#13 The Top 4 Race

At the end of 2018, Liverpool were 7 points clear of Manchester City with the title fully in their hands after Man City’s slip up over Christmas. Tottenham were only 2 points behind City and arguably had to be considered in the title race too based on points alone. Chelsea were a further two points behind Spurs and while not honestly title contenders, they were very much in control of the final Champions League spot in fourth. Arsenal and Man Utd were in seemingly no mans land behind the top 4 but ahead of the bottom 14.

Figure 1: Premier League table @ 31/12/2018

This was halfway through the season, and it looked like we weren’t going to have a title race or even a top 4 race at all. Fast forwards ~10 more games, and things look a whole lot different. The two at the top have cemented themselves as the only title challengers, whilst Spurs and Chelsea have been dragged back into a race for fourth by the upturn in form of both Arsenal and Man Utd. It makes the remaining games of the season all the more meaningful.

Figure 2: Premier League table @ 29/03/2019

I’m going to focus on the top 4 race, with only four points separating Spurs I 3rd from Chelsea in 6th, take a look at each team’s chances and suggest who might miss out.

Spurs:  

Up until the end of 2018, Spurs were having the best season ever. Despite the fact that they are still playing Home games at Wembley, having several injury problems to Kane, Alli and not having a central midfield, they have managed to grind out win after win. It seems that after perhaps over performing the first half of the season to keep up with the top 2, they have regressed to the level that you would expect them to be in terms of points. Spurs are comfortably behind City and Liverpool but better than the rest in recent seasons, and the table now reflects that.

It has really only been the last 4 games that has clawed Spurs back, losing to Burnley and Southampton really only being the terrible unexpected results. But surround that with a loss to Chelsea and a lucky draw to Arsenal, two rivals for the top 4 and 1 point out of 12 will stop any team in their tracks.

Looking forwards, Spurs have still got to play away to the top 2, so could have a huge influence on where the title goes. But these aren’t the games that they should be worrying about. Moving into a new stadium midway through a season isn’t the norm and considering they have 5 winnable home games left, how well they settle into New White Hart Lane will determine whether they comfortably remain in 3rd or make things hard for themselves and rely on the rest faltering too.

Still in the Champions League, however they face Manchester City in the quarters so wouldn’t rely on that too heavily.

Arsenal:

So far, the first season without Arsene Wenger hasn’t gone as bad as it could have, they have always been comfortably a top 6 team but it was still a question whether they would be able to challenge for top 4. They seem to be one of the most polarizing teams when playing home or away this season. The last time they didn’t win a home game was in November and the last time they won an away game that wasn’t Huddersfield was in November. Arsenal at the Emirates are a completely different beast to otherwise.

In 2019, they’ve won all 6 of their home games but only 1 out of 4 away games (v Huddersfield). Admittedly drawing away to Spurs and deserving to win and losing away to Manchester City isn’t anything to be ashamed of, but losing to West Ham isn’t great. Recent form has been fantastic as a result, you know what you’ll get with Arsenal at home and anything could happen away.

Their remaining fixtures look great on paper, arguably the easiest in the league. The highest placed team they face is Wolves and they play Newcastle, Crystal Palace and Brighton all at home. Home form isn’t an issue and would expect to win all those games, however that means they still have 5 away games to play against mid table sides, the level of teams just below the top 6 but not going to get relegated. West Ham are also in that group.

To keep their top four spot, Arsenal will have to be better away from home. It’s non-negotiable as they will likely need more than 9-12 points out of the remaining 8 games.

Manchester United:

United have just appointed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer as their permanent manager, which doesn’t come as a surprise after the form that he has brought with him. After, cutting the 10-point gap to Spurs down to only 4 points in 2019 and progressing through to the Champions League quarter finals after beating Paris St Germain, it doesn’t seem like he could have done any more. The change in mindset around Old Trafford since Mourinho left has been exactly what they needed to try to turn their slow start around.

In 2019 they’ve won 5 of their 6 away games (including a 1-3 win away in Paris), losing away to Arsenal where we’ve established they’re pretty good. But only won half of their 4 home games, drawing to Liverpool and Burnley. The style of play that OGS has got Man Utd playing reflects the results pretty well, giving license to a mobile front three of Martial, Rashford and Lingard with Pogba supporting from behind is a devastating counter attacking team that relies on playing high defensive lines with lots of space behind them to exploit. Away from home it’s easier to set up this way due to the home team having more confidence, however when teams come to Old Trafford it seems as though if they set up to not to lose and deny United space in behind then they find it harder to break teams down.

This hasn’t been such a problem so far as they’ve managed to not lose when they can’t win for the most part. United only play 3 more games away from home, Wolves, Everton and Huddersfield, and you wouldn’t expect Wolves or Huddersfield to allow much space behind their defence. Whilst Everton have been much more robust defensively this year despite appearances.

With 5 games as home, they will need to improve their home form to push into the top 4. Though they will be playing Manchester City and Chelsea at Old Trafford, it will depend on how results have been up to that point but potentially all three of these teams will see these as must win games and that could bode well for United if City and Chelsea both push forward a bit too much trying to win the game.

They unfortunately have been drawn against Barcelona in the quarter final of the Champions League, however we also didn’t give them any chance against Paris St Germain and look what happened.

Chelsea:

Chelsea are a peculiar team, they have got much of the same team that has won multiple Premier League titles but every other season they seem to look disinterested. This has started to look like one of those seasons. By the end of 2018, they looked to be well established as the fourth best team in the league, however that was probably due to Man Utd and Arsenal underperforming rather than Chelsea doing anything exceptional. Since the two below them have gone on a great run of form, Chelsea haven’t been able to respond. They are an incredibly inconsistent team and it seems their performance depends on Maurizio Sarri’s mood or ability to motivate his players, which he claims he can’t.

In 2019 they’ve had pretty poor form, and not exactly for you’d expect of a top four side. They’ve won 4 and lost 4 of their last 10 games, two losses include 6-0 and 4-0 thrashings by Manchester City and Bournemouth both away from home. Aside from those, they’ve lost to Everton and Arsenal and only beaten Fulham away this year. The most worrying thing is the lack of goals, they’ve only scored 2 goals away (against Fulham) this whole year. Whilst at home looks okay at best, beating Spurs, Newcastle and Huddersfield and drawing with Wolves and Southampton.

Chelsea have a really bad problem in football away from home where they can’t seem to score goals and let in way too many. Whilst at home they can’t seem to score enough, but don’t let too many in either. Looking into more detail as to why this is happening might be worthwhile here, as they’re regularly playing (arguably) the best defensive midfielder in the world albeit out of position and an incredible controller of the game behind him. That combination shouldn’t be getting overrun in midfield.

Chelsea still have to go away to Liverpool and Man Utd which sounds scary, though they do have winnable home games and so need to win those if they want to remain in the top four race.

Overview:

Spurs – Focus on 5 winnable home games at their new stadium

Arsenal – Need to bring home form away with them as 5 tricky mid table away games remaining

Man Utd – Need to do better at home, more dominant with the ball to break down teams

Chelsea – Open up more at home to try to win games, get tighter away and don’t collapse.

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