Ahead in March, Celebrate in May
Manchester City entertain Sunderland on Saturday, knowing a win will take them back to the top of the table. But will they still be there at the end of the season?
Let’s look back at the history of the Premier League to see if we can assess their chances.
This is the 20th season of the Premier League, and so far from the previous 19 there have only been 5 instances of a team leading at the end of March, and not winning the title in May. Of those 5 occasions, it has happened to Manchester United just twice. When you consider they have been top in March for 12 of those 19 seasons, being overtaken on just 2 occasions would suggest City’s chances are slim unless City can get to the top on Saturday.
However, of the 7 instances when United haven’t been top at the end of March, there has only been 2 occasions when they overhauled the leaders to win that title. So if City can go top on Saturday, they may stand a chance of staying there, based on past seasons.
In 1993, the very first Premier League season, Norwich City lead the table at the end of March. They were 1pt ahead of Aston Villa and 2pts ahead of United, both of whom had a game in hand. Norwich had just beaten Aston Villa, 1-0 to replace them in 1st place. But they were only able to win another 2 games from their final 7, which included a 1-3 defeat at home to United. They picked up just 7pts after the end of March, whereas United earned 21pts from a possible 24 and finally won their first league title for 26 years.
In 2003, Arsenal lead the pack. They had just beaten Everton, 2-1 and were 2pts clear of United with just 7 matches left. They had lost just once in their previous 14 games. Although they would only lose once more (2-3 at home to Leeds), they only won 3 of their last 7 matches, gaining just 12pts. United picked up 19pts, only dropping points when they drew 2-2 at Highbury.
For United, this was payback for 1998 when they were top at the end of March, 2pts ahead of Arsenal, although they’d played 2 games more. United picked up just 14pts from their final 6 matches, whereas Arsenal gained 18pts from their 8 games and beat United to the title by just 1pt.
Arsenal were also successful in 2002 when Liverpool lead at the end of March. They were 1pt ahead of United and 2pts ahead of Arsenal. But once again, Arsenal had games in hand. Liverpool won 4 of their final 5 matches, but Arsenal won every one of their final 7 matches to win the title by 7pts.
The last instance of a side being top at the end of March and not winning the trophy was just 3 seasons ago when United lead Chelsea by 1pt. Chelsea then beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford and with United then being held to a 0-0 draw at Blackburn, this put paid to their title attempt. This meant Chelsea’s 1-2 defeat at Tottenham wasn’t enough to stop them picking up their 3rd title in 6 years.
There seems to be no doubt this is far from the best United side ever seen, however their points tally per game at this stage of the season has only been beaten on 4 occasions since 1993. Chelsea’s total of 77pts from 30 matches in 2005 is still the record. Closely followed by their tally of 77 from 30 the season after and then matched by United the season after that. In 2004, Arsenal had amassed 74pts from 30 games.
If United win every game from now till the end of the season, they will overhaul Chelsea’s record total of 95pts set in 2005. Possible? Well, they’ve done it before. In 2000 they won all their matches through April and May. In fact, they won their last 11 matches to take the title by 18pts.
Obviously, past performance is not necessarily a guide to future prosperity. The players will be different from previous seasons, they will meet different opponents, each of whom may have different end of season priorities. Whether City can get past United and then stay there, remains to be seen. If they do, it will be their first title for 44 years, since they won in 1968
Here was the top of the table at the end of March
Here was how things ended up.