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A closer look at the battle for a top-six Premier League finish

Some of the usual suspects are under threat this season.

The race for the Premier League's top six is approaching its crunch point, with Manchester City enjoying a commanding lead despite their derby day setback.

However, if Pep Guardiola's men are odds-on favourites to regain the title they surrendered to Liverpool last season, the remaining five places among English football's elite are very much still up for grabs.

Here, the PA news agency takes a look at this season's runners and riders, and the trends over the 28 seasons of the Premier League era to date some of them are attempting to buck.

Breaking the mould?

West Ham have been one of the current season's surprise packages
West Ham have been one of the current season's surprise packages (Ian Walton/PA)

Few eyebrows would be raised at the presence of Manchester duo City and United and Chelsea among the current top six with the finishing line in sight. However, the absence of Liverpool and Arsenal and Tottenham is notable, and that is down not only to their own failings, but the excellence of Leicester, West Ham and Everton. The Foxes have only two previous top-six finishes to their name, one of them as champions in 2016, while the Hammers have made it only once before, a fifth-placed finish in 1998-99. The Toffees' seven comprise three sixths, as many fifths and one fourth place.

Gatecrashers not welcome

Leicester captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League trophy in 2016, the club's first foray into the top six
Leicester captain Wes Morgan and manager Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League trophy in 2016, the club's first foray into the top six (Nick Potts/PA)

The top six is an exclusive club, but just how difficult is it to secure membership? Only 20 clubs have ever made it, and just seven of those – Manchester United (13), Blackburn (1), Arsenal (3), Chelsea (5), Manchester City (4), Leicester (1) and Liverpool (1) have won the title. Tottenham (13), Aston Villa (9), Newcastle (8) and Leeds and Everton (7) have been relatively regular visitors, but the Foxes have gained entry only twice while eight clubs – Norwich, Nottingham Forest, QPR, West Ham, Ipswich, Wimbledon, Bolton and Southampton – have managed it only once.

The usual suspects

The identities of the 'big six' statistically will come as no surprise. Thirteen-times champions Manchester United have finished in the top six at the end of 27 of those 28 campaigns, missing out only once by a single place in 2013-14 with David Moyes at the helm. Arsenal's return of 25 and three titles puts them in second place with five-times winners Chelsea third on 23. Liverpool are only one worse off, but had to wait until last season for their first title, while Tottenham (13) are yet to lift the trophy. Manchester City, however, have won the league on four occasions from only 11 top-six visits.

Keeping it tight

As the season neared the halfway stage, the race for the top six was on course to be the tightest ever with just eight points separating leaders Manchester United and Everton in sixth, but events since have seen Manchester City pull clear of the pack and establish a 19-point advantage over the men from Goodison Park five places below them. The gap between first and sixth at the end of the campaign has been fewer than 20 points on only five occasions – the lowest was 16 in 1996-97 – and hit a record 40 last season.

Money talks

Newcastle have been relegated twice since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007
Newcastle have been relegated twice since Mike Ashley bought the club in 2007 (Kirsty O'Connor/PA)

Tangible success and money are rarely far apart in modern football and heavy investment has gone hand-in-hand with Premier League success in recent years. Chelsea's five titles have all come since Roman Abramovich bought the club in 2003 and funded its rise, and Manchester City have won the league four times since Sheikh Mansour's vast wealth was brought to bear in 2008. By contrast, Newcastle made the top six on seven occasions between 1992 and 2007, when Mike Ashley launched a successful takeover and embarked upon a campaign to make the Magpies self-sufficient. They have managed it once since – fifth place in 2011-12 – and been relegated twice.

It's a long way back

There is no room for complacency at the top end of the table and for some of those who have fallen from grace, it can be a struggle to return. Aston Villa and Newcastle have both spent time in the Sky Bet Championship having once been regarded as regulars, but no side has suffered more than Leeds. Champions League semi-finalists in 2001, they finished fifth at the end of the following campaign before a financial implosion which ultimately saw the club plummet to League One during a 16-year exile from the top flight.

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