The ‘Big Six’ has become such well established term in Premier League parlance that it is never questioned: but it should be now.
To back up the evidence of the entirety of last season, the start of this campaign confirms that we are now looking at a Big Two of Manchester City and Liverpool, who go head-to-head at Anfield on Sunday.
Twenty-five points separated Liverpool in second place from Chelsea in third last season. That is a massive gulf even by a conservative estimation.
Jurgen Klopp (left) and Pep Guardiola (right) go head-to-head at Anfield on Sunday
It is true that reigning champions Manchester City, who finished one point clear of Liverpool on 98 last season, are currently just two clear of Leicester and Chelsea, but few would bet against that gap widening significantly as they strain to keep up with Jurgen Klopp’s pace-setters six points ahead.
The Big Six has evolved into being over the last decade. In the last 10 seasons, on just six occasions have teams other than City, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham finished in the top six places in the Premier League.
The most famous of those, of course, is Leicester’s miracle title win in 2015-16. Along with them Southampton (2015-16), Everton (2013-14 and 2012-13), Newcastle (2011-12) and Aston Villa (2009-10) are the only teams to have shaken up the establishment.
However, not only are Leicester set to gatecrash the top six again, but we are once again set for a two-horse title race, with United, Tottenham and Arsenal all well off the pace set by the Big Two.
Here, in chronological order, are the key factors as to how the order has shifted…
MANCHESTER CITY’S SHEIK TAKEOVER
City were the final piece in the jigsaw of the Big Six forming when they finished inside the top six for the first time since 1992 in 2010.
There can be little debate as to the reason for that. Billionaire Sheik Mansour took over the club in 2008 and immediately set about a project of heavy investment which has propelled City into the Premier League and Europe’s elite.
They have won the title four times, including the last two, and they have the Sheik to thank for it.
By buying their way into the Premier League’s top table, they have also knocked their rivals off their perches and have been the most dominant domestic team since their first title in 2012.
There is no sign of that dominance dissipating while Pep Guardiola is at the helm.
Sheik Mansour (centre) took over Manchester City in 2008 and has delivered four titles so far
ARSENAL’S DECLINE UNDER ARSENE WENGER
When Arsenal’s Invincibles won the Premier League in 2004 without losing a match, no one would have thought we’d be sitting here 15 years later without them having added another title. But here we are.
Arsenal, in fact, have not even come close to winning the title since then. The two seasons they have finished second since, in 2005 and 2016, they finished a distant 12 and 10 points off the champions.
Arsene Wenger’s credit in the bank for winning three titles from 1998 to 2004 meant that the club refused to sack him despite them entering a terminal decline that they are still showing no signs of snapping out of.
Having been part of a two-club dominance of English football with United, Arsenal went through the motions under Wenger for over a decade and have now failed to finish in the top four in each of the last three seasons.
Arsenal went into decline under Arsene Wenger and have still not snapped out of it
FERGIE LEAVES UNITED
This is arguably the single most deciding factor in a new order of Manchester City and Liverpool being established.
Again, the bare facts spell it out best. Manchester United won the Premier League in 13 of 21 seasons under Sir Alex Ferguson. Since he retired in 2013, they have won none of the last six, with that record certain to extend to seven with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team already 18 points behind Liverpool after just 11 matches.
Love him or loathe him, Fergie had an iron grip on the Premier League. United players played above themselves for him and opposition teams would wilt in his presence. For those of us who grew up watching United win everything, it is clear the aura that United had was largely the aura of Ferguson.
With him gone the rug has been pulled out from under United, and City and Liverpool have stepped into the breach.
Sir Alex Ferguson won the Premier League for a 13th time in his final season in 2012-13
KLOPP JOINS LIVERPOOL
Until recently, Liverpool were the weakest of the Big Six teams. Their place among the elite afforded to them as much because of their history rather than anything going on in the present.
There was the glorious failure of 2013-14, when Brendan Rodgers’ side came agonisingly close to winning the title. But until last season that was the only time Liverpool had finished in the top two since 2009.
