It’s a battle of the summit of the Premier League this season, but what does it mean for the side who will be top of the league at Christmas? Here’s the ultimate guide to whether it’s a festive treat to be the top-flight leaders come Christmas Day.
Arsenal will spend Christmas Day 2023 top of the Premier League table after their 1-1 draw with Liverpool on 23 December.
Prior to 2023-23, there have been 124 English top-flight football seasons. And a quick check of the calendars for each of those years states there have been 124 different Christmas Days. It’s a somewhat arbitrary point of the season as it often fails to signify the halfway stage of a campaign. Yet for some – and for the purpose of this article – it is a definitive moment to look back, historically, at the state of the league table and what it meant in terms of those who went on to win the title and those that didn’t. Champions of Christmas? Maybe, but what does it mean when it comes to being champions overall?
In the 124 previous English top-flight football seasons, the side at the top of the table on Christmas Day has gone on to win the title on 56 occasions, or around 45% of the time. In football’s early days, it had looked as though being top at Christmas would be an important part of any championship success, with Preston North End twice converting their leadership into silverware in 1888-89 and 1889-90. But as Notts County and Bolton Wanderers proved in the following seasons, that’s no easy task, as they both ended third after being top at Christmas.
It’s Liverpool who have found themselves at the summit on 25 December the most times (20) in English top-flight history, although they are closely followed by Manchester United (18) – they are the only two sides to have reached double digits in this category. They may have last done so in 1969 but Everton have achieved this feat on nine different occasions, level with Arsenal, who spend last Christmas Day top of the Premier League and will do so again this season following their point at Anfield on Saturday evening.
The Everton side of 1931-32 (insert obligatory Dixie Dean reference here) also jointly hold the record for the most goals scored by Christmas Day (73) for a team top of the table, alongside the Spurs team of 1960-61 (insert much less obligatory but equally valid Bobby Jones reference). And the following season, Burnley proved that conceding goals wasn’t to be a deterrent to rising to the summit, shipping a record 41 goals. That made the joint low recorded by Chelsea in 2005 and Liverpool in 2018 (seven) appear somewhat eyewatering.
The overall odds of league success do slightly change if we are to look back over just the Premier League years. Norwich City might have been the first team to hold the record of being the competition’s leaders on 25 December, but an even quicker flick through the memory bank and you’ll know that we don’t celebrate Mike Walker, Jeremy Goss and Bryan Gunn in quite the same fashion as Alex Ferguson, Ryan Giggs and Peter Schmeichel.
However, there have been 16 occasions when the Premier League leaders on 25 December have gone on to be crowned champions (51.6%). This has included two occasions where it happened for four consecutive seasons (between 2009-10 and 2012-13 as well as between 2014-15 and 2017-18) and a separate run of three between 2004-05 and 2006-07.
Man Utd and Chelsea both hold the honour of having gone on to win the Premier League title the most times having been top on Christmas Day, doing so on five occasions each. That means that every time Chelsea have been crowned Premier League champions, it has followed them topping the table at Christmas. Sadly, this isn’t true across their top-flight history with their triumph in the 1954-55 season seeing Wolverhampton Wanderers ahead at the summit on goal difference.
Manchester United also hold the record for being top of the table on the most occasions in Premier League history on Christmas Day, having done so seven different times, with Liverpool (six) their closest challengers. It took Liverpool until their fifth attempt to go on and win the Premier League title, but spare a thought for Arsenal who have celebrated their feast of turkey and all the trimmings at the Premier League summit on three different occasions without going on to win the overall prize (it seems a hungry Arsenal is a dangerous Arsenal when it comes to hunting down Premier League titles).
Going back further, Arsenal have failed to win the league on the last five occasions that they have led the top-flight table on Xmas Day, before 2023. The last time that the Gunners won the league after also leading at Christmas was in 1947-48.
The side who held the biggest advantage on Christmas Day and then went on to claim the title were Manchester City in the 2017-18 season, turning their 13-point advantage at the summit into Pep Guardiola’s first title in England in a record-setting season. They broke numerous records, including most points (100), most wins (32), most goals (106) and highest goal difference (+79) as they’d eventually secure a 19-point advantage come the end of the campaign. Their pre-Christmas feats also saw them surpass the previous best effort of rivals Manchester United in the 1993-94 season, when they held on to a 12-point lead at the top.
When it comes to the biggest advantage not turned into a triumph, it looked as though Newcastle United’s 69-year wait for a top-flight title was going to end as the 1995-96 side took a 10-point advantage into Christmas. However, they would meet their biggest title rivals on 27 December 1995, with Manchester United carving out a 2-0 victory to cut the gap down. Kevin Keegan’s side would bounce back to re-establish a 12-point advantage before “mind games” and Anfield capitulations would hand Alex Ferguson another crown and Sky Sports viewers one of the most memorable post-match interviews of all time.
At least Newcastle could console themselves with finishing second. Aston Villa fans were probably making Christmas wishes that their 1998-99 team could turn their place at the summit into gold the following May. Instead, defeat against Blackburn Rovers would be the start of a terrible run of form that saw John Gregory’s side win two games in 14 to slide down the table into sixth, the biggest drop in league position for any Premier League Christmas leader.
But that’s not the overall record when it comes to the biggest droppers. Three sides have ended the season in eighth having topped the top-flight table at Christmas. It probably won’t surprise you – just because they have been top so many times – that Manchester United (1971-72) and Liverpool (1949-50) have both done it, as well as Sunderland (1936-37), the fifth and final occasion they had found themselves at the summit on 25 December.