Two weeks of the 2016-17 Premier League season remain, and it seems the competition for fourth place may go down to the wire. There are three teams currently vying for what has become a rather coveted fourth place and whilst Liverpool remain in pole position in the top four race, recent pressure from Arsenal and Manchester United’s dazzling unbeaten streak has Jurgen Klopp looking over his shoulder. And with good reason.
Top Four Race Tightens as Pressure Mounts on Liverpool
Pressure makes diamonds
This is the perfect test for Klopp’s current squad. Too many times in recent Liverpool history have they collapsed when the pressure mounted. A look back to just last season will provide hallow reminder to Liverpool players and fans alike of how the clubs recent successes – or perhaps failures, have been plagued by a lack of ruthlessness.
Two finals last season, but yet another campaign without a trophy. An excellent Europa League campaign destined to be remembered with only crushing disappointment. A lack of grit within the ranks at Liverpool has prevented them cementing themselves as a force in domestic competitions. Whilst Liverpool have reached the semi-final of a domestic competition five times in the past six seasons (four League Cups, two FA Cups) they have only notched one major honour in the last decade.
This stat alone should worry the Liverpool community, without even considering the soul-crushing 2013-14 Premier League campaign. A season which shows certain parallels to this current campaign. Whilst Liverpool aren’t competing for the league title as they once where, it will be their form against the lesser teams which ultimately results in the reds’ shortcomings.
Sloppy losses to Hull City. Dropped points against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace were what ultimately condemned Liverpool to missing out in 2014. A story which has repeated itself in 2016-17, with 100% of Liverpool’s six league losses this campaign coming against teams in the bottom half of the table.
Despite this being their worst season in recent memory, Arsenal have won six of their last eight games to mount yet another top four challenge, for what would be their 20th consecutive season in the top four. It would make sense not to bet against Arsenal, especially when looking at Liverpool’s two remaining fixtures. A trip to West Ham United and a home battle against an already relegated Middlesborough. Games which Liverpool will inevitably find difficult to win.
Arsenal’s more recent 4-1 decimation of Stoke City showed that Arsene Wenger is able to get things right when the pressure is on. With Champions League football seemingly out of their grasp coming into April, Arsenal have been able to find form and keep the pressure on a misfiring Liverpool team.
Since the switch to 3-4-3, Mesut Ozil has found himself returning to his 2015 form. He has become the catalyst for their systematic dismantling of teams. Despite coming under criticism throughout much of the season for his fluctuating form and questionable work ethic, Ozil has shown the mark of a great player, coming into form when his team need it most, scoring three goals and creating 26 chances during his last ten league games.
It is perhaps their ability to lean on world-class talents such as Ozil and Alexis Sanchez that could give Arsenal the edge in the top four race. A luxury that Liverpool cannot afford with the injury to sensational winger Sadio Mane. Whilst Philippe Coutinho elevates the play of others around him, his presence alone has not been enough to get the right results against sides like Southampton.
European champions elect?
Manchester United won’t be too concerned that their top-four charge has tailed off somewhat, as the end of their unbeaten league run has coincided with a successful European campaign. An impending Europa League final against Ajax on May 24 approaches. However they could, whilst seemingly improbable, claim a top four space and pick up a European trophy. But, it will take a tough win against Tottenham Hotspur to give them any hope of achieving both.
It makes sense that Jose Mourinho has decided to gain Champions League qualification through the Europa League, as their road to the final has been somewhat favourable in comparison to their stagnant Premier League form.
Whilst Manchester United deserve praise for their 25 match unbeaten run this season, it must be remembered that they began and finished this streak in sixth position, leaving much to be desired from their domestic campaign. United’s inability to win games damages their chances of getting enough points, without considering they need slip ups to gain enough ground on their competitors.
A sprint, not a marathon
Both Arsenal and Liverpool only have two games left to play, and the final top-four place will likely be taken on the final day of the season. With goal difference now potentially a deciding factor, it really is down to who can be the more dominant force in the last two games of the season.
Liverpool will be hoping that they can capitalise on their upcoming opponents poor respective defensive records, not that it will matter if they continue to be a porous defensive unit. Whilst Arsenal look on to two home games to see out the season. One against a devastatingly poor Sunderland side, the other is against Liverpool’s fierce rivals Everton.
In a straight shootout to salvage their respective seasons, Liverpool and Arsenal should provide compelling contests in their remaining games. With their destiny in their own hands, it remains to be seen whether Liverpool can overcome demons from their own history and deliver when the pressure is on. Perhaps marking the forging of a new identity for what will finally be “Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool”.