On Thursday, after what felt like countless close calls and heartbreaks, Liverpool secured its first Premier League title with Chelsea’s 2-1 win over Manchester City.
The nature of the typical soccer season offers plenty of things to follow beyond the title: There are Champions League and Europa League spots still to be determined; the relegation fight tends to last until the final matchday; and the FA Cup is set to resume at the end of this month.
Still, the title race is typically the headliner, and once it’s off the board, the reflection begins.
Granted, the 2019-20 season will be remembered primarily for the coronavirus pandemic stoppage, which in itself made this one of the strangest sports years on record across the world. But as far as the play itself goes, how will we remember this campaign? Where might it rank among the other 27 Premier League seasons?
Ranking things on the internet is as old as the internet itself, and the list of criteria for ranking seasons is seemingly endless. Maybe the title race is the most important thing. Maybe it’s how chaotic the final days of the year were. Maybe European success defines how good a season was at this point. I couldn’t come up with a small list of criteria that did it for me; instead, I’m choosing to rank Premier League seasons by all the criteria. Or at least as many as I could think of. And to raise the nerd quotient, I created a proprietary points system, as well.
Below, I ranked Premier League seasons based on six categories worth up to five points each: quality of champion, quality of runner-up, quality of title race, quality of relegation battle, European success and variety at the top. This covered most of the angles I could think of, and to the extent that it didn’t, I awarded up to four bonus points to a few seasons for particularly memorable moments or achievements. The most points a season can garner are 30. I ranked the 27 completed seasons based on this system, and at the bottom we’ll speculate on where 2019-20 might fall once complete.
Quality of champion (1-5 points)
For this category, I stuck pretty strictly to how many points each champion generated and how dominant their goal differential was. Doing this was the most objective approach; it also allowed me to slaughter a couple of sacred cows, which is always fun.
Based on a blend of points and goal differential, the six best Premier League champions to date — not including this year’s Liverpool — have been as follows:
2017-18 Manchester City: 100 points, +79 goal differential
2018-19 Manchester City: 98 points, +72 GD
2004-05 Chelsea: 95 points, +57 GD
2011-12 Manchester City: 89 points, +64 GD
2016-17 Chelsea: 93 points, +52 GD
1999-2000 Manchester United: 91 points, +52 GD
They all get five points.
That list, however, doesn’t include two of the most celebrated champions: the 1998-99 Manchester United Treble winners (79 points, +43) and the 2003-04 Arsenal Invincibles (90 points, +47). So let’s address those.
As wild as it might sound, United’s 1998-99 team was one of the least dominant champions of the era. They are celebrated because of their Treble heroics — they also won the FA Cup and finally broke through to win the Champions League — but this almost certainly wasn’t one of Alex Ferguson’s best United teams. Among this batch of 27 champions, in fact, only 1992-93 United, 1996-97 United and 1997-98 Arsenal averaged fewer points per match. While their goal differential ranks higher, it’s still only 18th of 27.
This is a reminder that your highest levels of quality and your biggest accomplishments don’t always line up perfectly.
The unbeaten 2003-04 Arsenal squad was better than 1998-99 United — you could at least make a case for it to rank fifth on the list above — but it was still only so dominant. Lost in the “no losses” thing is the fact that Arsenal had 12 draws, second most for a champion (behind, oddly enough, 1998-99 United). From a points perspective, that’s the same as having four wins and eight losses. Their point total is only eighth best in the Premier League era, and their goal differential is 13th best.
On a scale from one to five, I gave 2003-04 Arsenal four points … and 1998-99 United one.
Maximum points: 1999-2000 (Manchester United), 2004-05 (Chelsea), 2011-12 (Manchester City), 2016-17 (Chelsea), 2017-18 (Manchester City), 2018-19 (Manchester City)
Minimum points: 1992-93 (Manchester United), 1995-96 (Manchester United), 1996-97 (Manchester United), 1997-98 (Arsenal), 1998-99 (Manchester United), 2010-11 (Manchester United), 2015-16 (Leicester City)
Virgil van Dijk and the Liverpool squad celebrate after securing the 2019-20 Premier League crown.
Quality of runner-up (1-3 points)
You need a good dance partner to push you to your limits. Champions that won by huge amounts or prevailed over a shaky field probably weren’t pushed as much as they could have been. An excellent runner-up makes for an excellent season, though I’m only allotting three points for this category (as opposed to five for the champions).
