What Is the Best Premier League Season of All Time?

Let's rank 'em all, from 23rd to first

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All right, today’s donation request comes from Dave, who asked for either something about Alan Shearer or a piece about the history of the Premier League. No offense to Alan Shearer, but we’re gonna go with the latter since I was able to cook up something fun.

What was the best Premier League season? The answer obviously depends on who you are -- Leicester City and Chelsea fans will have sliiiiightly different opinions regarding the greatness of the 2015-16 campaign. And then there’s just the subjectivity of each individual’s sports fandom. What do you care more about? Title races? Top-tier excellence? Goal scoring? Defensive brutality? A scramble to survive? Or maybe you just want to watch the world burn?

Rather than picking just one factor, I teamed up with the folks over at the consultancy 21st Club to create a weighted metric to rank the past 23 seasons of Premier League play. Our goal, generally, was to determine which seasons were the most memorable and which ones we’d quickly like to forget.

The best seasons have back-and-forth title races, surprise teams, a lot to play for on Matchday 38, plenty of goals, and a battle at the bottom of the table. So, the formula includes ratings inputs (on a scale of 1 to 100) for top of the table/title race (35-percent weight), overall uncertainty (25 percent), final-day importance (15 percent), number of goals (15 percent), and relegation battle (10 percent).

We’ll go through the 23 20-team seasons in order, from worst to best.

T-23. 2005-06, 2000-01 (Overall Score: 27 out of a possible 100) 

Given the makeup of the metric, it’s no surprise that the two “worst” seasons were ones with title-races sewn up seemingly by Christmas. In Mourinho’s second season with Chelsea, they tied the previous season’s PL-record of 29 wins and were 11 points clear at the top of the table on New Year’s Day. But what makes this season especially forgettable is the lack of goals; it ranks dead-last for league-wide scoring (a whopping 9 out of 100 on our scale) over this two decade stretch. “Mourinho's Chelsea were so dominant,” said Omar Chaudhuri, chief intelligence officer at 21st Club. “Their low-scoring style of play seemed to rub off on the whole league, with under 2.5 goals per game”.

As for 2000-01, it marked United’s seventh Premier League title, as they became the first team since Liverpool in the mid-80s to win three championships in a row. Thierry Henry did this to United in October:

And then, in the reverse fixture that February, United won, 6-1, to go 16 points clear of the second-place Gunners.

21. 2012-13 (Overall Score: 28)

Sir Alex Ferguson’s final season was also the joint-highest-scoring campaign across the 20-year set. However, that’s the only thing that saves it from being below the previous two. The final-day of the season was the joint-worst rated among the 20. This season had the least uncertainty, meaning that there was a big gap between the best and worst teams in the table -- the top seven teams all had goal-differentials of plus-15 or better; no one else was positive -- and that the standings didn’t shift much from the previous season.

Robin van Persie, signed from Arsenal the previous summer, scored all the goals in a 3-0 April win against Aston Villa that secured the title.

RVP scored a league-high 26 goals this season, these three clinched United’s 13 Premier League title. The Dutchman would go on to score a combined 22 goals over the next two league campaigns, and the Red Devils haven’t won a title since he walloped the volley past a helpless Brad Guzan.

20. 2017-18 (Overall Score: 31)

While this one is obviously memorable for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City becoming the first team in league history to reach 100 points, this one is also obviously boring as hell for Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City becoming the first team in league history to reach 100 points.

A couple other points of note: Mohamed Salah set the league-record for goals with 32, and Arsene Wenger wrapped up his 22-year career at Arsenal. This was the most Big Six of the Big Six seasons, as all of the sides had plus-20 goal differentials or better, while the rest of the league was in the red. The only reason this one doesn’t rate lower: for the second-time in league history, all three promoted teams stayed up, while three well-established Premier League clubs -- Swansea City, Stoke City, and West Brom -- all went down. None of them have been back up since.

19. 1999-2000, 2014-15 (Overall Score: 38)

We’re entering a new tier, which, in a way, might be worse. The previous four campaigns rate so poorly because of a handful of dominant, memorable teams and managers. The next set don’t really have any awful attributes, but they don’t stand out for many reasons, either. Otherwise, they’d be higher up.

Regarding 99-00: “A rare high-scoring season for 1990s football”, Chaudhuri said. “Otherwise a straightforward title win for United”.

