The table never lies, or so people say, but in the Premier League this season it is seriously struggling to make its mind up as to what the truth is. By mid-November, the dust has usually long since settled, but this season nobody is any the wiser as to what is a realistic order of merit.
While the Big Four are engaged in their dominance, for the rest it is more like Snakes & Ladders - only with a snake or ladder on every single square. Because most of the teams are so tightly bunched, with only four points separating the bottom half of the table, many feel this might be the most competitive season since the Premiership was formed - or even further back. The bald statistics suggest answer is both yes and no.
Analysis of all the league tables after 13 games (in some seasons the fixture list was staggered, so we have the taken the point at which the most teams have played 13 games) since a three-points-for-a-win system was introduced, in 1981-82, backs up what most people felt: that the table is more competitive than ever at the bottom, and less competitive than ever overall.
There is currently a 21-point gap between top and bottom (see the table below): that is some way short of the smallest gap over the last 28 seasons, the 13 points in 1989-90. Indeed there are ten seasons in that period - the most recent being 2001-02 - in which the gap from top to bottom has been smaller at this stage of the season. It has been under 20 points only once this decade, as opposed to three times in the 1990s and four times in the 1980s, suggesting again that the overall league has become significantly less competitive.
The biggest gap was a whopping 33 points in 1990-91, the consequence of two sides making outrageous starts: Liverpool had 37 points, after winning 12 and drawing one of their first 13 games, while Sheffield United had just four after failing to win any games. Oddly, Liverpool would not win the league and Sheffield United would not be relegated: they recovered to finish 13th, and took more points than Liverpool in the second half of the season.
If we accept that, despite Aston Villa's admirable improvement, a Big Four still exists in English football, it is instructive to look at the gap between first and fifth (the best of the rest) to see how attainable a position at the top table might be: currently that lies at nine points, a figure that has been bettered (the smaller the number the better in this sense) in 19 of the other 27 seasons. The smallest gap is three points, which occurred in 1982-83 and and 2001-02. Half of the eight instances in which the gap has been 10 points or more have occurred in this decade.
The form of one or two sides - like Liverpool and Sheffield United in 1990-91, or Derby last season - can be so extreme as to act as an outlier. In 1993-94, for example, Manchester United led the table by 11 points after 13 games. That meant that the gap between first and fifth was 11 points, yet the gap between second and sixth was just one point. These days it's nigh on impossible to break into the top four or five; in those days you could do that, but not necessarily break into the top one.
The same point is clear when we look at the gap between first and tenth, or in other words the bottom of the top half (the figure is adjusted for seasons in which the league had 21 or 22 teams). This season that lies at 15 points, suggesting a significant disparity between the haves and have-nots that has been evidenced by the way in which Chelsea in particular have been able to sleepwalk to victory in so many games. That 15-point spread has only been exceeded on seven occasions - the biggest difference, unsurprisingly, was 22 in that 1990-91 season when Liverpool set such a scorching pace - but again 1982-83 and 2001-02, along with 1983-84 are the closest seasons, with a gap of just seven points.
Yet while there is no real sense that sides can break the glass ceiling, it is unarguable that, in terms of relegation, this is one of the tightest seasons, if not the tightest, since the switch to three points for a win. Hull, in sixth, are third favourites with many bookmakers to go down: this reflects not only their newbie status but also the fact that nobody really has a clue how the season is going to unfold. The gap between Hull and the bottom team, West Brom, is 10 points: only once, in 1989-90 (eight points) has that gap been smaller at this stage at the season. And never before has there been a smaller gap separating the bottom half of the table - just four points between Sunderland in 11th and West Brom in 20th.
This is partly due to the fact that there is no one mediocre team, like Derby last season - some would argue there are 15 mediocre teams - but it's striking statistical support to the perception that this might be the closest relegation battle for a long, long time.
NB: For purposes of consistency the tables show the recognised Big Four rather than the top four teams in each season
Either way, the Premier League has some distance to travel to match the tightest league tables of all. In Divizia C of the Romanian league in 1983-84 , the bottom half was separated by a single point at the end of the season. (Admittedly this was with two points for a win, but still.) And, in what was a 30-game season, only three points separated UMT Timisoara in second (Muresul Deva won the league by seven points) and the bottom team Minerul Aninoasa, in 16th. Three sides in the top half of the table finished only a point off relegation. Even with three points for a win it would only have been a five-point gap from second to 16th. Now that's what we call competitive.