While winning the league is always the goal, achieving a top four place in the Premier League is crucial for the ‘big six’ as they provide a gateway to the Champions League, the most prestigious club competition in Europe. It seems that fourth place is the most fought over in terms of the scrap for Champions League football in England, and it never fails to entertain viewers worldwide.
The Scrap for Champions League Football
Historically, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool have most commonly filled these places. However, in more recent years, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur have taken the places commonly vacated by Chelsea and Arsenal. This is not to say, however, that there is no variety in the top four among the ‘big six’.
In the past two years, Arsenal are the only club from that elite group not to have qualified for Champions League football, and in the past four years, seven teams have managed to do it, including Leicester City when they won the Premier League in 2015/16.
This season, the top three positions seem full with Liverpool, Manchester City, and Leicester. Although The Foxes and Manchester City may swap positions a few times over the remainder of the season, they seem to be the ones who will end the campaign in the top three, leaving just one coveted place to gain qualification, but who will win the scrap for Champions League football?
Who Can Make it This Season?
This season has been especially unpredictable, with four of the ‘big six’” dropping points like there’s no tomorrow. There are many teams fighting this scrap for Champions League football, including some newcomers.
Chelsea: Current Fourth Place
Chelsea are the team currently occupying fourth place. Their recent form, however, would suggest that they are trying to fall from their perch. The blues have won just four of their last twelve games, and these have included embarrassing losses to teams like a struggling West Ham and relegation battling Bournemouth.
Chelsea’s next few games could prove to be crucial. They will play a struggling Leicester, who will be trying to retain the form which got them into third place. Following that they play Manchester United and Tottenham, two rivals for fourth with the Manchester side the closer of them.
If Chelsea manage to get a significant amount of points from these games, they will capitalize on their already existing point advantage, but if they lose to their rivals, it could be detrimental to their bid for Champions League football. The Blues also need to capitalize on their easier periods of games, not dropping points against teams in the bottom half like much of the competition are doing. If Chelsea can put together a consistent run of form going then they may well finish in fourth.
Manchester United: Injury Struck
Manchester United put together some good form in December, however a New Years Day loss to Arsenal hit them hard. Other teams around them have also dropped points, but United have won just one league match in 2020 so far.
Currently in the Europa League, the Red Devils may have another route to the Champions League. They certainly stand a good chance of winning this competition, yet their injury situation complicates both this and getting a good Premier League finish.
Injuries have haunted United’s 2019/20 season. Their two best midfielders in Paul Pogba and Scott McTominay have been out for much of the season. More recently, Marcus Rashford became a long term doubt, looking likely to return in March or April while the midfield duo look set to be out until February.
Just like Chelsea, United’s imminent fixtures look very difficult. Their next three games are against their bogey team Wolverhampton Wanderers, fourth-placed Chelsea and a rejuvenated Watford. After this, their games do not get easier with opposition Everton, Manchester City, Tottenham and Sheffield United. While these may make grim reading for any United fan, the Reds have been very good against the “big six”, so may do better than expected. After this difficult period, United have games against many teams stuck in the bottom half of the table and will need to put together a consistent run of form to stand a chance of getting fourth place.
Although Rashford’s injury has given United’s bid for Champions League football an extra complication, they still have much quality in the squad, and with the prospect of an extra signing, United could still finish in fourth.
Tottenham: Big Injury, Big Problems
Having started the season with Mauricio Pochettino in charge, Jose Mourinho is now the boss at Tottenham. Despite the managerial change, no true change in form has occurred, as Tottenham find themselves in sixth, six points off fourth place.
Tottenham’s recent form has not been something to marvel at. They have won just two of their last eight league games, and needed a replay to beat Championship opposition. Their most humiliating result came in a draw against Norwich City who sit rock bottom of the table.
Spurs have just three current injuries, and while first-teamers Moussa Sissoko and Ben Davies are replaceable with the current squad, Harry Kane is not. The Englishman is their top scorer, and since his injury spurs’ attack has looked very weak.
Tottenham’s upcoming fixtures are a mixed bag. While they will play Manchester City, United, and Chelsea, Spurs have games in between which provide some respite. This gives Tottenham have an advantage in the race for fourth place.
Wolverhampton Wanderers: Second Season of Exceeding Expectations
Just six years ago, Wolverhampton Wanderers were a league one side. Now, they are challenging for a place in the top four of the English top flight. Last season, a newly promoted Wolves side finished in seventh place, and they could further that this time around with the inconsistency of the other teams around them.
Wolves have not looked good since the beginning of the calendar year, with just one win in that time. They have, however, been fairly consistent, and have not dropped points when favourites as frequently as those around them.
With no first-team players out with injury, Wolves have been handed an extra boost in their bid for fourth place.
Wolves’ fixtures, like those of Spurs, give them rests between big games and the best possible chance at top four. They play Manchester United followed by Leicester, and Arsenal followed by Sheffield United but, in general, there is not a large amount of congestion of difficult games, and being out of the FA Cup helps them even more.
Sheffield United: New and Successful
Three years ago they were in League One, but Sheffield United were promoted to the Premier League last season following a second-placed finish in the Championship. The Blades are in eighth, just one point behind Manchester United, Wolves and Spurs.
United have also dropped many points this calendar year, having done so with tough fixtures against Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal.
The Blades have no long term injuries, giving them an advantage in their bid for fourth place
Sheffield’s remaining fixtures look markedly easier than those of their top-four rivals. They have just four games against teams currently above them, and the rest of their upcoming games look very winnable. The Blades may be able to get a few consistent wins, and a venture into the world of top-level European football looks possible for a team fighting for Premier League promotion just a year ago.
Arsenal: Disappointing Season with New Glimmers of Hope
Arsenal have had three managers this season. Unai Emery, Freddie Ljungberg and Mikel Arteta. Under the first two, form was poor, and were involved in a mid-table scrap. Since the appointment of Mikel Arteta, however, the Gunners have shown glimmers of promise.
Arsenal have only won one game in the new decade, but they haven’t lost a game either. As top scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang looks like he will be staying in London at least until the summer, Arsenal have real hope of working their way back up the table provided he can stay fit.
The London club’s injury situation does not look great, especially in defence, with Kieran Tierney, Calum Chambers and Sead Kolasinac all out for some time. This will hinder them despite the progress under Arteta.
Arsenal have a stretch of fixtures in the near future which look largely easy. Their most difficult period comes at the end of the season. Arteta will be looking to take advantage of these easier games to boost confidence and then hit the more difficult ones in good form.
Although fixtures, injuries and league position all stack up against Arsenal currently, there is still a chance that they could get Champions League football. Arteta has had a positive impact on the club, and if they can keep that going then they are in with a shout of qualifying for Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
With newcomers and extremely close point tallies, the scrap for Champions League football in the Premier League looks fascinating.