Underscoring that point, Kevin Phillips scored a remarkable 30 goals for Sunderland, who, as anyone with a Netflix password would attest to, remarkably finished all the way up in seventh. In Thierry Henry’s first season in England, United won the title by 18 points. Leeds United finished in third, securing their first-ever Champions League berth. Four years later, they would be relegated.

The 2014-15 season was Chelsea’s easy title-walk in Mourinho’s second stint with the club. Cesc Fabgregas joined from Barcelona in the summer and added some rare, devastating creativity to his manager’s midfield:

Chelsea led the league for a record 278 days, and so most of the drama came down at the bottom of the table. Leicester were famously bottom of the standings come Christmas, only to win seven of their final nine matches. Alan Pardew quit Newcastle in the middle of the season to go and manager Crystal Palace, and the Magpies went on to lose eight matches in a row before steadying the ship at the end of the season to secure a late return to safety.

I, personally, remember this season for how good and how unlucky Ronald Koeman’s Southampton were. Despite the fourth-best expected-goal differential in the league, per Stats Perform, they somehow finished down in seventh. “The seventh-place team was probably better than their place in the table” is certainly the kind of tagline that warrants a tie for 19th in our rankings.

17. 2016-17 (Overall Score: 42)

Despite the appointments of Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho at the two Manchester clubs, Antonio Conte dominated his debut campaign, as his Chelsea broke the record for most wins in season. N’Golo Kante won Player of the Season, and at that point legitimately had a case for world soccer’ MVPWINLM (Most Valuable Player Who Is Not Lionel Messi) as he won back-to-back titles with Leicester and Chelsea.

Outside of that, a bunch of guys scored acrobatic goals -- Olivier Giroud, Emre Can, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan -- Leicester fell from first to 12th, and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool qualified for the Champions League for the first time. There’s not much else to this one.

16. 2018-19 (Overall Score: 44)

Listen, I know, I know. A title race between arguably the two best teams in league history that went down to the wire can’t even break into the top 15?

“We've looked at the unpredictability of the title race, including the number of different teams involved and the eventual gap between first and second”, Chaudhuri said. “While some title races, like last season's, may be memorable, they are downgraded compared to title races where there are more changes of lead and where more teams are involved. Some of the title races in the 1990s in particular had more variety than some of the more modern battles.”

The best example of that is the fact that Manchester City were actually one goal down in their final match against Brighton ... before they went on to win 4-1. Every time it seemed like the balance of power might shift, Manchester City would win. Then Liverpool would. Then Manchester City would — until there were no games left. City equaled their wins record from the previous season -- 32 -- while Liverpool only lost one match and yet somehow failed to claim the title.

15. 2003-04 (Overall Score: 47)

There’s all kinds of poetry here. Arsenal, of course, became the Invincibles, winning 26 matches, drawing 12, and losing none. It’s the last title they won, and it came during billionaire oligarch Roman Abramovich’s first season as Chelsea owner and Cristiano Ronaldo’s first year with Manchester United. Leeds United were also relegated this year, sort of officially marking the new era the league was about to enter.

There’s even a bit of foreshadowing in Arsenal’s overall performance. On the one hand, it marked impossible, impermeable dominance -- no team had ever made it through a Premier League season without losing a match. On the other, United won more points in a season just four years prior, and Mourinho’s Chelsea would eclipse the Invincibles points total in each of the next two seasons. As of now, the 03-04 Gunners are tied for the eighth-most points in league history, and they’ll drop down to ninth so long as Liverpool find a way to grab at least two points from their next five games. Seventeen separate teams have won more matches than the Invincibles during the Premier League era.

“The 2003-04 season was remarkable only for Arsenal's unbeaten season”, Chaudhuri said, “though the season was relatively unpredictable from the point of view of a number of teams (including Spurs, City, Everton) making big downward moves on the previous season”.

14. 2004-05 (Overall Score: 49)

He sure backed this up, huh?

Chelsea won the title by 12 points over Arsenal, eclipsing the Gunners’ point total from the previous undefeated season by five. In his debut season, Mourinho’s team set records for most wins (29) and most clean sheets (24), but the most remarkable stat is this: they only conceded 15 goals! That’s still the record today, and barring an unlikely shift in the way the game is played toward something much more defensive, I’m not sure that number will ever be matched.

However, what made this season especially compelling is what happened elsewhere in the table.

“Arguably the best relegation battle, with no relegation place decided until the final day,” Chaudhuri said. “West Brom became the first team to stay up having been bottom at Christmas.”

