The Analyst’s Premier League History Part III: The Special One, Number 19 And The Rise Of The Big 4
Our Premier League history series analyses the best stats and insights from every single Premier League campaign. Part I charted the early era of the Premier League from 1992-97, as the competition took its fledgling steps away from the old First Division. Part II examined the era of intense rivalry between Arsenal and Manchester United.
Now, with the help of nearly 30 years of data, this series aims to provide the larger historical context needed to better frame each era. Part III charts the emergence of Chelsea under Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich and the increasing dominance of the Big Four both domestically and continentally.
“Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”
These were the immortal words José Mourinho used to announce himself to the world as Chelsea manager. Mourinho had enjoyed a highly successful managerial spell at Porto, securing back to back league titles, a Portuguese Cup, and a famous Champions League trophy in 2004. He was hired to bring similar silverware to Stamford Bridge.
In his first season in charge, Mourinho proved his self-proclamation was more than just bluster as he guided Chelsea to their first ever Premier League title, and their first in the top-flight since 1954-55. In doing so, Mourinho became the first manager to win the Premier League title in his first season in charge in English football.
His side did so in utterly dominant fashion. Indeed, Chelsea’s haul of 95 points was a record total until Pep Guardiola came along in 2017-18. Central to their performances was Frank Lampard, whose 18 assists were not only the most in the league, but also the highest number of assists ever provided by an Englishman in a single campaign. Lampard also finished the season as Chelsea’s top scorer with 13 goals: the lowest scoring top-scorer for a title-winning side in Premier League history.
But it was at the back where Chelsea’s dominance really shone through. The Blues conceded a scarcely believable 15 goals in 2004-05, the fewest of any side in a single Premier League campaign. Key to that achievement was summer acquisition Petr Cech who, in his debut season, kept 24 clean sheets, a record for a goalkeeper in a single campaign in the competition. Mourinho had fundamentally changed the style of the biggest sides in England, with low scoring but tactically astute teams dominating opposition sides.
The table below shows the Premier League champions to have conceded the fewest goals in a single season.
Season Team P W D L GF GA GD PTS 2004-05 Chelsea 38 29 8 1 72 15 57 95 2005-06 Chelsea 38 29 4 5 72 22 50 91 2007-08 Manchester United 38 27 6 5 80 22 58 87 2018-19 Manchester City 38 32 2 4 95 23 72 98 2008-09 Manchester United 38 28 6 4 68 24 44 90
What happened to Arsenal? The Invincibles started the 2004-05 campaign where they left off, equalling Nottingham Forest’s 42-game unbeaten run against Middlesbrough in Matchday 2. But their quest for the half-century streak was gleefully thwarted by great rivals Manchester United in a bad-tempered game at Old Trafford. Coined the ‘Battle of the Buffet’ by the British press, tempers flared after the game between staff of both clubs. Amid the fracas, Arsenal midfielder Cesc Fàbregas allegedly threw a slice of pizza at Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson.
Arsenal’s form suffered badly as a result and the Gunners won only one of their next five games. This allowed Chelsea to seize the initiative and leapfrog them into first place, a summit from which they never looked back. Less than a year on from their Invincibles season, this would be the last time Arsenal would finish in the top two until 2015-16.
James Vaughan thrust his name into folklore after netting on his senior Everton debut against Crystal Palace in April 2005. Vaughan became – and remains – the Premier League’s youngest goalscorer, aged just 16 years and 270 days.
At the bottom, a trio of Norwich, Southampton and Crystal Palace succumbed to the drop. Palace hitman, Andrew Johnson, did his best to save the Eagles. His 21 Premier League goals are the most for a relegated side in the competition’s history. Indeed, 11 of these goals came from the penalty spot, also a competition high within a single season.
The three teams relegated remain the most southerly collection of relegated teams since the Premier League began.
If 2004-05 felt dominant, then the following season was nothing short of a demolition. Often overlooked in the history books that favour drama over merit, Mourinho’s Chelsea went into overdrive. They kicked off the campaign with nine straight Premier League wins – the longest winning streak from the beginning of a Premier League season in history – and won 20 of their first 22 games. This start has only been bettered by Liverpool’s freakish start to the 2019-20 season. By this point, Chelsea were 16 points clear at the top. It was a title that they won effortlessly.
Frank Lampard’s record run of 164 successive Premier League appearances ended in December 2005, a streak that had started in October 2001. This is still the most consecutive games played by an outfield player in the competition.
This campaign represented the mid-point of the great defensive era of the Premier League, with all the champions from Arsenal in 2003-04 to Manchester United in 2008-09 conceding fewer than 30 goals. It hadn’t happened in any of the 12 seasons prior to 2003-04 and has only happened three times since: Manchester City in 2011-12, 2017-18, and 2018-19.
