When the Premier League is boasting the betting favorites for all three European competitions well into the spring — Manchester City in the Champions League, Manchester United in the Europa League and West Ham in the Conference League — you know things are going pretty well.
When City’s and Arsenal‘s title odds are a near-perfect 50-50 a week into April, when seven teams have at least a 22% chance of landing a top-four finish, and when the relegation race threatens nearly half the league (including West Ham), you know the stakes are going to remain dramatic all the way to the finish. When even a Brentford at Brighton match is huge (and lives up to every expectation), you’re showing off, frankly.
Everything’s coming up Premier League in 2022-23. OK, maybe not everything — Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal were all eliminated earlier than planned in their respective European competitions, and the whole “12 managers have been sacked in a single season” thing is a bit panicky and gross — but every race is gripping, nearly every team is involved in one of those races, and it appears quite a bit of European success could still be in the cards.
Is this the greatest Premier League season ever, then?
Three years ago, following Liverpool’s first English title in 30 years, I ranked Premier League seasons. Let’s revisit this approach, adding the past two full seasons to the list and speculating on where 2022-23 might land.
I used six loose categories: 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 could garner were 30.
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. This produced some sacrilegious results — most of the recent, title-winning Manchester City teams received the full five points, while sacred cows like Manchester United’s treble-winning 1998-99 team (79 points, plus-43 goal differential) and the 2003-04 Arsenal Invincibles (90 points, plus-47) did not. On the five-point scale, Arsenal received four points, but United received just one.
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 only allotted three points for this category.
It probably goes without saying that the 2018-19 season, in which Liverpool registered the third-highest point total in the history of the English top division but finished second to Manchester City, received the full three points. Other recent seasons, like 2020-21 (Manchester United: 74 points, 12 behind City) or 2015-16 (Arsenal: 71 points, 10 behind Leicester City), received just one.
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. That’s a five-point race, as were others like 1994-95 (Blackburn led by eight points with six matches to go, fell apart and held onto the title when Manchester United drew with West Ham on the final matchday) and, of course, 2011-12 when Sergio Aguero helped Man City pip Man United to the title.
Last season saw City hold off Liverpool once again on the final matchday — five points! — and this year’s race could end up down to the wire as well.
Quality of relegation battle (1-3 points)
Even if the title race itself ceases to be interesting by the end of April, you can usually count on the relegation fight to last until the last matchday or two. The early days of the Premier League featured epic relegation drama — in 1992-93, 1993-94 and 1996-97 each, seven teams finished within three points of the drop line, while in 1995-96 five teams did — and with nine teams still within four points of the relegation zone at the moment, this season’s battle could be the best we’ve seen.
European success (1-5 points)
I gauge league success in Europe in the most straightforward possible way: by simply adding up the league’s total points in the Champions League and, to a smaller degree, the Europa League (and now Conference League) for each season. That artificially penalizes those first few Premier League seasons, when there weren’t opportunities for as many points, but since the early Premier League was rather mediocre — in the first few seasons after the Heysel ban expired, English teams couldn’t hold a candle to the rest of Europe — it didn’t really matter.
There have been two particularly excellent eras when it comes to English success in Europe: 2007 to 2009, in which four English teams reached the Champions League finals in three years, and 2018 to 2022, which featured a pair of all-English finals and six total finalists.
This year isn’t shaping up as well — only two teams have made the Champions League quarterfinals and only one is favored to reach the semis — but we’ll have to wait and see if that’s a one-off or a sign of an ending trend. I’m guessing one-off.
Variety at the top (1-5 points)
Fans of the Premier League like pointing to Barcelona and Real Madrid‘s dominance in LaLiga, or Bayern Munich‘s dominance in the Bundesliga, as a sign that the Premier League boasts greater competitive balance, but really, England just has a bigger batch of richer-than-everyone-else clubs.
That can mean that the league’s most dominant teams can change a bit more frequently — from Manchester United and Arsenal at the turn of the century, to Chelsea and United, to a recent dynastic run from Manchester City — but it doesn’t always mean a lot of change among the top five.
In three decades, only once has the Premier League produced a top five with four teams different from the year before, and it happened in the very first year, 1992-93, when four out of the top five were different from those in the First Division. There hasn’t been a turnover of three teams since 1995-96. That two teams among the top five changed last season, and two might again this year, is about as good as we get from a variety standpoint.
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. The 1998-99 and 2003-04 seasons, for instance, may not have received full Quality of Champion points, but they received the full allotment of bonus points for the particularly memorable championship runs of Manchester United and Arsenal, respectively. So did 2015-16, for producing the most unlikely champion in decades, if not ever in Leicester City.