It probably goes without saying that the 2018-19 season gets maximum points in this category. Last year’s Liverpool squad registered the third-highest point total in the history of the English top division — this remains the case even if you go back to the years in which wins were worth only two points and adjust them for modern scoring — and the fourth-highest goal differential. They would have comfortably won any Premier League race that didn’t include the 2017-18 or 2018-19 versions of Manchester City. They pushed City to the brink, and for exactly one minute — when Brighton took a 1-0 lead on City on the final day of the season — it looked like they would actually prevail. (City tied the match literally a minute later and eventually won 4-1.)
Liverpool picked the worst possible time to merely be almost the best-ever English squad. And it wasn’t their only close call, of course. They had a better goal differential than Manchester United in 2008-09 and ripped off 31 points in their final 11 matches (including a 4-1 win over United) to nearly catch the champs. They also famously led the league by five points with three matches to go in 2013-14 before a debilitating loss at Chelsea and a 3-3 draw at Crystal Palace opened the door for Manchester City. But previous failures make championships feel even better, right? Maybe?
Maximum points: 1994-95 (Manchester United), 2004-05 (Arsenal), 2006-07 (Chelsea), 2007-08 (Chelsea), 2008-09 (Liverpool), 2009-10 (Manchester United), 2011-12 (Manchester United), 2013-14 (Liverpool), 2014-15 (Manchester City), 2016-17 (Tottenham Hotspur), 2018-19 (Liverpool)
Minimum points: 1992-93 (Aston Villa), 1995-96 (Newcastle), 1996-97 (Newcastle), 1999-2000 (Arsenal), 2000-01 (Arsenal), 2010-11 (Chelsea), 2015-16 (Arsenal)
Liverpool fans gather outside Anfield to celebrate their first league title in 30 years.
Quality of title race (1-5 points)
The first two categories tell you something about the quality of a given season’s race, but not everything. Part of the mythology of Man United’s 1998-99 campaign, for instance, came because Arsenal didn’t relinquish the championship until the season’s final match. The Gunners actually led with three matches to go. United’s Treble was secured, one by one, over three consecutive matches in nine days. They even trailed in two of those three matches; if they’d actually been a more dominant team, they might not have produced as much drama and might not be remembered quite as fondly.
That is one of seven races that stood out from the pack. We talked about 2013-14 and 2018-19 above, but here are the others:
1994-95: Blackburn are cruising along with an eight-point lead with six matches to go, then fall apart. They drew at Leeds United, lost 3-2 at home to Manchester City and 2-0 at West Ham, and with just a two-point lead on the final matchday, they lost 2-1 at Liverpool. United needed a win at West Ham to finish an epic comeback, but the Hammers’ Michael Hughes scored in the 31st minute, and while United equalized, they couldn’t find a winner. Blackburn held on to be champions despite their best efforts to throw it away.
2007-08: A great Arsenal season goes off the rails when the Gunners generate only eight points in an eight-match swing at the beginning of spring. United and Chelsea both surge past Arsene Wenger’s team, and United secure the title only after a final-day win at Wigan. (Ten days later, they beat Chelsea in penalties to win the Champions League, as well.)
2009-10: With five matches to go, Chelsea leads United by two points and Arsenal by three. The Gunners once again fall apart, generating a single point in their next four matches. But despite an April 17 loss to Tottenham Hotspur, Carlo Ancelotti’s Chelsea prevail when they destroy Stoke City, Liverpool and Wigan by a combined 17-0 in the final three matches.
I mean, what more do you need to say?
On only a few occasions have multiple teams headed into the final stretch with a real shot at the title — the third-place team finished within six points of the champ in only 1998-99, 2007-08 and 2013-14 — but the Premier League has indeed seen some pretty good mano-y-mano battles.
Maximum points: 1994-95 (Blackburn), 1998-99 (Man United), 2007-08 (Man United) 2009-10 (Chelsea), 2011-12 (Man City), 2013-14 (Man City), 2018-19 (Man City)
Minimum points: 1999-2000 (Man United win by 18 points, clinch on April 22), 2017-18 (Manchester City win by 19 points, clinch on April 15)
Steve Nicol and Craig Burley react to Liverpool’s win over Crystal Palace as the club nears the league title.
Quality of relegation battle (1-3 points)
Even if the title race itself ceases to be interesting by the end of April, you can almost always count on the relegation fight to last until the last matchday or two. There have been only a few instances (2000-01, 2003-04, 2005-06, 2016-17) in which this hasn’t been the case.