The Big Four continued to exert a tighter grip on the league as the gulf in quality and finances began to bite. The 76‑point gap between Chelsea in first place and Sunderland in 20th was an all-time top-flight record, equalled two years later by Manchester United and THAT Derby County team. Those were both records until 2019-20, where Manchester City finished with a 82-point gap against bottom-placed Huddersfield town.
Thierry Henry (27 goals) won his fourth Premier League Golden Boot, surpassing Alan Shearer’s three, and the Frenchman has won the award the most times in the competition to date. Fittingly for the Arsenal legend, Henry scored a hat trick in the last ever game at Highbury. Perhaps even more fittingly, his treble helped Arsenal overtake rivals Tottenham Hotspur for the final Champions League spot. Henry remains the highest-scoring player at a single ground in Premier League history (114).
It was a dismal season on Wearside as Sunderland recorded just three wins and finished the season with 15 points, the lowest points tally by a top-flight side for 114 years. The Black Cats lost 29 of their 38 league matches, at the time the most defeats suffered by a Premier League side in a 20-team division – until Sheffield United matched that figure in 2020-21 – and no Sunderland player scored more than three goals all season. West Brom and Birmingham joined them in the descent to the Championship.
After a three-year title drought, it was Manchester United who were back on top in 2006-07. Spurred on by attacking duo Wayne Rooney (14 goals, 11 assists) and Cristiano Ronaldo (17 goals, eight assists), Sir Alex Ferguson’s side wrestled the title away from Stamford Bridge with a brand of energetic, free-flowing football. The Red Devils’ tally of 83 goals was their third-highest total under Ferguson at that point.
While Ronaldo and Rooney’s predicted fallout after the 2006 World Cup ‘winking incident’ never materialised, it was a contrasting tale of success in West London. Title holders Chelsea doubled down in the summer of 2006, adding Andriy Shevchenko to their star-studded lineup. The Ukrainian managed only four goals in his first season at Chelsea and was often overshadowed by teammate Didier Drogba, who scored 20 goals to become the first African player to win the Premier League Golden Boot. Drogba’s four assists were four more than his continental counterpart, Benni McCarthy, who finished as runner-up. McCarthy’s 18 goals and zero assists is a Premier League record for goals in a season without providing an assist.
Liverpool and Arsenal completed the top four as the Big Four era started to take form. 2006-07 was to be the first of three successive seasons when English sides made up three of the four semi-finalists in the Champions League.
Elsewhere, Reading enjoyed a thoroughly successful debut season in the Premier League, finishing eighth – the best finish by a newly promoted team since Ipswich Town came fifth in 2000-01. Not overawed by their fledgling status, in the first game of the season Reading handed all 14 players their Premier League debuts in their 3-2 win over Middlesbrough – the most debuts ever given by a team in a Premier League match.
At the bottom, Sheffield United’s relegation still smarts those in South Yorkshire. Relegation rivals, West Ham United, who were 10 points adrift of safety at the start of March, won seven of their final nine matches to beat the drop. Striker Carlos Tevez, signed via an illegal third-party agreement, was the catalyst in that remarkable run. He scored seven goals in the last 10 Premier League matches, including the final-day winner against champions Man Utd at Old Trafford.
It meant that the Hammers spent 166 days in the Premier League relegation zone in 2006-07 – almost double that of Sheffield United (84) – but stayed up in 15th position, despite losing more games than any other team that season (21). The Blades were consigned to the Championship.
2007-08 was the true coming of age of Cristiano Ronaldo. The Portuguese winger became the fifth different player to score at least 30 goals in a single Premier League campaign and was the first Manchester United player to do so in a top-flight season since Denis Law in 1963-64. Ronaldo powered United to their 10th Premier League title in the process.
But at the turn of the year, it was Arsenal who led the way after just one defeat from their first 21 matches. Cesc Fàbregas, who ended the season with a league-leading 17 assists, and Emmanuel Adebayor (24 league goals), were in inspired form.
However, with the Gunners in the driving seat, a 2-2 draw away at Birmingham City, marred by a broken leg for Arsenal striker Eduardo, swung the title race in United’s favour. That was the start of a run of one win in eight matches for Arsène Wenger’s side. As is all too familiar for Arsenal fans, this slip handed bitter rivals Manchester United the ascendancy.
While 2006-07 saw fewer goals scored than in any other season in the competition’s history (931), 2007-08 treated us to some thrillers. Portsmouth beat Reading 7-4 at Fratton Park in Sept. 2007, the highest-scoring game in Premier League history, while Marcus Bent and Roque Santa Cruz both scored hat tricks in Wigan’s 5-3 win against Blackburn, so far the only time a player from both sides has scored a hat-trick in a single Premier League match.
No talk of 2007-08 is complete without a look at Derby County. The Rams managed one win all season, won just 11 points, scored only 20 goals and finished with a goal difference of -69. Other than the 20 goals scored, which is tied with Sheffield United’s 20 in 2020-21, are all record lows for a single Premier League campaign. They remain the only Premier League side to have had their relegation confirmed before the end of March.
