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Monday October 22nd, 2018 9:53PM

'Big 6' pulling further clear in top-heavy Premier League

By The Associated Press
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) — The Premier League prides itself on being the most competitive in the world and points to Leicester's 2016 title triumph at preseason odds of 5,000-1 as the ultimate evidence.

It might be time to revisit that opinion.

The end-of-season standings show a worrying development in England's top division: The chasm between the so-called "Big 6" — Manchester City, Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal — and the rest is bigger than ever.

Just ask the coach of the team that finished seventh.

"We all know where the top six are, and it's not impossible — as Leicester have shown — but improbable that it is going to radically change," Burnley manager Sean Dyche said. "That top six is going to be more or less the top six, because of the buying power, because of the power of the clubs. Outside of that, relative chaos.

"The first marker for lots of teams — probably 14, with maybe Everton on the edge of that category — is first things first, let's collect a team that can stay in (the Premier League)."

The top six teams, led by City in record-breaking fashion, all had a goal difference of at least plus 23. City's was a staggering plus 79. The other 14 teams finished on negative goal difference.

The gap between sixth-place Arsenal and Burnley was nine points, with another five to eighth-place Everton, whose dull brand of football under manager Sam Allardyce has been widely derided.

Leicester's title victory two years ago embarrassed the supposed powerhouses of English football and provoked a strong response. Last year, the top six finished eight points clear of seventh place — Everton in that case — and the gap has widened still 12 months later.

Below them is that "chaos" referred to by Dyche, who insists his priority next season is retaining Burnley's Premier League status.

Of the teams that finished eighth to 20th, nine changed managers during the season and almost all of them were in the relegation zone or hovered around it at some point. Everton was in the relegation zone when it fired Ronald Koeman in October, for example.

Forty points used to be the safety mark for relegation-threatened team. This season, 34 points would have kept a side up.

The Premier League splits the money raised from domestic and overseas TV deals equally between the 20 teams, meaning that this season's last-place team, Stoke, earned nearly 100 million pounds ($135 million) in prize payments from the 2017-18 campaign.

The top six are attempting to secure a bigger share of broadcast cash — arguing their matches are a bigger pull for viewers around the world — but have so far been thwarted, with rivals arguing that would erode the competitiveness of the league.

A gulf between the best and the rest has grown anyway and Arsene Wenger, the departing Arsenal manager, predicted a massive transformation in the coming years.

"The next evolution? You will certainly have a European league over the weekends," Wenger said. "A domestic league will certainly play Tuesday and Wednesday. I think that is the next step we will see.

"It is inevitable," he added. "To share money between the big clubs and small clubs will become a problem. The big clubs will say, 'If two smaller clubs are playing each other, nobody wants to watch it. So we have to share the money but nobody is interested in you?' People want to watch quality."

This was the season that saw Huddersfield, the club with the smallest budget, beat Manchester United at home and secure draws with City and Chelsea in the final week of the season to stay up in remarkable fashion. Burnley beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on the opening weekend, and drew at Tottenham, Liverpool and United before Christmas.

But this was also the season when City's goal difference was about three times the number of goals scored by Huddersfield (28), and when the runaway champions frequently came across opponents who were in damage-limitation mode from kickoff.

The most depressing example was Newcastle playing ultra-defensively at home against City on Dec. 27. It is hardly what global viewers, who long admire the competitiveness and intensity of English football, want to see.

Games between the top six have rarely been more engrossing than this season — the exciting brand of football played by City and Liverpool helps in that regard — but the desperation to stay in the lucrative Premier League has led to a drop in standards elsewhere.

"It's unheard of for that many teams to all be struggling to get 40 points. That is quite rare," Dyche said. "It proves how difficult the Premier League is becoming."

___

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

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