The Premier League title race between Manchester City and Liverpool is alive and well — but coming just behind them, things are equally fascinating in the battle for the top-four places.
A couple of months ago, it seemed Manchester United were huge outsiders for a Champions League place. A couple of weeks ago, it seemed Tottenham were nailed-on for one of those slots, with Chelsea and Arsenal battling it out for the final place.
But suddenly, the field has tightened up considerably. United’s run of form under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has transformed them into serious contenders again, while Tottenham have suddenly hit the wall. With just three points between Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, it’s now possible to make a case for all four sides finishing in the top four.
3. TOTTENHAM (64 points from 32 matches)
Why they will
The long-awaited return to White Hart Lane has provided a much-needed morale boost at a point where Tottenham were desperately struggling, after just one point from five matches. The 2-0 victory over Crystal Palace doesn’t entirely solve the question of how well the players will adjust, but supporters are considerably happier in the impressive new arena, after nearly two years spent travelling across north London to Wembley, which never felt like home.
Tottenham also have a relatively gentle run-in. There’s a trip to Manchester City, against whom Mauricio Pochettino’s side also face in a two-legged Champions League quarterfinal. But there are also simple home matches against Huddersfield, Brighton, West Ham and Everton and an away trip to Bournemouth. None of these sides are likely to be playing for anything.
Why they won’t
The recent poor run of form is difficult to ignore. Spurs look weak in the centre of midfield, with Eric Dier and Victor Wanyama struggling for fitness this season, Harry Winks encountering problems in recent weeks, Mousa Dembele sold and Moussa Sissoko only capable of playing certain roles properly. There’s also an issue on the right, where Kieran Trippier has endured a poor campaign, while Hugo Lloris‘ late mistake for Liverpool’s winner last weekend was the latest in a string of errors from the French goalkeeper.
There’s also the fact that Spurs will face Manchester City three times in 12 days. Matches between Pochettino and Pep Guardiola’s sides are always high-tempo, based around pressing energetically, and Spurs might be running on empty by the end of this mini-series.
And then there’s the stadium question. In truth, no one entirely knows how this will affect Spurs’ performances: traditionally teams suffer from moving to a new ground, but Spurs’ situation is complicated by the fact they’re moving from a “neutral” venue, rather than their old home. But it’s reasonable to question whether home advantage really counts for much when Spurs will have played only a couple more matches at the ground than their opponents, and while the supporters will make more noise than at Wembley, the players are hardly in familiar surroundings.
4. ARSENAL (63 points from 31 matches)
Why they will
Arsenal’s 2-0 victory over Manchester United last month represented their final fixture against one of the other “big six” clubs, and therefore their run-in seems relatively simple on paper.
They’re also the in-form side. The Gunners have collected 16 points from their last six matches — only dropping points away at Tottenham, where they should have won. Indeed, but for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang‘s late penalty miss, they’d be outright favourites to finish in the top four.
Unai Emery also appears to have found the right balance in his starting XI, having spent the first half of the season chopping and changing. The three-man defence looks relatively secure, aside from when Shkodran Mustafi dives into unnecessary tackles, while Ainsley Maitland-Niles has deputised well in the absence of Hector Bellerin, who was Arsenal’s most consistent performer in the opening months of the campaign.
Why they won’t
Arsenal’s major problem is their away record. In Arsene Wenger’s final campaign, they had the second-best home record in the league, but only the 11th-best away record in the division. Things haven’t changed much under Emery: they’ve won the third-most points at home, and only the 10th-most points away from home.
That final statistic is compromised by the fact they’ve played the fewest away matches (14) in the league thus far — but that, of course, is also very much the problem, as Arsenal still have lots of away matches to come.
Five of their final seven matches are on the road, and while they’re spared any trips to fellow big six clubs, they play at seventh-placed Wolves, eighth-placed Watford, ninth-placed Leicester and 10th-placed Everton, plus Burnley — down in 17th, but stylistically the type of away trip Arsenal traditionally detest, due to the threat of long balls and hard tackles.
The other issue is the Europa League: Arsenal have Napoli in the quarterfinals, and progression would add two extra matches to their schedule, albeit the other three sides are in the same situation.
5. CHELSEA (63 points from 32 matches)
Why they will
Wednesday’s 3-0 victory over Brighton could prove crucial — not merely for the three points, but because Maurizio Sarri made changes, and the newcomers played well.
Olivier Giroud still seems a better frontman for this system than Gonzalo Higuain. Sticking with Giroud, the tried-and-tested option who brings the best out of Eden Hazard, makes more sense for the rest of the campaign, especially as Higuain probably won’t be around next year.
On the right, Callum Hudson-Odoi assisted Giroud’s opener, while in midfield Ruben Loftus-Cheek grabbed a goal and an assist. Even centre-back Andreas Christensen enjoyed a good game in place of Antonio Rudiger, who struggled against Cardiff and was lucky not to be dismissed.
Chelsea’s fans are still largely anti-Sarri, but the use of Hudson-Odoi and Loftus-Cheek, in particular, has proved popular and given Chelsea new life going into the run-in.
Why they won’t
Chelsea still aren’t playing particularly well. Narrow 2-1 wins over relegation-bound Fulham and Cardiff sides in the past month weren’t convincing, a 1-1 home draw with Wolves was disappointing and the 2-0 loss to Everton was a dreadful performance.
There’s also the fact that Chelsea are likely to progress from their Europa League tie with Slavia Prague — which represented the best possible quarterfinal draw in terms of winning that trophy, but means that Chelsea are likely to face a two-legged semi-final with either Benfica or Eintracht Frankfurt, which would come ahead of both of Chelsea’s final two Premier League games. Sarri isn’t particularly fond of rotation, and this could cause problems.
The flip side, of course, is that Chelsea could finish outside the top four, but gain entry to the Champions League by winning the Europa League. It’s worth reiterating, too, that if both the Champions League and Europa League winners finish outside the top four, the side finishing in fourth position will qualify for only the Europa League — which could provide incredible drama at the end of a fantastic battle for the European slots.
6. MANCHESTER UNITED (61 points from 32 matches)
Why they will
Four of Manchester United’s remaining six matches are at home, with the other two being relatively short trips to Everton and Huddersfield.
There’s still a feel-good atmosphere around the club, and while the likes of Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford haven’t quite been in the form they demonstrated in the first couple of months under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the improvement on Jose Mourinho’s tenure is clear.
United are also the least likely side to progress through to a European semifinal, as they start as big underdogs against Barcelona. This means they’re likely to be able to concentrate on the Premier League soon.
Why they won’t
Ultimately, this is still a patched-up side that has several weaknesses, particularly in defence. There’s no reliable centre-back partnership, the change in system means players having to play in various roles — Ashley Young looked uncomfortable as a right-sided centre-back in midweek at Wolves and was sent off — while Nemanja Matic doesn’t offer the mobility to cover so many gaps behind him.
United’s recent form has been dreadful — since the memorable but somewhat fortunate, victory away at PSG, they’ve lost twice at Wolves and away at Arsenal, and managed only a somewhat unimpressive victory over Watford last weekend, when they were outplayed for long periods.
Perhaps the “new manager bounce” has worn off, and it’s easier to think of managers who have flopped after making the switch from interim manager to permanent managers. Also of concern is the identity of United’s opponents at Old Trafford — Manchester City and then Chelsea in quick succession later this month. That second game could prove crucial, effectively eliminating the loser from the race for the top four.