Premier League: Race for the Top Four

The Premier League has a fascinating end of season in prospect. The title race between Manchester City and Liverpool is set to go the wire, similar to the 2018-19 campaign. The relegation battle is also tight, as four teams that could face the drop are separated by only five points.

Yet, arguably the most interesting fight is for the final Champions League spot in fourth place. Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham, Wolves and Tottenham can all realistically still take it with under ten games to go.

It promises to come down to the very end: everyone is reasonably matched and they are a number of crunch matches between them to be played. Recent seasons have also seen contests for this spot, yet this season is the closest of them all in years.

Let’s take a look at each team to determine who is best placed to come out on top. Arsenal are currently the most in form team in the top five European leagues with nine wins from their last eleven games.

Mikel Arteta appears to be getting the best out of this talented young group of players. Saka, Smith Rowe, Martinelli and Odegaard have all been heavily involved this season, contributing with over twenty goals and assists.

Saka is a solid nomination for PFA Young Player of the Year, whilst Odegaard has upped his game considerably since the beginning of this calendar year. His first loan spell from Real Madrid was mixed, but having signed a permanent deal last summer he has been on a consistent upward trajectory.

Odegaard has been supported by the pivot of Xhaka and Partey who seem to have found a stable partnership. The back four has also now kept twelve clean sheets in the league: Ramsdale has been a shrewd acquisition from Sheffield United despite initial backlash to the deal, and the centre backs White and Gabriel compliment each other extremely well.

Statistics do tell a story, and this solid recent form bodes well despite a tough run of fixtures at the end of April where the Gunners play Chelsea, Manchester United and West Ham back to back.

The one potential weakness that they have is up top: Lacazette has found goals hard to come by so far this season. Yet, with that said, he brings the best out of the youngsters around him and if they can score the lion’s share of the goals then that is no problem.

Arsenal are in a strong position now with games in hand on the teams below, who have issues themselves.

Manchester United and Tottenham, two other traditional members of the ‘Big Six’, have been inconsistent. United’s season has been full of turbulence: Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked in November following a poor run of form that culminated in a 4-1 humbling at relegation threatened Watford, and Ralf Ragnick has since been appointed.

Ragnick is renowned for his expertise as a sporting director in Germany yet he has been tasked with the job of being interim head coach despite managing for only two years out of the last ten.

He has struggled at times as a result, and the inconsistency that was a feature in the early part of the season has come back again.

They cannot string together a run of more than three wins in a row which is concerning as they will have to do more than this if they are to get into the top four.

This squad has some hugely talented names: Ronaldo, Fernandes, Pogba, Varane and De Gea to name a few, but they come across as a team of individuals as opposed to a fully functioning outfit.

This has resulted in some notable defeats, including the thrashing in the Manchester Derby recently.

Ragnick has to find a way to bring out the best of them fast since they cannot afford this inconsistency again in the final few weeks. He has the squad but his tactics have so far come under scrutiny; you would find it hard to back them with the teams around them having a settled structure.

Meanwhile, Tottenham have also had a difficult season. They had to sack a manager as well, Nuno Espirito Santo, and his replacement, Antonio Conte, has failed to have the impact that many fans thought he would. Conte is a serial winner, as proven by his spells at Juventus, Chelsea and Inter Milan, yet so far his tenure has resulted in Tottenham exiting all the cup competitions and struggling to climb up the league table.

They are overly reliant on the duo of Kane and Son, and this squad has been in steady decline since the 2016- 17 season where they finished second. There have been many recruitment mistakes: the four managers they have had in quick succession cannot be blamed for everything. Conte has likewise felt the effects of this faltering squad, and a top four finish is possible but would go drastically against the odds.

They can do it, if you have the strike force that they have there is always an opportunity, however the weaknesses in a defense which has been leaking goals is a major issue.

West Ham and Wolves are also in the mix for this final Champions League spot. West Ham have undergone a rapid improvement under David Moyes in the last few seasons, qualifying for Europe last season and looking highly likely to do so again this campaign.

The team is built around the dynamic midfield duo of Rice and Soucek, plus the prolific Antonio in attack. They have shown they are capable of beating the big teams, as indicated by victories over Liverpool and Chelsea at home this season. They do however have the distraction of Europe as opposed to others in this race and fixture congestion come the end of the campaign can be an issue.

Yet, the stats do not lie, and they nearly secured a top four finish last season and have continued that consistency for most of this one. This squad does not have the same depth as others in this race but in terms of team ethic they are right up there. The same can be said about Wolves. There was some apprehension when Bruno Lage replaced Nuno Espirito Santo, who enjoyed a successful spell with promotion from the Championship followed by three sea- sons of Premier League consolidation.

All this apprehension has gone now, however, as Wolves have had another fantastic campaign by their measures. Again it is built on a solid defensive unit which ranks fourth best in the league for goals conceded led by captain Coady; Neves and Moutinho work well in the mid- field pivot; and the clinical three of Podence, Jimenez, and Neto are among the variety of options in attack.

They are still outsiders due to the occasional inconsistency, yet if they can string together a run in their next five games then all is possible.

In summary, this race for the Top Four will go down to the wire. Arsenal are the favourites for a few key reasons: the current form, the performances of the youngsters, the established spine, and the manager appears to have found a system that works.

They are not well ahead of their rivals who arguably have slightly better squads, but are more prone to inconsistency.

Manchester United and Tottenham cannot string together any sort of winning run, being weak defensively and over reliant on Ronaldo, Kane and Son respectively.

West Ham and Wolves could do it too, but do not possess the creators that Arsenal have to unlock a defense and the Gunners also have a few games in hand to build a lead.

It is all to play for, however, and you would be brave to back anyone too heavily right now.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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