Let the Wild Champions League Race Rumpus Roar
With ten games to go in the Premier League, the race for the Champions League is well and truly on. Three teams, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United are in a virtual dead heat for the fourth spot, with a fourth, Tottenham Hotspur lurking slightly above the fray. Let’s set the stage for the run in.
Technically in sixth place, Chelsea are three points behind Arsenal and two behind Manchester United, but also have a game in hand. They also, despite their well publicized struggles, have the best numbers of the bunch. Their expected goal difference of 0.51 per match remains third best in the league. They still just take so many shots, 15.22 per match, second in the league, and concede so few, 9.15 the third fewest.
It’s easy to focus on their faults. The shots they create aren’t great ones, and they leave themselves vulnerable to create them. Jorginho has been shorter on incisiveness and longer and defensive vulnerability than expected. Teams really can carve Chelsea open.
But, it’s important not to overlook that on balance, over the course of the season, Chelsea simply keep the dang ball so much that it tilts most matches in their favor. Despite being behind in the standings that still leaves them as favorites, albeit small ones, to nab that fourth Champions League spot. The season hasn’t been pretty, and the last month has been brutal, but with a strong Cup final performance against Manchester City, and a surprisingly robust 2-0 against Tottenham immediately in their wake, Chelsea remain the likeliest of the bunch to qualify for the Champions League.
After struggling to find equilibrium over Unai Emery’s first couple of months in charge, Arsenal have finally accepted the destiny this awkward set of players have thrust upon them. They’re a wide open swashbuckling attack at any cost kind of a team. And it’s working. They average 1.45 xG per match, that’s the third best total in the Premier League. The problem is that they just can’t keep teams away from their goal. Defensively they’re very very average. Their 1.26 xG allowed is 12th best in the league. Not great.
There’s no real mystery surrounding why Arsenal’s defense is mired in mediocrity, it’s because their defenders aren’t very good, and the ones who are the most capable are hurt. So, on the whole there’s plenty of reason for optimism. Despite having terrible defenders they’re in the thick of the top four race. The team is getting younger, and seems to have hit on a real star in Matteo Guendouzi. He’s 19 and he’s doing this.
Further up the field Emery continues to get production out of all the really good players he has. Things haven’t been frictionless and there have been plenty of struggles off the field as Mesut Ozil continues to both make a lot of money, contribute when he’s playing, and only play from time to time. Similarly, though less controversially Alexandre Lacazette is now not an automatic starter, despite putting up great numbers when he’s out there. There are only so many minutes on the pitch for a lot of really skilled players, and every time out somebody who’s deserving gets the short straw. That may chafe some egos, but even so that chaffing isn’t showing up on the pitch.
The Gunners are also going to know a heck of a lot more about their future in the next two weeks. With the North London Derby this weekend they could do their chances a lot of good by pulling Spurs firmly back into the top four race. Four teams for two slots is a lot better than three teams for one and Manchester United come to town the following weekend. Right now Arsenal are slightly less likely to finish fourth than Chelsea, but their chances are going to shift a lot before we get to mid March.
The Manchester United revival continues apace. By the overall numbers their stats are more mediocre than the other teams in the top four race. Of course, most of those stats were accumulated under Jose Mourinho and now Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in charge.
United’s new lease on life has seen them play an open, attacking style which frees Pogba to do Pogba things in support of an attacking three who are largely freed from defensive responsibilities. This has made them potent against mediocre teams, but still leaves unanswered questions when it comes to facing the game’s elite. So far, the results have been mixed at best. The steely draw at home against Liverpool had a lot to recommend it, less so getting trounced by PSG, and a win against Tottenham that required David De Gea to stand on his head.
With ten games left to play, that’s the test that will make or break United’s season. With an away match to Arsenal and home matches against Manchester City and Chelsea still left to come, the real question for this new look United is can they do it against other good teams. If they find that gear they could squeak into that fourth spot and complete a pretty miraculous comeback for a team that looked dead in the water before the managerial switch.
The fact that it’s safe to say United are better now than they were. We just don’t yet know how much better.
They aren’t quite in the top four race yet. If they weren’t about to face Arsenal they probably wouldn’t even make the list. But the team has hit the skids at just the wrong time. Two losses in a row, even if one of them, an away defeat to Chelsea, is quite understandable, while everybody else is picking up steam has closed the gap quickly. A third would move the team which had seemed entirely safe and above the top four race to merely being favorites in a four team rumble. Oh, and they also have their two hardest matches of the season left on the schedule. Going to the Etihad and Anfield is a lot less scary when you do it with room to spare.