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Manchester City are 16 points clear of second-placed Manchester United. Nine points separate Arsenal and seventh-placed Burnley. Despite that, this is a bitterly-competitive Premier League season.

Just four points split Manchester United from Tottenham in fifth. Stoke, who have dropped to 19th , are only six points off the top half.

Each pre-season there are hopes of a wide-open title race. Last summer, you could easily have argued for a four or five team contest for supremacy. Manchester City’s brilliance has deprived us of that. The result, though, is attention turning to the top four places, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Arsenal’s defeat to Tottenham last weekend leaves their only hope of Champions League football next season with the Europa League. It throws Tottenham right back into the top four pursuit, however, and sets up a vital 11 league matches.

Top Four or Bust

Spurs, much like Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United, had Champions League qualification as their benchmark this season. Regressing to the Europa League would be detrimental as they return to White Hart Lane. It might just see Mauricio Pochettino and some his stars question their futures, too.

Stagnation will echo around Anfield should Liverpool fail to qualify for the top four. The sale of Philippe Coutinho and quiet January window will have even the likeable Jurgen Klopp under pressure, particularly with the club likely to end the season trophyless again.

Even finishing second by such a margin will be a negative for Manchester United, but the prospect of missing out on the top four would no doubt provoke an infamous Jose Mourinho meltdown.

Chelsea, meanwhile, are certain to replace Antonio Conte if they miss out. And they might remove the Italian anyway. The Blues will be fending off pursuits for Eden Hazard all summer, which will be even trickier without the prospect of the glamorous midweek showpieces.

There’s an awful lot riding on Champions League qualification, and each of the aforementioned quartet are still a brief form dip from Thursday nights in 2018/19.

It can be seen as everything wrong with the modern game. Clubs prioritise next season over silverware right now. An unpopular decision in some quarters, but a philosophy that is due to keep the upper echelon of the Premier League alive deep into April and May.

Mid-table’s Disappearing Act

The enhancement of the top clubs has played a role in the vanishing act of the mid-table. Those wedged between European contention and safety are reduced in number. There are only three teams, Burnley, Leicester and Everton, who fall into that category. They are on 36, 35 and 34 points respectively.

Bournemouth are 10th . Southampton were in that position after the majority of teams had played 27 matches last season. Saints were 11 points clear of the bottom three, rather than five. In the 2015/16 season, Watford occupied 10th after 27 matches. They had a 13-point cushion from the drop zone. In 2014/15, Stoke City were 17 points ahead of 18 th . Their 39 points would be enough for seventh this term.

The congestion in the bottom 10 is partly improvement from the league’s very worst teams, partly decline from the traditional mid-table sides. The three sides in the bottom three at the time of writing – West Brom, Stoke and Southampton – have been mid-table stalwarts over the last three years. West Brom are bottom with twenty points, which would have had them in at least 19th at this stage in the previous three seasons.

The points Bournemouth already have obviously makes relegation improbable at this stage. However, 10th after 27 matches usually has a team sitting far more comfortably than this. Their tally of 31 points is remarkably low, and they are by no means safe. Any combination of the teams outside of the Premier League’s top nine could quite realistically still end up in the Championship for 2018/19.

So, why has this happened?

In part, it’s down to the strength of the top six. We have not seen six teams this much better than the rest for quite some time in England. The remaining 14 teams are left jostling for position amongst themselves, with prospects of snatching points from the top six significantly minimised.

The recent TV deal has played a role too, however. Every Premier League club now has the financial muscle to compete for the best players. Twelve of the twenty clubs have broken their transfer record since the end of last season.

This has enabled the top six to throw money around on a par with every single club in the world, while giving the 14 remaining teams spending power way beyond their peers in the other top leagues.

There are problems with the noticeable tiers in the Premier League this season. The mobility that saw Southampton finish sixth is no longer present, for instance. The upside, though, is we will have far fewer dead rubbers in March, April and May.

The 2017/18 season will be alive well into spring at both ends of the table. Pep Guardiola may well have secured the trophy before April Fools Day, but this could still be one of the most enthralling
ends to a campaign in years.

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