The battle for the top four continues this weekend with all four teams seemingly doing their utmost to miss out. Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United have managed a single win between them in eight games (and that was Spurs’ late win against Brighton) and Mauricio Pochettino’s team recently picked up four points from an available 15.
So with this in mind we asked our writers how it came to this and why these clubs are still fighting to secure a place in the top four with three games to go – as well as if there is any hope of any of them mounting a serious title challenge in the next two years.
3. Tottenham, 70 pts, +30
How did it come to this? At the end of February, Tottenham were daring to dream of the title. Then, they lost at Burnleyand Chelsea before drawing at home to Arsenal in a nightmarish two-week period that forced a reappraisal. Mauricio Pochettino knows why his team have fallen short of the big challenge – the holes in their mentality that have seen them lose games they would hope to win; namely the one at Burnley and those at Watford and Southampton. Wolves at home was another scar. That said, the priority for the season was a top-four finish and, with no new signings and the delayed move to the rebuilt stadium casting shadows, Pochettino would have signed for the club’s current position in a heartbeat.
Key player in the run-in? Son Heung-min.
Can the club go on to challenge in the next two years? Much will depend on the next phase of the financial juggling act that the chairman, Daniel Levy, is performing in relation to the stadium project, the cost of which has exceeded £1bn. Book-balancing in the transfer market looks set to continue in the short term, at least. Pochettino must strengthen this summer, particularly if he loses Toby Alderweireld and/or Christian Eriksen, and it is plain that the club would have to box extremely cleverly in order to fulfil their ultimate ambition. David Hytner
Run-in Saturday: West Ham (h). 4 May: Bournemouth (a). 12 May: Everton (h).
4. Chelsea, 67 pts, +21
How did it come to this? Chelsea’s impressive start under Maurizio Sarri back in the autumn, at the head coach’s own admission, was deceptive as is, arguably, their recent record of 10 wins in their last 15 games in all competitions. Their play has been stodgy and their form inconsistent ever since those damaging away defeats at Arsenal, Bournemouth and Manchester City this year, with toils on their travels – they have lost five out of their last seven on the road in the league – exposing the fragility in their team. That makes even a trip to Old Trafford feel daunting. Gonzalo Higuaín has not been as prolific as had been envisaged, injuries are starting to take their toll, and scepticism over Sarri’s approach persists.
Key player in the run-in Eden Hazard.
Can they challenge for the title in the next two years? So much will depend upon Chelsea’s ability to delay, or even escape, Fifa’s two-window transfer ban either via the governing body’s appeals process or the court of arbitration for sport. The current first-team squad is not strong enough to challenge for the Premier League title, particularly with Hazard expected to depart for Real Madrid in the summer. Major surgery is required. If they have to take a longer-term approach and work with what they have, it may be longer than two years before they are in proper contention again. Dominic Fifield
Run-in Sunday: Man Utd (a). 5 May: Watford (h). 12 May: Leicester City (a).
5. Arsenal, 66pts, +23
How did it come to this? The split personality which sees happy, confident Arsenal usually perform creditably at home and nervous wreck Arsenal routinely implode away is the simple answer to explain why Unai Emery has not managed to establish enough consistency to nail down a top four position. It must feel extra frustrating for a manager trying to control the erratic temperature of a new challenge that his team looked like they had turned a corner recently only to crack up with two damaging defeats against Crystal Palace and Wolves. With two more away games ahead, the prospect of a missed opportunity looms, and Emery must be tempted to put his remaining eggs in the Europa League basket.
Key player in the run in Aaron Ramsey (if he can get fit).
Can the club go on to challenge for the title in the next two years? Now under full ownership of Stan Kroenke, with the football operation run by former Barcelona man Raúl Sanllehí Arsenal have to be super-smart, super-efficient, and super-lucky to strive to match the levels currently set by Manchester City and Liverpool. The squad still needs a lot of churn and this season has proved that bad old habits have not been kicked, so with a lot to do a title challenge within two years would be an impressive feat. Amy Lawrence
Run-in Sunday: Leicester (a). 5 May: Brighton (h). 12 May: Burnley (a).
6. Manchester United, 64 pts, +13
How did it come to this? The 2-1 defeat at Wolves on 2 April and Sunday’s 4-0 defeat at Everton have been the killers for Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side. Had they won those they would be on 70 points, in fourth place, three clear of Chelsea with three matches left – a Champions League berth firmly in their own hands. Instead each were lost and now United have surely to take all remaining nine points and hope both Arsenal and Chelsea slip up. A silver lining here is that Sunday’s opponents are Maurizio Sarri’s side but Chelsea’s markedly superior goal difference means they would have to drop another point even if they were defeated. Underlying all of this is a fall-off in application and form, starting with last month’s 2-0 loss at Arsenal.
Key player in the run-in Paul Pogba.
Can they challenge for the title in the next two years? Only if in the transfer window United break the five-year sequence of duff summer recruitment since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement. If a right-back, two centre-backs, a midfielder and a prolific striker can be acquired that would be a start. The following summer will also require a similar number of high-end incomings. It will not be easy – some may cast it as a near impossibility – but assembling a squad to somehow catch Manchester City and Liverpool is not going to be. Jamie Jackson
Run-in Sunday: Chelsea (h). 5 May: Huddersfield (a). 12 May: Cardiff (h).