For the second time in eight years, Manchester United won three straight titles. While their first in this trio was won thanks to their attacking verve, the latest was won on the foundations of a formidable defence. Between mid-November and mid-February, United did not concede a single goal. In the process, Edwin van der Sar set a new Premier League record for a goalkeeper with 14 consecutive clean sheets, surpassing Petr Cech’s 10-game run.
Yet for so long in the season, it was Liverpool setting the pace. Top at Christmas, top at New Year, top on May 9. Even as United came on strong, Liverpool continued to snap at their heels. A 4–1 win for Rafa Benítez’s team at Old Trafford in March, followed by a first defeat for United in 45 years at Fulham a week later, opened the door for the Merseysiders.
However, the unheralded Federico Macheda would earn United four points in the following two matches as Liverpool became the first team in English top-flight history not to win the title despite only losing two games or fewer. They would suffer this fate once more in 2018-19, where they finished second with one defeat.
At the foot of the table, Hull City avoided relegation with a meagre 35 points. Of those 35 points, 20 came in the first nine matches. The fact that Hull City escaped relegation (along with Stoke City – who stayed up relatively comfortably under the stewardship of Tony Pulis and Rory Delap’s barrage of long throws), meant it was the first time since 2005-06 that more than one promoted club maintained their Premier League status.
In the summer of 2009, Carlo Ancelotti succeeded interim manager Guus Hiddink at Chelsea. After three seasons of also-ran status and the inability to replace serial winner Jose Mourinho, the Italian was hired to bring immediate success. Ancelotti duly delivered, becoming the first Italian manager to win the English top flight. It was Chelsea’s third title, and the Blues scored 103 goals along the way – at the time, a Premier League record for goals scored in a single season.
Despite the deluge of Chelsea goals, the London side only sealed the title on the final day, finishing one point above Manchester United. The fact it went to the wire was in part due to Chelsea’s sluggish winter period – they won only twice in six matches in December – and a 1-1 draw against Blackburn in March saw them flailing in third place.
However, Chelsea galvanised themselves and embarked on a prolific goalscoring run, netting 33 times in their remaining eight fixtures – winning seven of these – to become champions. This run included a 7-1 thrashing of Aston Villa and then back-to-back home maulings of Stoke (7-0) and Wigan (8-0) to round off the season. During their title charge, Chelsea became the first team to score seven or more goals in four top-flight games in a single season since Arsenal in 1934-35. Their 68 home goals is a Premier League record and the most by a team in a top-flight season since Spurs in 1962-63.
Instrumental in their destructiveness were Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard, both of whom had seasons for the ages. Drogba finished as Premier League top scorer for a second time, scoring 29 goals – the most by a Blues player in a top-flight season since Jimmy Greaves scored 41 in 1960-61. Lampard was directly involved in 36 goals from 36 appearances (22 goals, 14 assists) – the highest single-season total ever by a Premier League midfielder.
Elsewhere, the increasing presence of Manchester City around the upper reaches of the league table was starting to take shape. City finished fifth, their best top-flight finish since 1991-92 (also fifth), notching up some highly noteworthy victories over the league’s then Big Four incumbents, including league winners Chelsea. They have finished in the top four of each Premier League season since then.
The season it finally happened. The moment that Manchester United fans had been craving and Liverpool fans dreading: United’s Premier League title in 2010-11 was their 19th top-flight title, breaking Liverpool’s record of 18. But despite the victory having such magnitude in the record books, it was a rather underwhelming one. United were poor away from home: their total of 25 points is the lowest recorded by a title-winning team (taking only the era of three points for a win into account), and they won just five of their 19 away games. This was as many as Blackpool, who finished 19th.
Dimitar Berbatov typified these home comforts. The Bulgarian finished joint top scorer in the league, tied with Carlos Tevez, but 16 of his 20 goals came at home, five of which came in one game against Sunderland.
Ultimately, United were helped by Chelsea being unable to defend their title – they had a torrid spell of two wins in 11 between November and January – and Manchester City still being a work in progress under Roberto Mancini.
The turn of the decade signalled a turning on of the goal taps. The 1,053 goals scored in 2009-10 had been the highest number since 1999-2000 and the following year that record was broken again with 1,063 goals scored. The goal glut came to a head on Feb. 5, 2011, where there were 41 goals scored, the most on a single day of action in a 20-team Premier League season. These goals included Newcastle’s remarkable four-goal comeback against Arsenal.
At the bottom, Blackpool were relegated from the Premier League despite having been 10th in the table at Christmas. Ian Holloway’s men were the first side to suffer the drop having been in the top half on December 25 since Norwich in 1994-95. West Ham and Birmingham joined them, with West Ham’s Scott Parker being the only player in Premier League history to win the FWA Footballer of the Year while playing for a side that was relegated.
There was a sense that the 2010-11 campaign was the calm before the storm as Manchester City prepared to launch their own title charge. Could the veteran Ferguson hold back the sky blue tide?
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