The majority of teams in the Premier League now have ten games or less remaining to decide their fate. Last week we assessed the teams facing the prospect of relegation from the English top flight. This post will focus on the race for top four and subsequent Champions League football next season, which is equally as up in the air as the other end of the table.
Manchester City and Liverpool are well ahead of the pack and are embroiled in an extremely tight title-race that could be decided by who wins when the two giants face each other on 10th April. The remaining two Champions League spots are much less clear-cut, however.
You could argue that any team currently sitting from third to eighth would consider themselves to be in the running for Europe’s biggest club competition next season. European football regulars in recent history Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Tottenham are joined by West Ham United and Wolves, who are both desperate to earn a seat at Europe’s top table.
Current position: 3rd
Games remaining: 10
With the embarrassment of talent at their disposal, there is a strong school of thought that Chelsea should have been joining Liverpool and Manchester City in the title race this season. However, despite Thomas Tuchel’s best efforts, they are still a level below the two best sides in England. They are currently ten points behind second-placed Liverpool and 11 behind leaders City, albeit with a game in hand on both.
The problem for this Chelsea side has been that they have drawn too many games that they should have won. They have only lost three league games all season, which is the same as City and one less than Liverpool. Perhaps if summer signing Romelu Lukaku was spearheading their attack as he was intended to do then the Stamford Bridge club would have put more teams to the sword.
With the Premier League title seemingly out of reach, a top four finish and either the FA Cup or Champions League trophy, or both, would represent a successful season. In truth, top four should be a given with Tuchel’s men nine points clear of fifth-placed Manchester United with a game in hand over the Red Devils. The only factor that could destabilise them is the cloud of uncertainty that currently looms over Stamford Bridge. The sooner the ownership issue is resolved the better for Chelsea, who will then be able to focus on finishing their season strongly.
Current position: 4th
Games remaining: 11
The improvement that Arsenal have shown since the turn of the year has been very impressive and they are now in the driving seat to achieve a first top four finish in six years. Mikel Arteta deserves enormous credit for that, especially after making the decision to get rid of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in January. Aubameyang had been out of contention due to disciplinary issues and Arteta was put in a difficult situation. By standing firm and selling Aubameyang, as well as a number of troublesome squad players, Arteta has shown he does not shy away from making big decisions that he feels will benefit his side.
In truth, the sale of Aubameyang could have gone either way. If Arsenal had struggled without the Gabon striker then their fanbase would be calling for Arteta’s head over selling their most talented striker. Luckily for Arteta and Arsenal, the club have gone from strength to strength without the 32-year-old and there is a real togetherness in the squad that is born from everyone buying into Arteta’s project.
There is also a resilience to Arsenal that has been absent since the days of Arsene Wenger winning Premier League titles at Highbury and much of this has stemmed from the fearlessness of the young players in which Arteta has placed his trust. The likes of Bukayo Saka, Gabriel Martinelli, Emile Smith-Rowe, and Aaron Ramsdale seem to thrive off of responsibility despite their tender years and are repaying the faith their manager has shown in buckets.
Champions League football returning to the Emirates would represent real progression from a side who now have a clear style and identity. Unlike some of those around them, they are a club on an upward trajectory and should have enough to secure a top four finish in their remaining fixtures.
The Gunners benefit from a favourable last three games of the season, against lowly Everton, Leeds United, and Newcastle. If it goes down to the wire then these are all games you would expect Arsenal to win, although if these sides are still scrapping for their Premier League lives then they may present more difficulty.
With Alexandre Lacazette currently out of contract in the summer, the club could be left with only the inexperienced Eddie Nketiah as an out-and-out striker following the conclusion to the season. Securing Champions League football should mean that the club hierarchy can attract a much higher calibre of striker.
Current position: 5th
Games remaining: 9
Manchester United are a team in disarray. Having sacked club legend Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in November, it is Ralf Rangnick who has had the unenviable task of seeing the club through to the end of a turbulent season. It has not been easy for the man labelled the ‘Godfather of the Gegenpress’, with the German unable to find much success while managing a group of players low on confidence and underperforming badly.
With the players and resources available, there is no question that United should be achieving Champions League qualification as an absolute minimum. However, that is far from the reality that the Old Trafford side face. Any hope of winning silverware this season disappeared this week after they went out of the Champions League without a whimper, losing to a relatively average Atletico Madrid side.
As a result of this, all United’s focus will be on a top four finish. They are currently one point off of Arsenal in fourth, but the Gunners have two games in hand. The biggest problem with United this season is that you never know what kind of performance you are going to get, both from the team as a whole and players individually. If they are to achieve a top four finish then consistency will be crucial. They were dragged to victory over Spurs in their last league game, with a Cristiano Ronaldo hat-trick papering over the cracks of a very average performance. The most difficult games that remain for United on paper are Liverpool, Arsenal, and Chelsea and it is likely Ronaldo will have to pull of plenty more heroics between now and the end of the season if United are to stand a chance of Champions League football.
Regardless of what happens, big change is expected at Old Trafford in the summer. Ralf Rangnick is contracted to move to a consultancy role at the club and a new manager will be appointed. The likes of Mauricio Pochettino, Eric Ten Haag, and even Thomas Tuchel have all been mentioned as being on the managerial shortlist. Champions League football makes the three-time European champions a far more attractive prospect.
West Ham United
Current position: 6th
Games remaining: 9
West Ham narrowly missed out on the top four last season after a fantastic season and look as though they may fall short once more this time out. There is no shame in that whatsoever, though, with the Hammers’ small squad punching well above their weight and injuries and fatigue catching up with them.