There was also plenty of uncertainty, especially in the city of Liverpool. In Rafa Benitez’s first season with the Reds, they finished outside the Champions League places but also, you know, won the Champions League. Meanwhile, I think Everton’s achievement this season might even eclipse Leicester’s improbable title. And no, I don’t mean that David Moyes’s side finished top four despite being tipped for relegation by many before the season began. No, it’s that they finished top four despite having a NEGATIVE goal differential. The fourth-best team in the league allowed more goals than they scored, and somehow they won 18 matches.

13. 2010-11 (Overall Score: 50)

This might be the most “average” Premier League season of all time. First, there’s our score: exactly 50. Manchester United winning the title also suggests as much; they won more of these than anyone and they did this one in a pretty unremarkable fashion, nabbing just 80 points -- only the 36th-highest total in league history. Dimitar Berbatov and Carlos Tevez shared the golden boot with a relatively paltry 20 goals, but don’t let that blind you to the larger trend

“United won the title fairly comfortably,” Chaudhuri said. “The highlight of the season was the relegation battle, with four teams trying to avoid two relegation spots on the final day. This season also had the joint-most goals.”

Despite the increasing offensive fireworks, the Premier League’s player of the year was a defender: Manchester United’s Nemanja Vidic.

T-12. 2007-08, 2008-09 (Overall: 52)

Modern soccer doesn’t do title races well. And even when there is a season-long competition for a trophy, it usually only involves two teams. Up until the last couple years, with Liverpool and City separating themselves from the rest of the league, the Premier League managed a bizarre kind of balance. Before last season, the league didn’t see a single repeat winner for a decade, and yet despite 10 years of hot potato atop the table, there rarely was a compelling title race. 

However, despite United winning both of these seasons (and the one prior), the race at the top remained interesting. 

“2007-08 was perhaps the peak of the 'big four' era, and as a result this season had an element of predictability”, Chaudhuri said. “But with three of the big four genuinely involved in a title challenge -- and a number of changes of lead -- made this one of the better 21st century title races.”

Four points separated first from third, and fourth-place Liverpool had an equal goal differential to second-place. The following season saw Liverpool outperform United across just about every metric -- Rafa Bentiez’s side beat Ferguson’s side twice, including a 4-1 beatdown at Old Trafford -- except they fell short in the only number that ultimately matters: points. The 08-09 campaign offered above-average uncertainty, a lively relegation battle, and some final-day drama. It’s biggest weakness was its pathetic 2.5 goals per match, and that’s despite featuring arguably the best Premier League game of the past 20 two years:

10. 2001-02 (Overall Score: 56)

All the drama was at the top.

“At one stage, five teams were realistically in the title race, meaning the season remained interesting throughout,” Chaudhuri said. “However, this was one of the league's weakest relegation battles -- ironically in the first season in which all three promoted teams stayed up”.

This was the first year that the top four Premier League teams qualified for the Champions League, and perhaps that increased the upward pressure. Leeds, who’d made the semis of that tournament the year before, went 11 matches unbeaten in the fall and topped the table in November. Liverpool then took the lead over the ensuing weeks, but Newcastle were leading at Christmas after back-to-back wins against Leeds and Arsenal. 

But after that loss on December 18, Arsenal didn’t drop another match for the rest of the season. They ended the campaign with 13 straight wins and clinched the title on the second-to-last weekend with a 1-0 win over then-second-place Manchester United at Old Trafford.

This goal is beautiful enough on its own:

But the context makes it even better: on the road, for revenge against the team that was top of the table at Christmas.

T-9. 2011-12, 2009-10 (Overall Score: 57)

The average fan might not have put these seasons on equal-footing, and unsurprisingly Sergio AGUEEEEERRROOOOOOO’s last-minute goal against QPR to win the title for City (and steal it from cross-city rivals Manchester United) gives the 2011-12 season something that none of the others have. It’s the greatest, highest-leverage, most important moment in the history of the league.

“Undoubtedly the league's finest final day”, Chaudhuri said, “but -- a bit like 2018-19 -- this wasn't an especially topsy-turvy title race, and also only involved two teams, so it is downgraded in our model.”

