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Aug 27, 2009

"Big four" consigned to history books?

It is easy of identify the creators of the words and phrases in the footballing vocabulary. "Early doors" came from Ron Atkinson, "bouncebackability" from Iain Dowie and "special", in almost any context, appears to have been redefined to invoke mention of Jose Mourinho.

Others have just been adopted. At some stage in the last six years, a collective decision appeared to have been taken, albeit subconsciously, to start referring to Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool as "the Big Four". It was quicker than explaining their wealth, power and league position, but the question now is whether the term is obsolete.

There have been tentative mentions of a "Big Five", incorporating Manchester City - and, in the process, antagonising Everton, who have finished fifth in each of the last two seasons. Tottenham's start has complicated proceedings; will we now see a "Big Six"?

The same quartet comprise England's representatives in the Champions League group stages for a sixth successive season after finishing as the foremost four in the division in all bar one. The one exception was 2004-05, when Liverpool mustered a mere 58 points. Everton's achievement in managing more and breaking into that elite group was considerable, but aided by a below-par showing from their neighbours.

As David Moyes is discovering, they have neither the wage bill nor the transfer budget of a top-six club. A contrast can be drawn with Manchester City and Tottenham, whose heavy expenditure means they ought to be competing nearer the division's summit.

If Everton's exploits - sixth, fifth and fifth in the last three years - plus their rich history does not enable them and Aston Villa (twice sixth and former European Cup winners) to be bracketed with Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool, what do Tottenham and City need to do?

The simplest measure is surely in points. Not since Newcastle in 2002 has another club reached the 70-point mark; indeed none has topped 65. When the average winning total in the last six seasons is 90, it is hard to group them with teams who are so far behind.

But if, given the prominence of players sold by Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United and Liverpool in the summer, whoever proves the eventual champions should be sufficiently weakened to end up with a haul of 80-85 and Tottenham and Manchester City continue their excellent starts, the gap will have been narrowed.

City's ambitions extend way beyond that. But their first two fixtures suggest considerable progress has been made. There had been no such thing as a regulation win where City were concerned, but the defeats of Blackburn and Wolves were comparatively smooth.

At the same time, Tottenham, their aims destroyed within the first two months of the previous two campaigns, have begun with three wins. It is their best start to a season since 1960 when, as no self-respecting Spurs fan needs reminding, Bill Nicholson's team did the first Double of the 20th century.

The challengers have a financial and a physical force. Tottenham pose a greater aerial threat now, with Sebastien Bassong heading the winner against Liverpool and Ledley King striking the bar at West Ham. City, meanwhile, are more sizeable now Emmanuel Adebayor, Roque Santa Cruz, Gareth Barry and Joleon Lescott have joined.

With a combined total of 23 away Premier League defeats last season, both sides had reputations as something of a soft touch on their travels. Now the current ledger stands at three wins from three trips.

Understandably, the managers have focused on strengthening the spines of their respective sides. Harry Redknapp has bought Bassong, though the all-action midfielder Wilson Palacios may be his most significant signing. Mark Hughes has recruited a new centre-back partnership; the test of whether that has added greater solidity remains. Both clubs have a pool of players with either a past at a top-four club or the pedigree to play for one.

But the combination of purchasing power and comparative underachievement last season puts both in a different position to Everton and Aston Villa. With no Europa League football, Tottenham and City should be able to field their first team for much of the season while, paradoxically, possessing a second-string 11 that should be the envy of Liverpool, in particular.

And whereas initially Arsenal appeared the most susceptible of the usual suspects, Liverpool's stuttering start means they might be. The amounts of investment at Eastlands and White Hart Lane mean neither club's 100% record can be presented as a true triumph of the underdog.

Nonetheless, their progress may benefit the division. The Premier League has been called many things in recent years, but rarely unpredictable. At this formative stage, it is a season of surprises. That, in itself, can only help. The best may have got better, but the top of the table had more intrigue a decade ago.

Although United generally won the league with Arsenal often second, third and fourth places were up for grabs among Chelsea, Liverpool, Leeds and Newcastle. Now Manchester City and Tottenham may be their modern-day equivalents, but it is only if they qualify for the Champions League that the phrase "the Big Four" may become redundant.

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