Unbeaten runs to clinch the Premier League title: What might be good enough this time?

Estimated read time 8 min read

Liverpool vs Manchester City on Sunday should be the game of the season on its own, but it also represents the beginning of the end of the 2023-24 Premier League. The starting gun for the run-in, if you will — and what a run-in it could be.

With the right combination of results over the weekend (an Arsenal win over Brentford on Saturday, then a draw at Anfield), we could be heading for the final 10 games of the season with the top three separated by a single point.

It’s a delicious prospect. Well, for us it is: for the players and managers involved, maybe not so much. The current top three have 63, 62 and 61 points, with another 33 technically available, although not for all of them. Since City’s first title win under Pep Guardiola in 2017-18, the various Premier League champions’ points totals have been 100, 98, 99, 86, 93 and 89, which means that in all probability whoever wins this time will have to go unbeaten from now until the end of the final round of matches on May 19.

A lengthy unbeaten run isn’t something that comes with a prize itself, but as you might expect they are usually linked with the champions.

Every Premier League-winning team, going back to the competition’s 1992-93 debut year, has gone at least 10 games unbeaten in the season concerned. The six longest in-season unbeaten runs (as opposed to runs that span two seasons, or even three) all belong to Premier League champions, the longest being the ultimate example of the genre, Arsenal’s 38-game Invincibles season of 2003-04.

The current crop of would-be champions all already have one of those stretches under their belts: Liverpool went undefeated in 15 games between October and January, Arsenal did 10 from the start of the season and City are currently 12 matches removed from their most recent loss.

If all three avoided defeat for the rest of the season, their runs would extend to 18 for Arsenal, 23 for City and 15 for Liverpool.

So how would they compare to the longest unbeaten stretches in Premier League history?

Arsenal’s 38 out of 38 unbeaten cannot be topped, but their 26 wins in that 2003-04 season has been (Stuart MacFarlane/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)

Perhaps surprisingly, it would be City’s longest in-season undefeated run, beating the 22 they managed in 2017-18, the year they got 100 points. It would be the fifth-longest overall, just behind the 24 Manchester United managed in 2010-11, when they went unbeaten from the start of the season until early February.

For Arsenal, their 18 would only just sneak into their top five longest, which includes 21- and 19-game runs in seasons when they didn’t even win the league (2008-09 and 1998-99 respectively), while Liverpool would match their stretch in 2008-09, when they finished second to United. They have an impressive five longer runs than that to their name, including two from the absurd 2018-19 season when they reeled off 20 from the start, lost once (2-1 away to City) and then avoided defeat in the remaining 17 games, yet were still a point adrift of Guardiola’s men at the end.

Unbeaten runs are not an island: they exist in the context of the teams around you, and the pressure that contenders can exert with their own unbeaten runs. Chelsea’s 2004-05 season, for example, was arguably made even more impressive by the fact that United reeled off a 20-game run of their own, but still fell 12 points short of the title.

That was the reverse of a few years earlier, in United’s treble season, when Chelsea managed a slightly forgotten 21 games without defeat and Arsenal went 19 unbeaten. United also had to hold off that 21-game stretch from Arsenal in 2008-09.

The gold standard for this is the 2018-19 season, which seemed like less of a football season and more two massive robots smashing each other with colossal hammers, neither seeming to falter, much less fall. City won their last 14 — 14! — games, while Liverpool won their final nine, which itself was part of that 17-game unbeaten run mentioned above.

All of this is relevant to this season, given that it is that rarest of things: a genuine three-team title race.

The definition of what counts as a proper three-team race is slightly woolly, but there have only been four previous seasons where the final points gap between the top three has been in single figures, the closest being the four that separated City, Liverpool and Chelsea in 2013-14.

