of the Mauricio Pochettino era and was halted by Jose Mourinho. Tottenham was one of the worst-affected clubs financially as a result of the epidemic, and they were the first to take advantage of a government program that provided them with a £175 million loan from the Bank of England. Less than a year before COVID-19 put a halt to all forms of mass gatherings for the most of 2020 and beyond, they had also built their £1 billion stadium, designed to alter their income based on live events.

Is it possible that the Premier League’s Big Six teams could split soon? Image courtesy of Visionhaus/Getty Images

Spurs were admitted to the Super League despite not winning a trophy of any kind since 2008, according to cynics, yet they now rank ninth in financial experts Deloitte’s Money League for income earned in the 2019-20 season. (For context, 11 of the 12 “breakaway” clubs were in the top 14 of this table, and it would have been a clean sweep if Bayern Munich, Paris Saint-Germain, and Borussia Dortmund had all declined an offer to join.)

Moreover, unlike France’s Ligue 1, the Premier League was not immune to collective financial hardship despite completing all matches throughout the epidemic. According to Deloitte, the combined European football market shrank by 13% in 2019-20, marking the first drop in income since the global financial crisis of 2008.

Premier League income also dropped for the first time, from a high of £5.2 billion to £4.5 billion. More than half of the 20 teams recorded a deficit, and overall operational earnings fell from £782 million to only £55 million. The combined pre-tax losses were £966 million, and rivals well below the “Big Six” may be concerned that the top sides are going to fade farther into the distance.

Chelsea and Man City, though, are among the few teams in that group that have seen a chance to improve their position by using their own strong financial reserves to take advantage of the downturn. Spurs, though, are among those struggling to keep afloat, with Arsenal, their north London rivals, in a similar boat.

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The Gunners are facing a season without European football for the first time in 25 years. They have invested significant sums on upgrading their squad, including £50m on defender Ben White from Brighton & Hove Albion, but are facing a need to generate cash by transferring players out of the club as they enter the final fortnight of the window.

The Premier League’s financial clout has engendered jealousy among many top teams in other nations, which, coupled with a dissatisfaction with UEFA’s refusal to alter the Champions League to their advantage, prompted the creation of a Super League in the first place. Even after April’s failed effort, only the most naïve onlookers would believe the danger is gone. However, if the proper business choices are not taken in the next weeks and months, the divide between the haves and the have-nots may spread across the Big Six.

The Premier League’s generally equal allocation of broadcast money continues to encourage others to break the mold, such as West Ham United and Leicester City. Both will want to improve on their fifth- and sixth-place performances, respectively, as they shook up the “Big Six” until at least 2020-21. Rafa Benitez has given Everton a fresh lease of life.

After a summer in which Man City, Chelsea, Man United, and Liverpool tried to strengthen their hold on the top four, their task is to break through. It’s arguably the Premier League’s lasting attraction because nothing is guaranteed.

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