It’s hard to argue with the league table in football. When someone says “the table doesn’t lie”, they’re probably being smug or reaching for their failsafe in order to undermine an unrelated discussion. But tiresome motives don’t make the statement any less true. Teams are ranked by their scores according to a pre-established points system. Even Donald Trump couldn’t argue with… OK, he would, but you get our drift.
As the Premier League’s boundaries shift, however, the same points tally can mean very different things from one season to the next. It’s like inflation: what do your points get you today? In the same way that 25p used to buy a Wispa but now leaves you wetting yourself outside a train station toilet, the 75 points that once created Premier League champions will today position that team in the Europa League places.
For instance, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea (twice) have all finished third – not even second, but third – with 82 or 83 points, which would be title-winning totals in seven of the Premier League’s 24 completed 38-game seasons. Harsh. And an ever-increasing gap between the best and the rest means that to be champions of England requires more points than before.
Can some of these teams consider themselves unfortunate? Are Antonio Conte’s Chelsea better than Arsenal’s Invincibles? Maybe, maybe not. Just remember: the table doesn’t lie…
(NB: While the Premier League’s first three years featured 42 games rather than 38, adjusting the points tallies resulted in no teams from those seasons making this countdown. Sorry, Blackburn.)
20. Liverpool, 2008/09
86pts (+50), 2nd
Rafa Benitez’s seven summer signings in 2008 were Robbie Keane, Albert Riera, Andrea Dossena, Philipp Degen, Diego Cavalieri, Peter Gulacsi and David N’Gog. Draw your own conclusions. Benitez preferred to draw games (*slow handclap*).
Liverpool were unbeaten at home and lost only twice all season, but having spoken so earnestly about them in January that year, Rafa eventually had to face Facts: 11 draws left them with too much to do. Even taking 31 points from their final 11 games wasn’t enough.
19. Tottenham Hotspur, 2016/17
86pts (+60), 2nd
Rival supporters and even most neutrals are tired of reading claims that Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham were England’s best team for a couple of years, despite not winning any trophies, so we won’t make that claim. Nor will we say that Spurs ‘deserved’ to be 2016/17 Premier League champions, because that’s not how it works. Unfortunate, unfair – these are words you won’t find in any league table preserved in the history books.
What we will say is that it could be considered a shame that this excellent Spurs outfit, built with young players on a net spent of £2m over five seasons (Manchester City’s being over £500m, for instance), will ultimately win zero Premier League titles.
Points win prizes, however, and in 2016/17, Chelsea got more of them. Tottenham took 53 points from 57 available at home in White Hart Lane’s farewell season, scored more goals and conceded fewer than every other team, and recorded the second-highest points tally of any non-champions – enough to win them the league in a third of all Premier League campaigns, including 2015/16 – and you know what all that means? Precisely nothing.
18. Manchester City, 2013/14
86pts (+65), 1st
Swallowed up by the drama at Anfield that season and suffering in comparison to Manchester City’s mad final-day triumph two years earlier, Manuel Pellegrini’s title-winning side are easily forgotten. They laid in wait for the most part, rarely top of the league by virtue of having a game in hand from early February through to the final week. Then, with all of the focus on Merseyside, Pellegrini’s men won a friendly final five fixtures with considerable ease.
Yet the 2013/14 champions deserve anything but indifference. City won 17 from 19 at home, which included beating Arsenal 6-3 and Spurs 6-0 (a subsequent thumping at White Hart Lane made the score 11-1 on aggregate). Their total tally of 102 goals fell just shy of the Premier League record, but 156 (!) across all competitions set a new one.
In the league, Sergio Aguero’s 17 goals came at an average of one every 90 minutes and Edin Dzeko helped himself to another 16, while Yaya Toure scored 20 from midfield and set up nine more. With another half-dozen City players each scoring four or more league goals, opponents were simply overwhelmed.
17. Chelsea, 2009/10
86pts (+71), 1st
Now, hear us out – but for a man who’s won the Champions League three times, Carlo Ancelotti’s league record isn’t very good. We did say hear us out.
Ancelotti has won four domestic titles in 21 seasons of management. That’s one with perennial winners Bayern Munich (before he was fired with Bayern down in third); one with nouveau-riche PSG (after his side had humiliatingly finished as runners-up to Montpellier the previous year); one with Milan (across eight seasons that brought more European Cups than Scudetti); and none with Real Madrid (where he recorded their lowest league finish in a decade). Nor Parma (who fell short with an incredible team), nor Juventus (where Ancelotti’s team fell from first to second on the final day by losing to Perugia).
His other title win, though, came in some style with Chelsea. Ancelotti’s double winners set a Premier League goals record that stood until Manchester City smashed it in 2017/18. Hitting 17 without reply in their final three fixtures took them to 103 in total and an astonishing goal difference of +71 – another record beaten by City. It hinted at Chelsea’s dominance in a season where they also conceded just once in six FA Cup games, following a summer in which Daniel Sturridge and Yuri Zhirkov represented their only major signings.