The 2009-10 season was an underrated one, won by perhaps the most underrated team in the history of the league. First, it featured a relegation battle that saw a bunch of sides dip into the bottom three at one point or another. Then, there was the way it was won. On April 3 2010, Chelsea beat Manchester United, 2-1, at Old Trafford to leapfrog them into first with four games remaining. Chelsea then won three of their last four -- most notably a 2-0 win over Liverpool at Anfield, and an absurd 8-0 win over Wigan on the last day of the season to clinch the title by a single point. United, the three-time defending champs, had lost Carlos Tevez and Cristiano Ronaldo the previous summer, but they somehow hung in all the way to the end.

Carlo Ancelotti’s side, though, were just too good. Their goal differential of plus-71 was 13 goals aboveUnited’s, and it has only been bettered by the Manchester City vintages of the past two seasons. Despite a number of veterans in their 30s -- Didier Drogba, Michael Ballack, Frank Lampard, Florent Malouda, Nicolas Anelka -- this was an all-time great side that isn’t remembered as such.

T-7. 1995-1996, 2002-02 (Overall Score: 59)

If there’s one definitive, elegant, scientific takeaway from this exercise, it is the following: From 1995 through 1999, the Premier League was incredibly lit. All four seasons rank within the top 10, and the 95-96 season should probably be even higher. I was seven years old when it started, and I’m pretty sure it was impossible to follow the season in anything close to real-time in America. If you followed the league from the US in 95-96, please shoot me an email. I’d love to hear what that was like.

Everything happened this season. Manchester United promoted the rest of the famed Class of ‘92, as academy products David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Gary and Phil Neville, and Paul Scholes joined classmate Ryan Giggs in the first team.  Former Liverpool defender Alan Hansen said, "You can't win anything with kids" after United’s opening-weekend loss to Aston Villa. Nine months later, well, look at these doofuses:

Despite what you just saw, Newcastle United had a 12-point lead at one point. They led the league for 212 days, the longest a team has done so without winning the title. This was also the first season of the 20-team era. For defending champs Blackburn Rovers -- take a deep breath and go read those last four words again -- Alan Shearer scored 31 goals, a record matched by Cristiano Ronaldo and Luis Suarez, and then broken by Salah. Dennis Bergkamp joined Arsenal. Eric Cantona returned after a nine-month ban for axe-kicking a spectator. Manchester City ... were relegated. And Tony Yeboah ... did this:

The model underrated the wackiness of the title race, and Omar suggested that at the very least it should be above 2002-03, a season he described as such: “A solid, but unspectacular season, perhaps best remembered for Wayne Rooney derailing what seemed to be a procession for Arsenal to seal back-to-back titles.”

Wayne Rooney was 16 years old when he did this. Good god.

5. 2015-16 (Overall Score: 60)

Elvis being found alive, Barack Obama suiting up for the England cricket team, and Leicester City winning the Premier League in 2015-16 -- all things that had an equal likelihood of happening as of the summer of 2015, according to bookmakers. Elvis is still dead, and although I found this picture …

... I don’t think President Obama has made a competitive appearance at the Ashes. Leicester’s title win -- an underdog longshot in a sport with no salary cap and no volatility-inducing playoffs -- is the most improbable championship in the history of major full-season sports. And yet, their season only comes in at no. 7? The most improbable thing about it might just be how probable they made it seem.

“In the end, Leicester's title win wasn't that exciting,” Chaudhuri said. “They led for almost all of the second half of the season, and had the title wrapped up before the final day. But almost no season tops this for unpredictability, both in terms of within the season, but also from the previous year, with champions Chelsea finishing 10th.”

Leicester ended up winning by 10 points, so the title and the relegation battles were settled before the final day. While the strength of the full season might make up for it, this was tied for the least-fun final day of all the campaigns we measured.

4. 1996-97 (Overall Score: 64)

No season in the 20-era offered as much excitement at both ends of the table. The title race rated better than all but two seasons. After blowing the 12-point lead the year before, Newcastle added Alan Shearer, he of the 31 goals from the year before. Shearer led the league in goals again, and Newcastle destroyed United, 5-0, at St. James’s Park in October. Sensing a trend here? Sir Alex Ferguson’s teams had a habit of getting annihilated by their closest competitors, and then still winning the title, which they did again this season despite a worse goal-differential than the Magpies. Liverpool also held the lead at one point, and Arsenal were in the title hunt right up until the end, as the pair and Newcastle all ended the season tied on 68 points. 

