As Chelsea were reminded at Goodison Park this weekend, finishing in the top four is no given considering the strong performances of those clubs chasing the hallowed Champions League qualifying spots – performances that have improved in recent seasons according to a new academic study.
Between the 2006/07 and 2012/13 Premier League seasons, performances of teams finishing in fifth – eighth position improved at a faster rate than those in the top four, according to research using Prozone data.
The study from sports scientists at Leeds Beckett University and University of Sunderland measured both technical and physical performance of clubs in the Premier League and found that those gunning for a spot in the Champions League were the biggest improvers on both counts.
In the time period measured, clubs such as Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City have qualified for the Champions League for the first time while Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool have all slipped out of the top four.
Players at top four clubs unsurprisingly demonstrated the highest level of technical performance on metrics such as number of passes and percentage of successful passes made during the period, but those throughout the rest of the Premier League are quickly catching up.
Clubs from fifth-eighth increased the number of successful passes made by 113 per cent compared to just a 19 per cent increase among top four teams.
And "Tier B" teams, as they are referred to in the study, appear to be getting fitter and faster too with high-intensity running distances while in possession increasing by 50 per cent, compared to the top four's 15 per cent rise, to become "virtually identical" to one another.
Paul Bradley, who wrote the report in conjunction with West Brom sports scientist Chris Barnes, commented: "Our study shows that physical and technical performances have evolved more in clubs aspiring to play Champions League football than any other clubs in the Premier League. This indicates that there has been a narrowing of the performance gap between these clubs and the traditional top four.
"This finding could be reflective of a reduction in the tactical and territorial dominance of the top four clubs relative to those chasing clubs, or could simply mean that the top clubs are unafraid of leaving possession to lower ranked sides as they believe they have the physical, tactical and technical ability to cope."