The final tally
After this long exercise, we get the following point totals when it comes to the best Premier League seasons. Here are the point totals for the 30 completed seasons to date.
(Note: A few totals have changed since the original post, primarily due to me disagreeing about bonus points with the me of three years ago.)
1. 2011-12 (26 points), Champion: Manchester City
An outstanding season — full points on quality of title race and relegation race — capped by the single greatest day in Premier League history. Perfection.
2T. 2018-19 (25 points), Champion: Manchester City
Liverpool nearly sets the Premier League points record but doesn’t even win the league. Instead, Jurgen Klopp’s Reds are forced to settle for winning Europe. The Champions League (Liverpool over Spurs) and Europa League finals (Chelsea over Arsenal) are both all-England affairs.
2T. 2021-22 (25 points), Champion: Manchester City
Liverpool reaches the Champions League final and comes up two goals short of the treble. City pulls off a two-goal comeback to win the title, while a Leeds-Burnley relegation battle goes deep into the second half on the final matchday as well.
4. 2007-08 (24 points), Champion: Manchester United
United tops Chelsea by just two points and Arsenal by four. Three English teams reach the Champions League semis, with United beating Chelsea in penalties in the final. Reading and Birmingham City are sent down, with Sunderland, Bolton and Fulham all surviving by the narrowest of margins.
5. 2008-09 (22 points), Champion: Manchester United
United, Liverpool and Chelsea all hit 83 or more points, and United, Arsenal and Chelsea all reached the Champions League semis. Sunderland and Hull City barely outlasted Newcastle in the relegation battle. A top-heavy but still enjoyable campaign.
6T. 2004-05 (21 points), Champion: Chelsea
Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea allows just 15 goals and rolls in an uninteresting title race, but this season scores points with a wild relegation race — the bottom four teams finished within two points, and West Brom digs out of a huge hole to survive — while Liverpool came back from down 3-0 at halftime to win the Champions League final.
6T. 2006-07 (21 points), Champion: Manchester United
United reassumes the throne with a comfortable title win over Chelsea in another three-semifinalists-in-the-Champions-League campaign. Wigan and Fulham barely outlast Sheffield United in an anxious relegation fight.
6T. 2009-10 (21 points), Champion: Chelsea
Carlo Ancelotti’s Blues score a league-record 103 goals but need a final matchday stomping of Wigan to keep Manchester United from winning another title. Fulham makes a stirring run to the Europa League final.
6T. 2013-14 (21 points). Champion: Manchester City
Liverpool rides a sexy attack to the brink of a title but stumbles twice in the last two weeks, and City swoops in for its second title. Liverpool and Everton replace Spurs and Manchester United in the top five.
10. 2005-06 (20 points), Champion: Chelsea
Chelsea’s 91 points fend off Manchester United (83) and Liverpool (82), but the primary drama comes when Spurs are taken down by both West Ham and food poisoning on the final matchday allowing Arsenal to steal fourth place. (Arsenal also reaches the Champions League final for the only time, while Middlesbrough — Middlesbrough! — reaches the Europa League final.)
11T. 1998-99 (19 points), Champion: Manchester United
United beats Arsenal in a thrilling title race and Bayern in a thrilling Champions League final. There’s not much else to write home about, but that’s certainly quite the headliner.
11T. 2019-20 (19 points), Champion: Liverpool
A yearlong Liverpool coronation that runs particularly long due to the COVID-19 pandemic delay. (Honestly, the pandemic should have probably earned this season a point deduction.)
13T. 1994-95 (18 points), Champion: Blackburn
Blackburn! Champions! Despite their best efforts to collapse. That’s about all this season had to offer, but that’s something.
13T. 2016-17 (18 points), Champion: Chelsea
It was sandwiched between Leicester’s Cinderella run and the emergence of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, but Antonio Conte’s Chelsea racked up 93 points to beat an outstanding Tottenham Hotspur by seven points. Manchester United won the Europa League, too.
13T. 2017-18 (18 points), Champion: Manchester City
Guardiola’s first great City team romps to 100 points and an easy title win. Liverpool makes a surprise run to the Champions League final, and Huddersfield and Southampton barely survive a brutal relegation battle over Swansea and Stoke.
16T. 1993-94 (17 points), Champion: Manchester United
United rolled to the title, but the headliner was an eight-team relegation race that nearly pulled Manchester City, Spurs and Everton down.
16T. 2002-03 (17 points), Champion: Manchester United
Arsenal led by eight points in March, but United went unbeaten over its final 18 matches and eventually reeled the Gunners in. Aston Villa and Bolton outlasted West Ham in the relegation fight.