The early days of the Premier League didn’t feature the same levels of top-team dominance we’ve grown accustomed to in recent years, but man oh man, did it have some relegation drama. In 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1996-97 each, seven teams finished within three points of the drop line, and in 1995-96 five teams did.
The 1993-94 battle was particularly noteworthy. After a run of good form, Everton completely collapsed in March, securing only five points in 10 matches and losing to Leeds 3-0 on the second-to-last matchday. They needed a home win over sixth-place Wimbledon to stay up, but instead, they fell 2-0 after a penalty and a Gary Ablett own goal. Against heavy odds, though, they rallied, evening the score in the 67th minute, then somehow going ahead via Graham Stuart’s second goal in the 81st. Meanwhile, Sheffield United gave up a 90th-minute goal to Chelsea to fall by an identical 3-2 score and suffered relegation, a point behind Southampton and Ipswich Town and two behind Everton. Ouch.
Maximum points: 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1997-98, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2006-07, 2007-08, 2008-09, 2010-11, 2011-12, 2015-16
Minimum points: 2000-01, 2005-06, 2016-17
European success (1-5 points)
This could have been a tricky category considering that the idea of “European success” itself changed in the late-1990s, when the European Cup not only became the Champions League but also began to include a larger selection of participants.
My first idea for gauging overall league success in Europe was to simply add up the league’s total points in the Champions League for each season and, to a smaller degree, the Europa League. But that would artificially penalize those first few Premier League seasons, when there weren’t opportunities for as many points. Luckily, the early Premier League solved this conflict by being pretty mediocre. In the first few seasons after the Heysel ban expired, English teams couldn’t hold a candle to the rest of Europe.
Leeds United bowed out to Rangers in the second round in 1992-93, and Manchester United fell to Galatasaray in the second round in 1993-94. When the tournament introduced group stages in 1994-95, Manchester United finished third in its group and failed to advance, then Blackburn finished fourth in its group the next season. It wasn’t until United’s semifinal run in 1996-97 that the league began to reestablish a foothold at that level.
No matter how you gauge things, those first few years are going to get minimal points.
Steve Nicol rejects suggestions that Jurgen Klopp could manage Bayern Munich in the near future.
The Premier League has had a strange and random tendency to improve over the latter portions of a given decade. English teams racked up 95 Champions League points in 2006-07 (with Liverpool making the finals), 103 in 2007-08 (United over Chelsea) and 94 in 2008-09 (three semifinalists), then slowly fell into a slump before rallying in 2017-18 (94 total points) and 2018-19 (Liverpool beat Spurs in the final).
Maximum points: 2006-07 (95 Champions League points, Liverpool UCL runners-up), 2007-08 (103 Champions League points, United beats Chelsea in UCL finals), 2008-09 (94 Champions League points, three UCL semi-finalists), 2010-11 (82 Champions League points, United UCL runners-up), 2017-18 (94 Champions League points, Liverpool UCL runners-up), 2018-19 (80 Champions League points, Liverpool beats Tottenham Hotspur in UCL finals, Chelsea beats Arsenal in Europa finals)
Minimum points: 1992-93 (3 Champions League points), 1993-94 (8 Champions League points), 1994-95 (6 Champions League points), 1995-96 (4 Champions League points)
Variety at the top (1-5 points)
I don’t think I’m alone in saying that it gets a little old when the same teams are in the top spots every year. This is a massive issue in college football, and despite the presence of quite a few clubs with elite levels of revenue, it’s been a problem for the Premier League too. Only once in its 27-year history has the league produced a top five with four teams different than the year before, and it happened right at the start.
In 1991-92, the last season before the Premier League’s formation, Leeds United, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday, Arsenal and Manchester City finished first through fifth. In the Premier League’s inaugural race, only champion Manchester United remained in the top five, while Aston Villa, Norwich City, Blackburn and QPR (respectively) replaced the other four.
Since then, there’s been a turnover of three teams twice (1993-94 and 1995-96), and in five instances (1996-97, 2003-04, 2006-07, 2008-09 and 2010-11), the same five teams populated these five slots in consecutive seasons, albeit not in the same order.
Maximum points: 1992-93
Minimum points: 1996-97, 2003-04, 2006-07, 2008-09, 2010-11
Bonus points (up to 4 awarded)
The goal of this exercise was to provide as much objectivity as possible into what is always a subjective effort, but I still left room to award a few extra points based on context and random, amazing moments.