A heavy contributor to the tiredness in the squad is David Moyes’ men’s heroics in the Europa League this season. After winning their group, they have successfully negotiated a very tough tie over Seville; the club who have dominated the Europa League in recent years.
Jarrod Bowen has been in red-hot form all season and was expected to earn his first England call-up this month, but the injury he sustained against Liverpool prevented that honour. His absence is sorely felt in the West Ham side, with no natural replacement on the right wing. The likes of Said Benrahma, Pablo Fornals, Nikola Vlasic, and Andriy Yarmolenko have all shared the burden of replacing Bowen’s influence but they will be desperate to get Bowen, who has eight goals and eight assists in the league this season, back fit.
Games against top four rivals Tottenham, Arsenal, and Chelsea in the remaining weeks are likely to define their season. With a Europa League quarter-final against Lyon on the horizon, Moyes will have to try to ensure his side are fit and firing on all fronts. It could be that Europa League success is a more feasible route to the Champions League than the Premier League and this must be a factor in Moyes’ thinking.
Moyes has made West Ham fans love their club again and it has been some journey for the Hammers.
Current position: 7th
Games remaining: 10
Tottenham started the season so brightly under new manager Nuno Espírito Santo, winning their first three games 1-0. Santo would only last seven more league games, however, and was replaced by ex-Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. For many Spurs fans, this was a real statement of intent, but things have proved more difficult than even Conte could have anticipated.
It was widely expected that Tottenham would invest heavily in their squad in January, as it was unthinkable that Conte would join without guarantees over signings. Their January window was far from an overwhelming success, but they did secure the signings of Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski from Juventus, with both improving the side.
Tottenham have had some really positive results and performances under Conte and do seem to be improving, but they haven’t been able to put together a consistent run all season. They have done the league double over Manchester City, with the 3-2 win over Pep Guardiola’s side last month the best performance under Conte. This felt like a turning point for Spurs, but just four days later they were beaten 1-0 by relegation-threatened Burnley. If anything summed up Tottenham’s season it is that series of events.
The biggest positive for the North London side is that Harry Kane has started to find the net again on a more regular basis. When Kane is firing, Tottenham have a chance in any game and his performance in the triumph over City was one of the individual performances of the season. Couple Kane’s form with the fact that Tottenham have the easiest run of fixtures remaining on paper and there is certainly still reason for optimism among Spurs fans.
The home game against West Ham this Sunday is huge. Win that game against a Hammers side that played a gruelling 120 minutes on Thursday night and it sets Spurs up well heading into their final ten games. Following that fixture, Conte’s men don’t play another team above ninth in the table until they play Liverpool on May 7th. It is only Liverpool and Aston Villa that Spurs have left to play that currently reside in the top half of the table.
With many twists and turns to come, it is crucial for Spurs’ chances that they consistently plug away and get results against these teams below them in the table. With a number of their top four rivals due to play each other, there will be plenty of opportunities for Spurs to capitalise and sneak into a Champions League spot.
Current position: 8th
Games remaining: 8
Although top four is a long shot, the fact that Wolves are even in the conversation with eight games remaining is testament to the job that Bruno Lage is doing. This is only Lage’s second managerial role and you would be forgiven for forgetting that this is his first season managing in the Premier League.
The ex-Swansea City assistant manager adopted a talented squad which had gone a little stale under Nuno Espírito Santo. Santo did an incredible job in getting Wolves back to the Premier League and securing consecutive seventh-place finishes, prior to a 13th-place finish in his final season before leaving for an unsuccessful spell in charge of Tottenham. After so much success it felt like it was time for Santo and Wolves to part ways, but it was also widely acknowledged just how difficult it would be to replace the ex-goalkeeper. The biggest compliment that can be given to Lage is that he has found a way to take Santo’s work and tweak it to, arguably, make Wolves the best that they have been since their return to the Premier League.
Goals haven’t been easy to come by, with Raul Jiminez struggling to find the net as regularly as he had done prior to his long-term head injury. Instead, their success has been built on their strong defensive foundations. The Molineux side have only scored 31 goals in their 30 league games, but have conceded just 26. Their matches tend to be decided by the odd goal.
Wolves would have considered themselves as having a good opportunity to apply pressure on those above them going into this gameweek, with a home game against Leeds United followed by games against Aston Villa and Newcastle. After cruising at 2-0 at home to Leeds, Wolves were the subject of a spirited comeback that saw Leeds win 3-2 in the dying embers of the game; Jiminez’s red card undoubtedly the turning point. This could well be the result that makes top four unobtainable for Wolves but their fans will still hold onto the glimmer of hope that remains. If there is still all to play for going into the last few games of the season then it will be very difficult for Wolves, with Lage’s men playing both Chelsea and Liverpool away in their last three games.
Whatever happens, Wolves have been one of the standout sides in the Premier League this season. They have even allowed Adama Traore to join Barcelona without it having any material impact on performances. It would be a travesty for Wolves to finish the season without any form of European football secured, but they may have to settle for the Europa League or the Europa Conference League.
So, who will get top four?
Ultimately, it is Chelsea and Arsenal’s to lose at this stage but that is by no means a foregone conclusion. Tottenham remain firmly in the hunt, with consistency the biggest factor to their success, or lack of. It feels very much like Manchester United are in free-fall and their success hinges more on individual brilliance shining through than the collective efforts of a side shrouded in toxicity.
Wolves and West Ham have performed admirably thus far, but are expected to fall short this time around. The Hammers are in the fortunate position of having two bites at the Champions League cherry, though, with Europa League success an alternative means to the same end as a top four finish.
Just like the title race and relegation battle, the race for top four is well and truly alive and should provide plenty of entertainment between now and the season’s end in May.