16T. 2003-04 (17 points), Champion: Arsenal
The Invincibles steal the headlines, and justifiably so, while Chelsea tops Arsenal to reach its first Champions League semifinal.
19T. 1995-96 (16 points), Champion: Manchester United
United sees off a Newcastle title threat on the final day, and Coventry and Southampton both survive a relegation battle with Manchester City thanks to goal differential. (How weird does that look now?) Lots of turnover in the top five, too.
19T. 1997-98 (16 points), Champion: Arsenal
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal storms back from 12 points down to take down Manchester United in a wild title race. Everton beats Bolton on goal differential to avoid the final relegation spot.
19T. 2012-13 (16 points), Champion: Manchester United
After the incredible finish of 2012, a vengeful United removes all drama from the title race and rolls in Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season. Arsenal again steals a top-four finish from Spurs’ grasp.
19T. 2015-16 (16 points), Champion: Leicester City
Did Leicester need help from some collapsing powers to secure its 5000-to-1 title bid? Sure. Do I care? No.
19T. 2020-21 (16 points), Champion: Manchester City
In mostly crowd-free environments, City rolls to the title. With no relegation uncertainty whatsoever, most of the drama comes from a top-four race that sees Liverpool charge past Leicester City on the final day.
24T. 1999-2000 (15 points), Champion: Manchester United
After some tight battles with Arsenal, United rolls to an 18-point win. Arsenal nearly salvages the season with a Europa League title but falls to Galatasaray on penalties.
24T. 2000-01 (15 points), Champion: Manchester United
United sure did have a way of making orderly work of title pushes. Here, they outlast Arsenal by 10, and there’s no real relegation fight to fill the drama gap. Leeds United does make the Champions League semis, at least, while Liverpool topped Deportivo Alaves in a cranky and wild UEFA Cup final.
24T. 2001-02 (15 points), Champion: Arsenal
The Gunners win their second title by topping United at Old Trafford with a match to go. United also falls to Bayer Leverkusen in a Champions League semifinal upset.
24T. 2010-11 (15 points), Champion: Manchester United
United manages just 80 points but still wins the league comfortably and tops Chelsea on the way to the Champions League final. The relegation fight is a good one, with only three points separating 16th-place Wigan from 19th-place Blackpool.
24T. 2014-15 (15 points), Champion: Chelsea
Chelsea clinches its fourth Premier League title with three games to spare, and while there’s decent turnover in the top five, a dud in European competitions (zero Champions League quarterfinalists) keeps the point total down.
29. 1992-93 (13 points), Champion: Manchester United
The Premier League’s first season doesn’t feature much of a title race (United wins by 10), but six teams survive a wild relegation fight by three or fewer points.
30. 1996-97 (10 points), Champion: Manchester United
Despite a meager 75 points, United wins the title by seven points over Newcastle, Arsenal and Liverpool. The relegation battle — 13th and 19th place separated by only three points — is a thriller, at least.
Where does the 2022-23 season fit?
Three of the past four seasons have ended up in the top 10, and by every indication it looks like 2022-23 will make it four of five. Let’s walk through the criteria and how things currently stand.
Quality of champion: 4. Arsenal is currently on pace for 94 points and a +56 goal differential, excellent totals but not quite to the standard of recent championship City teams.
Quality of runner-up: 3. City is currently on pace for 87 points, again excellent but not quite at recent Liverpool teams’ standards.
Race quality: 4-5. If Arsenal indeed holds off City by seven points, that doesn’t earn the full seven points, but history and odds both suggest City will make a push down the stretch. This could easily go down to the final matchday.
Relegation fight: 3. Last-place Southampton is just four points from safety, and 12th-place Crystal Palace is just four points from the relegation zone. Every weekend, a new team is thrown into an existential crisis. Three points doesn’t seem like enough here.
Europe: 3-4. Winning all three UEFA trophies would be a remarkable accomplishment, but it’s still a few rounds off. Right now, the Champions League campaign has been an overall disappointment.
Variety: 3. We’ve got two new top-fivers in Newcastle and Man United, but this could go in lots of different directions.
Bonus points: 1-4. All three races could get weird and produce late fireworks, and the relegation fight really is shaping up to be special.
TOTAL: 21-26. A strong finish in Europe and three down-to-the-wire races would certainly bump the bonus points up to the max, so 26 points and a tie for first is within reach. But it speaks to the bar the Premier League has set that this season isn’t running away with a top spot just yet. It still has to stick the landing. And with the way things are going, it probably will.