At the bottom of the table -- you know what, maybe that’s not the right term. Leicester, who finished ninth, were only seven points clear of relegation at the end of the season. Just two points separated 13th from 18th. Most ridiculous was the relegation of Middlesbrough. They had signed Fabrizio Ravanelli, who had just scored in Juventus’s Champions League final victory over Ajax. He scored 16 goals in his debut season, while the Brazilian Juninho was named Player of the Year. You read that right: Juninho won PREMIER LEAGUE PLAYER OF THE YEAR, and his team still ended up being relegated. What’s more, they were deducted three points due to a late game cancellation, and they only missed out on safety by .. two points. Even more: They lost in the finals of both the League and FA Cups. And on top of all that, their goal differential on the year was only minus-9. None of this makes any sense.

The only reason this season isn’t higher is due to the lack of goals, as it’s one of the lowest scoring seasons in the 20-team era. In keeping with that, Manchester United won the league with 75 points, the lowest-ever total for a champion.

T-3. 2013-14, 1998-99 (Overall Score: 65)

The 13-14 season is probably best remembered for Steven Gerrard’s slip against Chelsea, Liverpool’s blown 3-0 lead against Crystal Palace, or just generally for Liverpool losing the title, rather than City winning it. It feels that way especially since Liverpool beat Manchester City late in the year in what seemed, at the time, like a de facto title decider. Brendan Rodgers and Co. had a five-point lead with three games to go at one point. They absolutely blew it. However, the league leader changed 25 different times throughout the season, as Arsenal took hold early in the season, and also Chelsea challenged before fading away come spring. City, somehow, only led for 15 total days across the season.

“The best 'modern' season, with Man City taking the lead in the title race relatively late,” Chaudhuri said. “The season is probably most memorable for the amount of goals scored by Liverpool and City during their respective run-ins.”

Liverpool and City became just the second- and third- teams to score 100 goals in a season, a feat that’s only been matched by the Centurions since. Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge combined to score 52 goals themselves.

If there’s a better top-of-the-table battle than 2013-14, it came in the first season after the 1998 World Cup.

“Arguably the Premier League's best title race, with Chelsea involved until very late, and Arsenal's defeat to Leeds in the penultimate weekend giving Man United a late lead,” Chaudhuri said. “The relegation battle was good too; Southampton were in the drop zone all season until May, and Everton escaping late too”.

This is the year United won their Treble, but it was dangerously close to being a single. The incredible stoppage-time Champions League comeback against Bayern Munich is established legend, but not only did they need Leeds to beat Arsenal in the second-to-last match of the season. They also had to come from behind to beat Tottenham, 2-1, on the final day of the season to clinch first.

In keeping with the trends of the late 90s, this was the second-lowest-scoring season of the 20-team era. And in keeping with the trends of the, uh, modern history of the sport, United once again won with under 80 points, nipping in at 79 -- one ahead of Arsenal and four ahead of Chelsea.

1. 1997-98 (Overall Score: 68)

On Christmas Day in 1997, Arsenal were 13 points back of first-place Manchester United, all the way down in sixth place. Not only did they end up winning; they ended up winning despite losing both of their final two matches. While Arsenal had three games in hand at the time, United also had a 12-point lead at the start of March. The Gunners drew their first match of the month, and then reeled off 10 straight wins. They lost their final two matches by a combined 5-0 scoreline, but they’d already clinched, so it didn’t matter. Arsene Wenger won the title in his first season with Arsenal, and his battle with Sir Alex Ferguson defined the pre-Roman Abramovich Premier League era, as one of their teams won seven titles in a row.

What also separates that era from the current one is the, uh, lack of separation everywhere else. While we’ve moved from a Top Four to a Big Six to a Big Two in the years since 2004-05, the 97-98 campaign was a free-for-all. The gap between first and 18th was 38 points; when the pandemic paused play back in March, this season’s gap between first and fifth was bigger than that. First and fifth!

Tottenham were in the bottom three at the turn of the year, but a loan move for Jurgen Klinsmann, who scored nine goals in 15 matches, helped them comfortably rise above. This would mark the last time someone did not regret hiring Jurgen Klinsmann. Everton, meanwhile survived only due to a superior goal differential. And Newcastle, the same team that challenged for titles in each of the previous two seasons, finished just four points from the bottom three.  

What I love about this season, which deservedly sits at no. 1, is that it offers the thing that most of the modern, financially optimized, increasingly stratified domestic leagues no longer can: on a given weekend, anything could happen. In the Premier League, it’s been almost 20 years since that was true.