There’s also that 2008-09 campaign which was, before City and Liverpool’s slugfest a decade later, the most prominent example of a team putting together a relentless late-season unbeaten run, ultimately in vain. Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool dropped just two points in their last 11 games, but it wasn’t enough to overhaul United, who eventually finished four ahead of them, and seven clear of third-placed Chelsea.

It’s also worth taking a look at the nature of some of the most prominent runs.

If we disregard Arsenal’s Invincibles as an outlier, on the basis that an entire season can’t really be adequately referred to as a ‘run’, next on the list are Chelsea in Jose Mourinho’s 2004-05 debut campaign, who were beaten away at City in the middle of October then didn’t lose any of their remaining 29 league matches.

They won 23 of those fixtures and kept 18 clean sheets. Ludicrously, they only conceded the first goal in a game four times, two of which came after they had already sealed the title, and trailed for just 58 minutes over the 29 matches. They were so dominant, they only scored two result-changing goals after the 80th minute in the entire stretch, the points having been wrapped up comfortably in the rest: one was an 82nd-minute equaliser by Didier Drogba against Birmingham, the other was that time they allowed goal-shy Claude Makelele to take a 90th-minute penalty at 0-0 against Charlton: he missed, but scored from the rebound. In short, it wasn’t an unbeaten run, it was a procession.

Next on the list are the 27 unbeaten games that started Liverpool’s title-winning 2019-20 season, a run that provides a useful contrast to Chelsea’s 2004-05. Even though Liverpool won a ridiculous 26 of those matches, this was more of a high-wire act: Jurgen Klopp recently compared their current penchant for crucial late goals to that season, and with good reason.

They scored late winners in five games (most famously at Aston Villa, when they scored in the 87th and 94th minutes) and against Manchester United at home, where their second, tension-puncturing goal in a 2-0 win came in stoppage time. Liverpool were dominant that season, but in a different way to Chelsea.

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Then there is United’s 24-game stretch from the beginning of 2010-11, when for a time it did look like they were going to emulate Arsenal from seven years earlier. They ‘only’ won 15 of those games, and their longest winning streak within the 24 fixtures was just four. While you tend to associate Sir Alex Ferguson’s United with late comebacks, they actually threw away quite a few points in this run, notably when they let in two stoppage-time goals to draw 3-3 with Everton, allowed West Brom to come from two down and conceded an 89th-minute equaliser to Birmingham.

Finally, unbeaten runs are not solely about the numbers.

Take United in 1995-96: their longest undefeated stretch of 12 matches in that season doesn’t look particularly special on a spreadsheet, but that was the season when Eric Cantona essentially won the title on his own, scoring in eight of those games, five of which were their only goals in four 1-0 wins and a 1-1 draw. This was the season when they overhauled Kevin Keegan’s Newcastle, which he did not love, and there was more drama in those 12 unbeaten games than there was in most of the more statistically impressive stretches.

After all of this, going unbeaten over the remaining 11 games this season still might not be enough, as Liverpool have found out to their cost before.

Based on recent history, the eventual champions will need a total in the high 80s, minimum. Probably more realistically, with three teams pushing each other, only something north of 90 will cut it. Gone are the days when 75 points would win you the title, as it did for United in 1996-97, or the 81 that Leicester got in their 2015-16 miracle season.

Unbeaten runs might not do the job anymore. A winning run is what you need.

In the Guardiola era, the champions have won at least 12 games in a row all but once. Liverpool in 2019-20 and City in 2017-18 lead the way with 18. As we all know, it’s been a feature of City’s successes that they suddenly turn into a merciless winning machine, and go on ludicrous runs: there were 15 in 2020-21 and 14 in both 2018-19 and 2022-23. The current longest this season is seven, which is Arsenal’s current streak. It will probably need another of those relentless spells of victories to lift the title.

It’s all an indication of just how ludicrously good and consistent you need to be in the present era.

Hopefully, the three will continue to careen towards the finish line at breakneck speed.

It’s going to be hellish for them, but terrific fun for us.

(Top photos: Getty Images)