16. Chelsea, 2014/15
87pts (+41), 1st
Note the change in goal difference. Although Jose Mourinho’s Blues went undefeated at home and lifted the trophy in April, they did so with less swagger than they had 10 years earlier.
It wouldn’t be fair to dismiss Mourinho’s second Chelsea outfit as dull – as Jose himself told FourFourTwo, he considered his team “dominant” rather than boring – but the champions did embody a dull Premier League season that offered precious little intrigue anywhere in the table.
15. Arsenal, 2001/02
87pts (+43), 1st
If Arsenal’s Invincibles two years later are criticised in some quarters for drawing their way into the history books, the same accusation could not be levelled at this double-winning vintage. On February 2, 2002, Arsenal set a new record by scoring for the 26th consecutive match, only for Jo Tessem of Southampton to cancel out Sylvain Wiltord’s strike. It was the final game of the 2001/02 league campaign that Arsenal failed to win.
They could hardly be called a one-man team, either. Robert Pires was named Footballer of the Year, Freddie Ljungberg won Premier League Player of the Season and Thierry Henry was awarded the Golden Boot, while Arsene Wenger – some distant relative who shares a name but no characteristics with today’s Arsenal manager – scooped seasonal gongs from the Premier League and LMA alike.
Victory in the FA Cup final was followed by a title-sealing win at Old Trafford and then a Highbury send-off for Tony Adams and Lee Dixon, who retired with a 4-3 win over Everton. Pfft, typical of those two, relying on the attackers to bail them out.
14. Manchester United, 2007/08
87pts (+58), 1st
A total of 17 home wins from 19 helped Cristiano Ronaldo and friend outgun Chelsea in England and abroad. Manchester United were frugal in defence, conceding 22 goals in the Premier League and only two in seven Champions League knockout matches, while Ronaldo plundered 42 goals in all competitions, thriving alongside Wayne Rooney and Carlos Tevez.
In one of the league’s most competitive title races (Arsenal finished third with 83 points and Liverpool fourth with 76, once a championship-winning total), United again did the business.
13. Manchester United, 2012/13
89pts (+43), 1st
The idea that David Moyes ruined an amazing team would appear substantiated by this healthy points tally in Ferguson’s final season – but 89 points doesn’t tell the full story. A goal difference of +43 is measly by modern standards, betraying the fact that the Red Devils conceded as many goals (43) as they did under Moyes the following season. In fact, at the halfway stage, during an 18-game unbeaten run involving 16 wins, Ferguson’s United enjoyed a seven-point lead at the top despite having a worse defensive record than 11 other teams.
That first half of the season was extraordinary. Ferguson’s charges won five games 3-2 and two games 4-3, with all seven goals in a meeting with Reading scored in the first 35 minutes. Incredibly, United’s first 19 games brought eight wins from behind, including late winners against Newcastle, Manchester City, Aston Villa, Liverpool and Southampton, where they’d trailed 2-1 after 86 minutes. No wonder the season ended on a 5-5 draw.
It didn’t matter that this was unsustainable, as there was no challenge from beneath. Reigning champions City had ballsed up their summer transfer window (with all due respect to Scott Sinclair and Jack Rodwell), while Ferguson had brought in Robin van Persie to make a point, and his 26 league goals gave them several. Heading into 2013/14, what could go wrong?
12. Manchester United, 2006/07
89pts (+56), 1st
Eight – eight – Red Devils featured in the PFA Team of the Year as United finished six points ahead of Mourinho’s Chelsea. Those PFA picks were Edwin van der Sar, Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, Nemanja Vidic, Patrice Evra, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs for the record.
Further fun fact: Ferguson won as many manager-of-the-month awards in the 2006/07 campaign (three) as Mourinho has in his entire Premier League career.
11. Manchester United, 2011/12
89pts (+56), 2nd
If you feel sympathy for Manchester United reaching 89 points only to finish second on goal difference – and we’re sure you all do – then consider this: the great Alex Ferguson bottled it.
United had been eight points clear at the top with six matches remaining. Then a shock defeat to Wigan, courtesy of Shaun Maloney’s superb strike from a short corner, followed by a 4-4 draw with Everton (having led 3-1 and 4-2) reduced that margin to three points ahead of the Manchester derby, with only two games to follow it.
Monday Night Football on April 30 saw Ferguson drop a striker and bring his men to City in a rare 4-5-1 formation. Five attacking players sat on the bench as Wayne Rooney cut a lonely figure up top and an unfit Park Ji-sung, making his first league start in three months, struggled to man-mark Yaya Toure. For the first time in three years, Manchester United failed to have a shot on target and City won 1-0.
Roberto Mancini’s Blues went top on goal difference. And then: Agueroooooooo…