Arsenal are in the driving seat, Tottenham need new players, West Ham are the underdogs while Manchester United are stuck in mediocrity… how does the race for the top four look as the battle for the Champions League hots up?
- The race for Champions League football is hotting up after the festive period
- Arsenal and West Ham lead the race but other teams have games in hand
- Tottenham and Manchester United are hoping to capitalise on any slip-ups
- Sportsmail look at the strengths and weaknesses of the teams wanting fourth
After the hectic Christmas period, the Premier League season is supposed to calm back down and give us a sense of where teams are at in their seasons. Not this year.
Coronavirus cancellations means the number of games in hand for certain teams is off the scale.
Take the top four race for example, Arsenal are in the driving seat but fourth place is very much in Tottenham’s hands. West Ham have a solid advantage over Manchester United, but things could change once the games even out again.
Arsenal and West Ham lead the way in the top four race – but others have games in hand
Tottenham and Manchester United are not far behind the London clubs in the battle for fourth
Sportsmail analyses the four teams from fourth to seventh aiming for the Champions League
What also doesn’t help us get a better idea is the inconsistencies from every team. Arsenal go on a strong run of wins but then there’s a blip against a big side. West Ham and Spurs win a couple then lose or draw a few, while what can you say about Manchester United?
So, with the race for Champions League football all over the place in terms of structure, Sportsmail looks at the strengths and weaknesses at the four candidates gunning for fourth…
It may have taken two years, but analysts and fans are starting to see what Mikel Arteta is trying to achieve at Arsenal.
The Gunners look in the best position they have been in for years, mixing defensive solidity with youthful exuberance up front. It looks like Arsenal have a bit of fight about them again.
Arsenal’s mix of defensive reliability and attacking quality up top is making them a good fit
The way Arteta has made his side such a solid team defensively has been remarkable. The back four of Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White, Gabriel and Kieran Tierney has been a revelation, making the days of Shkodran Mustafi and David Luiz a very distant memory.
After four wins on the spin – in which they failed to concede a goal from open play – Arsenal suffered a blip against champions Manchester City. Arteta’s side looked to be heading towards three points for most of the game but a five-minute self-combust period saw them concede a penalty, miss an open goal and then get a man sent off.
Even after they went down to 10 men through Gabriel’s red card, the Gunners looked like they were going to hold firm against one of the best teams in the world. City found a way through at the death through Rodri, but that is to be expected against a side who have scored 18 goals in their last four matches.
The Gunners are more defensively solid now they have a settled back four
Arsenal can respond to that blip over the coming months and the fixture list looks kind for them. After next week’s north London derby at Spurs, Arsenal only have to face Liverpool and Manchester United at home out of the ‘Big Six’ teams, with the rest of their matches against the lesser opposition who they have done well against so far.
That is a positive sign for Arteta’s men, who have struggled in every big match they have played in this season. The Gunners have lost to Liverpool, Chelsea and three times to the Manchester teams this season, a feebleness against the big teams has been their Achilles heel.
This is important when thinking about their derby at Tottenham next week. Arteta needs a big win this season to justify his side’s progression to top-four contenders once again. Defeat by Spurs would put them firmly behind their rivals in the race.
The New Year’s Day loss to City highlighted a lack of leadership in this young squad too. Arsenal were allowed to throw the game away after being riled up by City’s more experienced players – as their recent captaincy issues came back to haunt them.
But Mikel Arteta’s (left) side have let themselves down against big teams and have Spurs soon
The sacking of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as Gunners captain has left Arteta resorting to a leadership group, where nobody is really sure who and how many people are the leaders.
Up front is Arsenal’s big positive this season. Young players like Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith Rowe and Gabriel Martinelli are finally hitting the right gear. But the teams above them have leadership – those youngsters need that too.
Should Arsenal bring in more leaders, along with a striker and a midfielder in the January transfer window, then the Gunners will be in pretty good shape for fourth.
Many expected David Moyes’ West Ham to struggle with their first ever European group stage campaign, but the east Londoners appear to have thrived from the extra fixture congestion and are right up there once again.
