Did anybody recognize the Everton team that took the field on Saturday? This wasn’t the team that somehow squeaked out three points against Manchester City, and it certainly wasn’t the team that somehow only took one point away from Wigan. The Everton team that took the field on Saturday, was demonstrably better than their Chelsea opponents. After watching that performance it’s hard to avoid asking the question, exactly how good are the Toffees. But avoid that question I will, because the more interesting question, and probably one that we should have been asking before the match, is how good is Chelsea? And, even more importantly why do we persist in thinking that some teams are better than they actually are?
This is not your slightly older brother’s EPL. Two years ago Tottenham cracked open the big four, and last season Manchester City officially blew it apart. And now with Manchester City in first and Spurs firmly in third place, at least half of the no longer quite so big four seem destined to miss the Champions League (and there’s the very real possibility that Newcastle will nip a fourth place finish meaning Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool could all miss out on the world’s most prestigious club competition). All it takes is a quick look at the table to show that thinking about a big four, or five, or six, or even seven is silly. But whether its habit or history or just plain old laziness, that top heavy mode of thinking still colors the way we look at the league, and even worse, it colors our expectations for every day matchups.
Nobody knows better than an Everton supporter exactly how far ahead of everybody else the big four were. In both the 07/08 season and the 08/09 season Everton was the fifth place finisher with 65 and 63 points respectively. Those tallies left them eleven and nine points behind fourth place those years. But in the last two years that gap has narrowed and the fifth place finishers (Manchester City and Tottenham) were only three and six points out of a Champions League spot. And the eleven point gap between fourth and fifth that used to exist, well that became the space between roughly fourth and seventh or eighth place.
Its easy to look at a season like 08/09 and miss how different it is from current circumstances. That year like this year Chelsea was in fourth place after 25 games. They were nine points (instead of ten) ahead of Everton. The two years seems similar. But,the chronically overlooked fact is that the Chelsea side of 08/09 was only ten points out of first place. This year’s team is seventeen points off the pace. In 08/09 the nine point differential between Chelsea and Everton at this point in the season was the difference between fourth and sixth place. This year, the differential separates fourth from ninth.
In other words, the fourth place team in today’s Premier League is demonstrably worse than the fourth place team of the big four era. Because it’s Chelsea and because they are in a top four spot we still think of them as an elite team. But they (and Arsenal) only have 43 points. That’s nothing. The last time that 43 points was enough to get a team into fourth place this late in the season was 03/04. It’s just more proof that the story shouldn’t be that Manchester City, and Tottenham have joined the top level of teams, it’s that they, along with Man U. obviously, are the only top level of teams and Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have all crashed back down into the mediocrity pool.
In reality there is a big three, not a big four. And that’s a very good thing. It’s good for the league, and it’s good for Everton. A league built around a big three means that the possibility of champions league football exists for a lot more teams. It means that a Newcastle can rise up from basically nowhere and be one point outside of the Champions League spots two-thirds of the way through the season. And if they can do that, there's no reason for Fulham, or Stoke or Sunderland, or even Everton to think that it couldn't be them. After all, if Everton were in the same form this year that they were in 07/08 they’d have 44 points and be sitting pretty in fourth place right now, instead of just outside looking in like they were that year.
But, of course they aren’t in the same form. The Toffees lost at home to QPR, and Bolton, and drew against Blackburn. On the road they
lost to Blackburn, and drew against Wigan. For the math challenged among you, that’s thirteen ten freaking points. Take just eight of those and Everton would be within a game of a Champions League spot. Looking at it that way makes those carelessly thrown away points hurt even more. In a year where a mediocre team is going to qualify for a Champions League birth those dropped points are all that separate the contenders from the also-rans. When the year is over and supporters look back over their seasons it won’t be days like Saturday that determine whether they’re happy or sad, it’ll be days like the week before against Wigan.