The titanic title race taking place (try saying that 3 times) between Liverpool and Manchester City will leave one title-worthy team empty-handed, lying vanquished on the battlefield. As a United fan, I know which side I want that to be – the longer the Premier League trophy remains unsullied by Scouse hands, the better. We are simultaneously in the thick of another epic race, this time for the remaining two spots for Champions League qualification. Here are the remaining fixtures for each of Spurs, Arsenal, Chelsea, and United (the “Top 4 Challengers”):
Spurs (64p): Huddersfield (H), Man City (A), Brighton (H), West Ham (H), Bournemouth (A), Everton (A)
Arsenal (63p): Watford (A), Palace, Wolves (A), Leicester (A), Brighton, Burnley (A)
Chelsea (63p): West Ham, Liverpool (A), Burnley, Man United (A), Watford, Leicester (A)
Man United (61p): West Ham, Everton (A), Man City, Chelsea, Huddersfield (A), Cardiff
Looking at these fixtures, the form of upcoming opposition, and whether certain fixtures are being played at home, I think there are 5 factors that will determine which teams join Manchester City and Liverpool in the Top 4 at the end of the season. This depends on a couple of assumptions proving true. First, I assume that all the Top 4 Challengers take care of bizness. This means beating West Ham, who, though a dangerous team, have only picked up one point away from home since December. This also means cleaning the clocks of already relegated Huddersfield and teams with little to play for, such as Burnley and Brighton. Dropping points in any of these fixtures could critically wound a Top 4 Challenger.
Second, I assume that none of the teams in the upcoming fixtures suddenly hit a rich vein of “survival” form, since there is only one remaining relegation spot open, and Cardiff have a pretty firm grip on it. And unless Cardiff shake their dogged refusal to string wins together, their fate should be decided by the time they roll into Old Trafford, which would position this fixture within the first assumption.
Third, I assume that the race does not come down to goal difference. This is simply too hard to account for and, for my money, I don’t think it comes to that. Fourth, I assume Wolves bounce back from that humdinger of an FA Cup Semi-final. With this in mind, here are the five factors that I think will determine the race for the Top 4:
1) Arsenal’s away form
As excellent as they’ve been at the Emirates, Arsenal have been woeful away from home. Not including this weekend’s loss at Everton, Arsenal garners an average of only 1.27 points per game (PPG) away from home—an effort that ranks 10th in the league. What’s more, no team has a bigger home/away PPG swing (2.59 to 1.27). Looking at Arsenal’s upcoming fixtures, expect them to take care of bizness against Palace and Brighton, but games at Watford and Wolves could prove tricky. Watford’s physical front line has regularly troubled Arsenal, and Wolves are no longer “sneaky” good, after consecutive home victories over Manchester United. They don’t travel well but are formidable at the Molineux, and should take points off the Gunners. The Gunners are lucky that both teams were involved in a herculean FA Cup battle today, and should consider anything more than 2 points from these fixtures a bonus. Arsenal’s Top 4 hopes live and die with their 2 fixtures at Leicester and Burnley, neither of whom have particularly predictable home records. If Arsenal win both games, expect them to finish safely in the Top 4; unless they pick up unexpected points in other matches, they won’t cover the 4 point swing if they drop points in both.
2) Everton’s home form
Now that the Portuguese enclave of Wolverhampton has been outed by its back-to-back humblings of Manchester United, the new “sneaky good” team in town is Everton. Whisper it, but the Toffees have snuck into form while nobody was looking. They’ve won their last 3 fixtures and their home form has looked especially impressive: victories against Arsenal and Chelsea followed a draw against Liverpool. In fact, since January, only Wolves, Manchester City, and the enigmatic Leicester have stolen all 3 points on their trips to Goodison Park. Both United and Spurs travel to Goodison before the end of the season; expect both to stumble. United are either going to be fresh off a European exit at the hands of Barcelona or returning after overcoming the odds yet again. Either way, they aren’t going to be focused. Expect a repeat of the Arsenal loss here, with United leaving 2, and possibly all, points on the table. Spurs would have wanted an easier fixture to end the season with, and would do well to come away with all 3 points.
3) Manchester City
Liverpool are holding their nerve as they navigate the closing stretch of the trickiest part of their run-in: taking 9 points from Spurs, Southampton, and Chelsea would be an incredible return against good teams. Expect Liverpool to blow the doors off Huddersfield, Cardiff, Newcastle, and travel-shy Wolves. In a nutshell, City’s margin for error in the title race is going to be exactly what Chelsea can take off the rampant Liverpool. Let’s assume City successfully execute their title quest, even if Liverpool give them no margin for error. What would City’s prospective road to the title entail? First, it would require travelling to United and winning. Liverpool drew at Everton, and the Old Trafford atmosphere will be electric, but United will recognise that coming away from this game with anything is a bonus.
Second, it would entail City winning the second of the Tottenham-Manchester City trilogy of fixtures. I really don’t know what to make of these fixtures. I think Spurs finagle a draw or win from at least one of the three matches, but so much depends on how the first one goes. From Spurs’ perspective, how do they react if they win all 3 games against City? What if they lose all 3? What if (and I don’t think this happens) Spurs get the brakes beaten off them 3 times? It can be really demoralising to get waxed by the same team three times in quick succession. Spurs, with the point advantage and some easier fixtures, are in the driving seat for one of the Top 4 spots. But a lot depends on their ability to come away from the City trilogy—and whatever comes with it—with professionalism and concentration. If the bottom falls out post-Man City, Spurs could tumble out of the top 4.
4) United – Chelsea
Incredibly, this is the only occasion in the run-in when any of the Top 4 Challengers directly face-off. The weight of the occasion is simple here: it’s a fight to the death. A draw probably eliminates both teams from the race, so both will be fighting for that precious win. United have the advantage of playing at home, where they’ve lost just once this season, but really need to account for starting at a 3-point disadvantage by doing a challenger direct damage. Chelsea cannot afford to lose to both United and Liverpool, so the magnitude of this fixture depends somewhat on their fortunes at Anfield; expect them to be bleak. United are already outsiders in the race for the Top 4 and, accounting for losses against Everton and City, absolutely need to take care of bizness against Chelsea to have any chance of finishing in the top 4.
5) Progress in European Competitions
Remarkably, all of the top 6 English teams are still in their respective European competitions, adding meat to the bones of the argument that the English league should get more spots in the Champions League. The race for the Top 4 will depend significantly on how far the Top 4 Challengers progress in Europe. Chelsea and Arsenal will continue to advance their Europa League causes as an additional avenue into the Champions League, while all 4 Champions League teams pursue glory at the pinnacle of club football, with varying degrees of confidence in progress. Manchester United should be most braced to drop out of the race for European success, as they face Barcelona. They would join one of City or Spurs, in being forced to call it a campaign. But as teams turn out the lights on their European campaign, they can double down their focus on domestic reward: finishing in the top 4.
Perhaps Manchester United’s pipe dream will end up being their biggest obstacle in their pursuit for a Top 4 spot – their Champions League campaign. A team that had no business squeaking past PSG should have no business squeaking past Barcelona. Every additional European game is an unearned day at the races for United. Having already shown that the high of European satisfaction can throw off their concentration, the liberating gush of post-Mourinho freedom has worn dry. United need to buckle down and focus on their domestic exploits. Victory at all their other games apart from City and Everton would place them in the discussion for a place in the top 4. But progress in the Champions League cannot shake focus against West Ham at home, Chelsea at home, and beyond.