1993-94: 1 point. Twitter would have gone absolutely overboard as the Everton and Sheffield United relegation matches were undergoing their late explosions. It would have been incredible.
1994-95: 2 points. Not only do you have Blackburn winning a title, but you have them completely collapsing, going through total psychological panic on the final day, and then winning the title all the same.
1998-99: 4 points. No, this Manchester United team wasn’t anywhere close to Ferguson’s best squads on paper. But the drama of May 1999 earns the maximum number of bonus points all the same.
2003-04: 4 points. Like the 1972 Miami Dolphins in the NFL, the Premier League’s only unbeaten team probably wasn’t actually its best, but Arsenal’s feat still deserves max bonus points.
2004-05: 2 points. Chelsea finds a wealthy benefactor (Roman Abramovich), hires up-and-comer Jose Mourinho and wins its first top-division crown in 50 years. West Brom collapses but escapes the relegation zone by the skin of its teeth on the final day, then Liverpool erases a 3-0 deficit to beat AC Milan in penalties to take the Champions League title. That’s a lot. Bonus points!
2005-06: 1 point. A half-point for Middlesbrough (!) reaching the Europa League finals, and a half-point for the final Champions League spot being decided when (A) Arsenal beats Wigan in the final match ever at Highbury and (B) a bunch of Spurs players get food poisoning from bad lasagna and lose to West Ham.
2010-11: 1 point. Four teams entered the final day in danger of relegation. Wolves beat Blackburn and Wigan beat Stoke to survive, while Blackpool lost to Manchester United and fell and Birmingham City — League Cup champions and Europa League qualifiers! — lost to Spurs and did the same. There’s enough anxiety there to warrant an extra point.
2011-12: 4 points. Maybe the greatest five minutes in the history of club soccer? Maximum bonus points.
2012-13: 1 point. Arsenal once again steal Spurs’ Champions League spot, this time with a win over Newcastle instead of a bad lasagna. Repetition = comedy and a bonus point.
2015-16: 4 points. In a vacuum, the season seemed pretty dull. None of the league’s Big Six financial powerhouses had its act together, and Leicester City rolled to the title despite the sixth-worst point total and worst goal differential of any Premier League champion. Plus, only one Premier League team each made the quarterfinals in either the Champions League or Europa League. (Jurgen Klopp’s first Liverpool team did make the Europa League final, thanks in part to a thunderous comeback against his old club, Borussia Dortmund, but that was just about the only memorable thing of the European campaign.)
All of the above is true. But … LEICESTER CITY WON THE DAMN PREMIER LEAGUE. IN THE SUPERPOWER ERA. That’s maybe the most memorable single feat in the Premier League era, and I was tempted to violate my own rubric and award it 10 bonus points. But we’ll stick with four.
The final tally
After this long exercise, we get the following point totals when it comes to the best Premier League seasons. (Editor’s Note: Not all data is shown but this is the top tier according to Bill’s rankings.)
Before bonus points, three seasons stood out from the pack: 2007-08, 2011-12 and 2018-19. Because of “AGUEERRRROOOOOOOO,” 2011-12 takes the prize.
Evaluating 2019-20: Where would this season fit?
As things stand, the 2019-20 season will get five points for the quality of its champion, four or five points for its runner-up, one point for a dud of a title race and three points for its variety, as it looks like there will be two new teams in the top five.
That leaves the relegation fight, European success and the potential for bonus points still to be determined.
Relegation: This could be a doozy. While 20th-place Norwich City is in dire straits, the Nos. 16-19 teams (Watford, West Ham, AFC Bournemouth and Aston Villa) are within one point of each other, and their respective goal differentials are from minus-18 to minus-23. Two of the four are going to go down. A full three points is possible here.
Europe: Liverpool’s upset loss in the Champions League round of 16 hurts the cause for best season ever, and with Spurs already ousted and Chelsea all but eliminated, only Manchester City has a shot at the crown when the competition resumes in August. Still, if City win the UCL and either Manchester United or Wolves win the Europa League, that’ll be a solid output of points.
Bonus points: After three decades strewn with close calls, the simple fact that Liverpool won the Premier League is worth at least one or two bonus points. If they set the points record — and they need 15 points from their final seven matches to get the job done — that’s another bonus point.
Right now, my bet is that the season finishes with around 21 points, but 22 is distinctly possible — good for the second-best season of all time. Not bad for a year in which the title race was basically over in December.