Since we started referring the Premier League elite as the ‘Big Six’ in 2009-10, Liverpool have in fact finished outside of the top six four times. Klopp is changing all of that though.
After an initially slow response to his methods – they finished eighth in 2016 – Liverpool are singing to Klopp’s tune in devastating fashion with Mo Salah, Sadio Mane and Virgil van Dijk emerging as world class players.
In the 49 Premier League matches of last season and this, Liverpool have lost just once, to Manchester City. And in their last two Champions League campaigns they have finished as winners and runners-up. Not bad.
Klopp led Liverpool to Champions League glory last season and has them top of the league
CHELSEA CAN’T SETTLE ON A MANAGER
The caveat first: it looks like Chelsea may now have settled on a manager for the long-term in Frank Lampard, and they are in the rudest of health of any of the rest of the Big Six barring City and Liverpool despite their transfer ban.
However, looking at the last decade as a whole, it has been a topsy-turvy one for the club. And that is putting it mildly. Chelsea have won three titles since 2009-10, but have also chucked in 10th and sixth-placed finishes as they have churned through eight managers, with Lampard being their ninth.
No manager has felt safe enough to lay down long-term plans but there have been short-term triumphs, none greater than the Champions League win in 2012. The titles under Carlo Ancelotti, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte were all missed opportunities though with each manager departing within a year after.
Chelsea fans are hoping that Frank Lampard stays for the long-term after a turbulent decade
PEP JOINS CITY
Manchester City have steadily moved through the gears since Sheik Mansour took over in 2008.
Initially, the investment in players was heavy and the risk was often high as they scrambled to get among the elite under Mark Hughes and then Roberto Mancini.
As Mancini delivered their first Premier League title in 2012 and Manuel Pellegrini their second in 2014, more long-term structures were being put in place as the club got used to being among the elite, but performances on the pitch were often inconsistent.
On-pitch standards immediately went up several notches though as City appointed Guardiola in 2016. Inconsistency still marred their first season under Pep as they failed to win a trophy but they have become the benchmark of brilliance in world football in the last two seasons under his management.
For a while City had been considered among the richest clubs in the world and one of those with the most potential; under Pep they now have a strong claim to be the best team in the world.
Guardiola won his second successive Premier League title with City last season
SPURS BLOW THEIR CHANCE UNDER POCHETTINO
The emergence of the new Big Two over the last year will have been painful viewing for Mauricio Pochettino as his Tottenham side have missed the boat.
After building a young and talented squad from Pochettino’s appointment in 2014, Spurs really should have won the title when Leicester did in 2016. But they slipped away at the finish as the pressure got to them, with north London rivals Arsenal pipping them to second place on the final day to rub salt in the wound.
They dusted themselves off and finished second to Conte’s Chelsea in 2017 before going toe-to-toe with City and Liverpool until the new year last season, before a disastrous finish saw them lose seven of their last 12 Premier League matches to end up fourth before the crushing blow of losing the Champions League final to Liverpool.
A lack of investment after the second-placed finished in 2017, when Liverpool and City kicked on with some shrewd business, has been costly and it would be a surprise if Pochettino is still in north London next season.
Tottenham appear to have missed their chance for glory under Mauricio Pochettino
PEP AND KLOPP PUSH EACH OTHER TO NEW LEVELS
What is clear is that we have two best managers in the world in the Premier League in the form of Guardiola and Klopp. City and Liverpool are just shrewd enough – or lucky enough – to have got them in at their clubs at the right time.
Amid a series of own goals by Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham over recent seasons the City and Liverpool hierarchies must be applauded for getting the right men in at the right time and then backing them with funds.
Each time Liverpool raised the bar last season, City matched it, and they look set to go tit-for-tat for a good while yet. Fans of the other so-called Big Six teams will be kicking themselves as the new Big Two do battle of football’s top prizes. Those of us neutrals will just sit back, watch and enjoy.