Can mid-table clubs progress in the Premier League?

As we approach the new season the expectations of football fans up and down the country is for their team to evidence signs of progress and improve upon last season’s showing. For last year’s relegation battlers (such as West Brom and Sunderland) this will mean a smoother ride in mid-table comfort, while for the newly promoted sides that survived, consolidating their Premier League status will represent success.

But what about those sides – such as Southampton and Newcastle, and to a lesser extent Everton – who finished in the top half last season? What does progress look like for them this season? The stated ambitions of their owners and managers is to progress to the top four – but is this realistic?

In this article, we consider some of the challenges mid-table teams face trying to progress and break into the top four.

The top four – an exclusive club?

Over the past 10 years, only seven teams have managed to break into the top four – Arsenal (10), Manchester United and Chelsea (9), Liverpool (5), Manchester City (4), Spurs (2) and Everton (1).

Big spenders – It is surely no coincidence that these teams have also consistently been the six highest spenders in the league over the past decade. That said, it is worth giving Arsenal an ‘honorable’ mention – as the only team to finish in the top four in each of the last ten seasons, their total transfer spend of just over £300 million was the lowest of the six teams listed. Liverpool and Spurs, the two teams most at risk of missing out on the top four, each spent approximately £560 million.  Incidentally, Sunderland are the seventh highest spenders across the ten year period and they have managed only one top ten finish in that time.

Big players – in addition to heavy overall investment, it is also telling that these six teams – plus Newcastle (not including Everton’s recent acquisition of Romelu Lukaku this close season) – are the only sides in the Premier League who have invested more than £20 million in a single player. Chelsea (14) and Manchester City (12) have done so on most occasions, while Spurs (3) and (lowest yet again!) Arsenal (1), have done so on fewest.

The inference from history then is that to break into the top four is likely to require significant – and sustained – investment in the playing squad. With an absence of new capital in the Premier League, the top four is likely to remain an elite club.

Is there another way – investment and organic growth?

Evidence suggests that it is difficult to break the top four without significant investment. However, it is interesting to note that, commenting on the plight of Southampton – who have sold the spine of a team that had so much promise – this summer, Arsene Wenger suggested that

“They could have won the European Cup if they could have kept the team together”.

And therein lies a big ‘if’ and a big question for fans up and down the country. The likes of Southampton, Everton and Newcastle are in a similar mould in terms of having an ambition to move up the league through a combination of youth development and incremental investment in the playing squad at relatively small outlays. Newcastle’s strategy of finding value in transfers through recruits from France and the Netherlands has been derided and lauded in equal measure, while Everton and Southampton have drawn admiration for producing some of the most exciting young players in the Premier League today.

However, the only way that such strategies could ever work is if they are able to minimise the impact of inevitable leakage and keep their squads together for a four or five year cycle. As we have seen numerous times at Everton and Newcastle in particular, this is a huge challenge, particularly where ambitious players have their heads turned by the overtures of ‘bigger’ clubs. Each time players are sold to these bigger clubs, the cycle has to start again. While a rather depressing realisation, for these clubs, in the absence of a sugar daddy or significant (and probably commercially unjustified) investment, standing still may actually be as good as it gets….


In all likelihood, then, it would appear that this season’s race for the top four is going to be (at best) a six horse race between the usual suspects. Everton’s signing of Romelu Lukaku may give them increased scope to push for fourth, but, despite retaining most of last season’s key men, the Toffees may be let down by their inability to invest more significantly in their squad. For fans on the south coast, it is difficult to say with any certainty how they might fare this season. Although one thing is for sure, they have next to no chance of progressing up the league and breaking into the top six.

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