The best part of the Hammers’ season so far has been their front four and midfield. West Ham have several angles in which to probe teams, namely through Jarrod Bowen, Said Benrahma, Michail Antonio and the in-form Manuel Lanzini – while Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek do their own fair share of forward play in midfield.
West Ham’s front four and midfield have helped them rise up to the European places again
The attacking intensity that those players bring have helped West Ham make the London Stadium a fortress this season. The Hammers have beaten Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham on home turf, while they also beat Manchester City in the Carabao Cup.
That home form will be crucial in whether West Ham can break through the ceiling and get top four, but an area of concern is that there are too many blips.
West Ham are excellent against the bigger sides but they drop too many points against the lesser sides. Through the impressive results, there are the occasional home defeats by Brentford and Southampton, a draw against Brighton and dropped points at Burnley and Wolves.
Those poor results stem from a systemic problem of conceding far too many goals. The Hammers have kept just one clean sheet in the Premier League since October 24 – and that has to change if their record against the ‘non-Big Six’ teams is to improve.
The London Stadium is a fortress for the Hammers, who have beaten Chelsea and Liverpool
Squad depth is another concern, with West Ham lacking players on the bench to come out and help them. If the likes of Antonio or Bowen get injured, there aren’t too many star names who can bring what they have this season.
The January addition of Jesse Lingard – either on loan again or permanently – could be the boost West Ham need to improve their Champions League chances.
The main strength for Tottenham in their top-four credentials is the status of their new manager.
Antonio Conte looks like he has steadied the Spurs ship following the tumultuous reign of Nuno Espirito Santo – and top four is technically in their own hands.
Antonio Conte looks to be sorting Tottenham out following his appointment in November
Spurs are yet to lose under Conte, winning five and drawing two in their last seven matches
Tottenham are yet to taste defeat under the Italian manager, who has certainly managed to improve the club from a defensive standpoint. Spurs have conceded the fewest goals out of their top-four rivals.
After a few weeks of settling, Conte has Spurs in great form – winning five and drawing two in a busy month for the north Londoners. One of those stalemates was a thriller at home to Liverpool, a contest which showed that Tottenham can compete with the best again.
But while Spurs are solid defensively, their attack looks a little bare. They are by far and away the lowest scorers in the top-four mini league – and more is needed up front.
The last-gasp 1-0 win over Watford, courtesy of Davinson Sanchez’s injury-time winner, and a draw at 10-man Southampton last week were symbolic of Tottenham’s issues up top.
Spurs are in great form but question marks still lie about their attack, who have scored just 23 goals in 18 games
Harry Kane has three in his last four – which is a welcome boost – while Lucas Moura is one of Spurs’ most in-form players, but there still appears to be a clear correlation between Son Heung-Min starring and Tottenham winning points.
Conte can be boosted by the January transfer window – with the Italian expecting new faces this month. A striker to relieve the pressure on Kane along with improvements on Ben Davies and Emerson Royal could be huge boosts for Spurs.
Where do you start with Manchester United? For some reason, one of the best assembled teams in the world cannot play together, with the Red Devils at the bottom of the pack in the race for the top four.
The good news for the Red Devils is they certainly have the personnel to get themselves out of this mess. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Jadon Sancho and Mason Greenwood have shown flashes of excellence but all three know they can do more.
Add Edinson Cavani, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes to the list and there’s plenty to work with for interim boss Ralf Rangnick – but there are so many issues to fix.
Manchester United are enduring mediocrity, with many of the stars not knowing where to turn
Ralf Rangnick (left) needs to generate leaders and unity in his interim spell at Old Trafford
One is a lack of togetherness, which Luke Shaw referred to after the 1-0 defeat by Wolves. United have been branded as a bunch of individuals rather than the collective units that currently top the table.
If Rangnick is ever going to implement his highly-talked-about pressing philosophy at Old Trafford then he needs that unity among his team.
A sense of real leadership is needed at United as well, if there is to be improvement on the pitch. Harry Maguire’s authority has been questioned and criticised at times, but those players who have now been under three different United managers need to step up and be counted.
United face a very difficult March period which sees them face Manchester City, Tottenham and Liverpool in the league – as well as Atletico Madrid in Europe – so points must get on the board before then – or the club’s season will fizzle out by the spring.
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