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Best footballing rivalries analysis: What makes a great dogfight?

| 31.10.2021

Best footballing rivalries in Premier League

Barely a weekend goes by without some sort of derby or grudge match being contested in the Premier League, but which fixtures should we be looking to for explosive action?

Here we’ve broken down the key elements of an entertaining rivalry and identified the matches that meet these criteria.

Which football derbies are played most often?

One of the most obvious things which ignites a rivalry is the two clubs’ proximity to each other. We have taken a look at the most-played matches in each region in the English top flight to find the historic battles in each part of the country.

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The Merseyside derby is the second-most played fixture in top-flight history, with Everton and Liverpool meeting 204 times to date. Everton also play a part in the most commonly-contested fixtures, having met Aston Villa in 207 league matches, with each team winning 76 of them.

Every other region of England (and the country of Wales) has seen at least one match between its clubs apart from the South West.

Which is the best football team in London?

Drilling down into the country’s two footballing hotbeds, we have taken a look at all Premier League matches contested by two clubs from each region to see who comes out on top.

Starting with London, Chelsea have been the dominant force in the Premier League era, taking 1.84 points per game from 207 encounters with other clubs based in the capital.

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New boys Brentford have played four London derbies in their first eight matches and – while this is a small sample – they currently have a better average points haul in capital clashes than Tottenham.

Which is the best football team in the North West?

The other dominant footballing region in the Premier League is the North West of England. Unsurprisingly, given their dominance in the 1990s and early 2000s, Manchester United lead the way with almost two points per game in matches against nearby rivals.

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Burnley are now fairly well established in England’s top division but they have a poor record against other teams from their region, averaging a measly 0.68 points in matches of this type.

Who is top of the Big Six mini-league?

Since Manchester City’s takeover transformed them into a dominant force in the Premier League, there has been an easily recognisable ‘big six’. In the last 10 seasons, the Citizens have ruled the roost in matches between these clubs with a win rate of exactly 50% and an average scoreline of 1.9 – 1.2 in their favour.

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More recently, Liverpool have returned to the top of the game and they have the edge when looking at just the five most recent seasons. They have won fewer games (25/50) against their ‘big six’ rivals than Man City (27/50) but have also lost less often, giving them a slim advantage of two points at the top of the mini-league.

At the other end of the spectrum, Arsenal are in free fall, collecting less than a point per game against their erstwhile rivals.

Which are the closest matches in the Premier League?

Another hallmark of an entertaining rivalry is its evenness. It’s all very well for a game to have lots of goals, but if they’re all for one team then there won’t be much suspense.

Going into the 2021-22 season there were 10 pairs of current Premier League teams whose matches had a combined goal difference of less than four; two of which were exactly level.

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Manchester City and Tottenham have each scored 68 goals against each other, while Leeds and Aston Villa are tied on 22 apiece. Spurs’ recent victory over Newcastle tipped the scales on another rivalry that had been perfectly balanced, with the north London side now leading 81-80 across all of their Premier League encounters with the Magpies.

Which are the highest scoring matches in the Premier League?

The main currency of excitement in football is goals and in raw terms, the highest scoring fixture in the Premier League is Arsenal versus Liverpool, with a total of 169. However, this owes much to these two teams being ever-present in the competition, with the picture changing when we consider the average number of goals scored.

The matches which see the most goals on average actually tend to be fairly one-sided, such as the dominance enjoyed by Liverpool and Manchester City over Norwich. Keeping to more even matches, specifically those in which the average goal difference is within one goal per game, Tottenham versus Leicester has been the highest-scoring. With over three and a half goals per meeting, the average score in this encounter is roughly 1.9 to 1.7 in Spurs’ favour.

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Manchester City’s matches with Wolves have also seen plenty of goals – an average of over 3.4 per match – but skewed more heavily in City’s favour: 2.1 to 1.3.

Which Premier League games see the most cards?

Another characteristic of a genuine rivalry is players happy to get rough when going in for tackles, so we have taken a look at the matches which have seen the highest number of red and yellow cards dished out.

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The match which has seen the most cards is Chelsea versus Manchester United (278), but maybe a sea of red cards is the true mark of a classic rivalry. This would put the Merseyside derby top with 22 dismissals to date, followed by the always eagerly-anticipated clash between the North West’s two titans, Liverpool and Manchester United (16).

For fairness we can again look at which fixtures see the most cards per match, which reveals that there is only one fixture between current Premier League clubs which has been contested at least 10 times and has delivered a higher average number of cards than Chelsea versus Manchester United.

The slightly unlikely pairing of Crystal Palace and Watford has yielded more than five cards per encounter, so perhaps there is more to the clash between those on the northern and southern outskirts of the capital than meets the eye?

The number of red cards per match in the Merseyside derby (0.38) translates to more than one every three meetings, a rate almost matched by Arsenal and Wolves (0.36). It might not be the most obvious rivalry but fans have learned to expect plenty of spice when these two meet.

Which teams always finish close together in the Premier League?

Another factor that can give a rivalry a spark is constantly battling for a crucial spot in the league table. There are plenty of clubs who have finished within three points of each other on numerous occasions, suggesting that their tussles are going down to the final match of the season.

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Right at the top of the list is the north London derby. Arsenal and Tottenham have finished within three points of each other on nine occasions since the Premier League was formed. These two clubs will be hoping they can get back to challenging for titles rather than duking it out for a spot in the Europa Conference League.

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Warren Barner