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Nov 7, 2008

Battle of the big four

When two of the Big Four clubs meet in the Premier League (or, worse still, all four in one weekend), the pre-match hype is so great that you would think the future of the planet rested on the outcome.

Look at the build-up for Saturday's contest between Arsenal and Manchester United. Yet, as it turns out, not even the future of the Premier League rests on the outcome. In the eight full seasons this decade, the results of the matches between Arsenal, United, Chelsea and Liverpool has only directly influenced who wins the title on three occasions. On the other five, results against the likes of Bolton, Norwich, Leicester and Blackburn have been much more important.

The tables below show the league table for each of the eight seasons since 2000-01, as well as the mini-league between the four sides and the overall table without the matches between the Big Four. Only in 2001-02, 2002-03 and 2007-08 would there have been a different winner without those summit meetings.

NB: For purposes of consistency the tables show the recognised Big Four rather than the top four teams in each season

2000-01
Overall table: Man Utd 80 Arsenal 70 Liverpool 69 Chelsea 61 (6th)
Mini-league: Liverpool 10 Chelsea 8 Arsenal 8 Man Utd 5
Without big four: Man Utd 75 Arsenal 62 Liverpool 59 Chelsea 53

2001-02
Overall table: Arsenal 87 Liverpool 80 United 77 Chelsea 64 (6th)
Mini-league: Arsenal 14 Liverpool 10 Chelsea 7 United 3
Without big four: Man Utd 74 Arsenal 73 Liverpool 70 Chelsea 57
Arsenal finished ten points ahead of third-placed Manchester United in 2001-02, but six of those points came from the head-to-head meetings, and Arsenal also took four points each off Chelsea and Liverpool. United, by contrast, lost five of the six Big Four matches, the exception being a 3-0 win at Chelsea.

2002-03
Overall table: Man Utd 83 Arsenal 78 Chelsea 67 Liverpool 64 (5th)
Mini-league: Man Utd 14 Arsenal 7 Liverpool 5 Chelsea 5
Without big four: Arsenal 71 Man Utd 69 Chelsea 62 Liverpool 59
This was a reverse of the previous season: Man Utd took 14 points from the six Big Four matches, with four wins and two draws, including a crucial win at home to Arsenal in December. For their part, Arsenal won only one of the six games, at home to Chelsea, drawing four and in the process fatally undermining their title challenge.

2003-04
Overall table: Arsenal 90 Chelsea 79 Man Utd 75 Liverpool 60
Mini-league: Arsenal 14 Chelsea 7 Man Utd 6 Liverpool 6
Without big four: Arsenal 76 Chelsea 72 Man Utd 69 Liverpool 54

2004-05
Overall table: Chelsea 95 Arsenal 83 Man Utd 77 Liverpool 58 (5th)
Mini-league: Chelsea 14 Man Utd 12 Arsenal 5 Liverpool 3
Without big four: Chelsea 81 Arsenal 78 Man Utd 65 Liverpool 55

2005-06
Overall table: Chelsea 91 Man Utd 83 Liverpool 82 Arsenal 67
Mini-league: Chelsea 15 Man Utd 11 Liverpool 4 Arsenal 4
Without big four: Liverpool 78 Chelsea 76 Man Utd 72 Arsenal 63

2006-07
Overall table: Man Utd 89 Chelsea 83 Liverpool 68 Arsenal 68
Mini-league: Arsenal 14 Man Utd 11 Liverpool 6 Chelsea 5
Without big four: Man Utd 78 Chelsea 78 Liverpool 62 Arsenal 54

2007-08
Overall table: Man Utd 87 Chelsea 85 Arsenal 83 Liverpool 76
Mini-league: Man Utd 13 Chelsea 10 Arsenal 6 Liverpool 4
Without big four: Arsenal 77 Chelsea 75 Man Utd 74 Liverpool 72

With a title race as close as last season's, points in the Big Four matches were always likely to be important. And if you take them away, the top three in the final league table (Man Utd, Chelsea, Arsenal) is reversed. Arsenal were beaten at Stamford Bridge and Old Trafford, and also failed to beat Liverpool, whereas United beat all three of their main rivals at home. It's the one time this century where, without the Big Four games, a side finishing in third would have won the title.
2008-09
Overall table: Chelsea 26 Liverpool 26 Man Utd 21 Arsenal 20
Mini-league: Liverpool 6 (P 2) Man Utd 1 (P 2) Chelsea 1 (P 2) Arsenal 0 (P 0)
Without big four: Chelsea 25 Man Utd 20 Liverpool 20 Arsenal 20
Liverpool's victories of Manchester United and Chelsea have apparently added a sheen of authority to their title challenge - and without them they would be third in the table - but, if recent seasons are anything to go by, it will be the results against the little teams which determine whether they end their 19-year drought.

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