It’s only December, but the top four has already been sorted. Which is a shame, because the domestic competition for Europe’s elite tournament can be as thrilling as the title race or a relegation battle.
In the 2012/13 season Arsenal recovered an eight-point deficit to pip Spurs to the final place by a point, in 2009/2010 Spurs beat City at the Etihad to take fourth spot in a dramatic style, and the 2005/2006 season gifted us with lasagna-gate – with Spurs again forfeiting their advantage to Arsenal.
As usual, that coveted, lucrative spot appears to be heavily contested. West Ham have taken it upon themselves to make an early dash, following in the footsteps of Southampton, who have since slowed down after five straight defeats. Arsenal have started slowly but as usual are knocking on the door, while Spurs’ away form has kept them within arm’s length. Everton are lagging more than expected.
Crucially, this year there’s only really one spot that can be contended – unlike last year where United’s post-Ferguson dip freed up a fresh space.
Van Gaal’s stayed true to his words (even though he later regretted them) with United hitting good form after a three-month induction period. They’ve won seven of their last eight with an injury hit squad; once those players return and United shore up their defence they’ll push on quickly. While Liverpool performed with significant merit last season, they highlighted the huge advantages of pushing for the title and not being in Europe. United will inherit that advantage and to therefore see them regress out of the top four under van Gaal would be unexpected.
Seeing Chelsea or City surrender their strong starts isn’t worth discussing, it won’t happen. They’re distinctively the two best teams in the division at the moment, and City will push Chelsea well into the New Year.
Which leaves that fourth spot available. West Ham, Arsenal, Spurs, Everton, Liverpool or Southampton?
Sam Allardyce deserves a large amount of credit for his achievements with West Ham this season, but seeing them maintain this run of form across a 38 game season is very unlikely. The African Cup of Nations will rob them of Diafra Sakho and Cheikou Kouyate in January, key players. Those players will return jaded and need some time to re-integrate. Having amassed 31 points in their opening 18 games, you’d still probably say a final points tally of 60 would be exceeding where they really are. Arsenal swept forth spot last year with 79 points- on this year’s slow start, their target will probably be around 70.
Southampton have shown their talent as a top half team, but lack the mental capacity and experience to be genuine challengers- they’re pretenders, not contenders. They’ll slot into that bracket of teams in the top half vying for the Europa league where the success of their season may well be defined by how they perform in the FA Cup (they start with Ipswich at home in the third round).
The same basic argument of the Europa league can be applied to Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton. The tournament has an additional knockout round to the Champions League, takes place on Thursday nights impeding the weekend more, and contains teams that are generally located further away than conventional top Western Champions league teams. With all three of them probably aiming to get to the Quarters or Semis, which will take until April, their domestic form will stall. That will be particularly prevalent with Spurs- Pochettino’s style is highly energetic and physically demanding, with his young players more vulnerable to burnout.
That leaves Arsenal. It’s not a hard call to make, because Wenger achieves it without fail every year. Seemingly unassailable points deficits are always reached, incredible runs of form and solutions are always found.
They finished with 79 points last year, and in that time they’ve gained the mesmerizing Alexis Sanchez. Arsenal may well have regressed in some respects, but once the deceptive Mesut Ozil is fit they’ll be superior to their Europe-chasing rivals.
A word on Ozil- the forgotten, under appreciated man who’s been out for some time. His primary game resolves around making space for others, and on his day he’s the best in the world at doing it; England has far from seen him at his best. He benefits from having players to thread through balls to, which makes him a lethal playmaker when he can utilise pace around him. Arsenal are yet to have him and Theo Walcott play together, something that Ozil has been unlucky with.
With a rejuvenated Ozil and a less competitive top four than average to deal with, Arsenal will inevitably join United, City and Chelsea in this year’s top four.