With Manchester United revitalised, Arsenal and Chelsea stuttering, and more of Tottenham’s players in the treatment room than on their training ground, it suddenly appears there is real competition for the Champions League places. I take a look at the aforementioned clubs chances, and point to a couple of players to keep an eye on.
Positives – Perhaps the biggest positive is the ‘head start’ they have over the chasing pack. Currently sat 4 points above Chelsea, and 7 above Arsenal and Manchester United, with only 15 games left of the league season. Although not definitive, that cushion is enough to make you think their chances are the best of the contenders.
Another feather in their cap has to be the fixture run. Over the next month, they host Watford, Newcastle, and Leicester, with a trip to Burnley rounding off a succession of very winnable matches. Whilst the schedule might look more difficult as March begins, building momentum as fixtures come thick and fast often proves to be pivotal for clubs at both ends of the table; maximum points from those 4 games would put the pressure on the chasing pack. The fact that this kind run coincides with the absences of key players mitigates the negative effect that missing Kane, Son, and Alli (amongst others) would otherwise have on Tottenham. Things would be less rosy were they to be without those players for the duration of March and early April.
The last positive I’ll highlight is the manager. Perhaps one of the most adaptable in the Premier League, Pochettino has not only shown a willingness to shift systems and formations, he has shown a competence at doing so. Altering between, for example, a back 4 and back 5 has caused other sides confusion, as a manger struggles to translate his ideas to the pitch. The Argentine will need these skills as he digs behind the Spurs sofa for fit players, but of all managers of these ‘top 4 contenders’ he is the one I would be most confident in achieving this successfully. His ability to cover for the flaws and inexperience of players in a system that functions effectively is arguably his greatest strength.
Negatives – The injuries. As an Arsenal fan, I am well versed in googling players selected for squads I have never heard of due to injury crises, but I imagine some of those donning the Tottenham kit in the coming weeks won’t even have Wikipedia pages. Aside from the quantity, it is the quality of player missing that will hamper Spurs most. Kane, Son and Dele Alli have perhaps been their best performers this season, with the South Korean in electric form prior to his departure to the Asia Cup. Talismanic Kane’s injury was a further a blow, but at least Dele Alli, who has historically stood up in the absence of the England captain, was available to help fill the goal-scoring void. Until the young Englishman pulled up towards the end of their last Premier League outing; the kind of injury that as soon as you see him clutching his hamstring, you know it isn’t going to be good news. When fans are clamouring for the return of Moussa Sissoko (who credit to him has improved this season), it’s never a reassuring sign.
Perhaps a nice problem to have, but the fact that Spurs are still competing on multiple fronts could add to the currently elastically-stretched squad. Particularly a two-legged Champions League tie against Borussia Dortmund will add serious miles onto already heavy legs. Those games will be intense, particularly for the defence whom can be vulnerable to counter attacks at pace; Arsenal exploited Vertonghen’s cruise ship-like turning circle to devastating effect. Sancho, Reus, et al will be licking their lips (their own lips, not each others … I’d guess) at the prospect of over-played ageing centre backs.
One to Watch – I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of this guy called Christian Eriksen, but he’s really quite good. Aside from the unknown Dane, it appears now is the time for Lucas Moura to cement himself in the Tottenham side. Since joining the Premier League this time last year, he has yet to fully establish himself, and if he could build off a promising start to the campaign prior to, you guessed it, a muscle injury, his dynamism and dribbling will help fill some attributes Son provides for the Lilywhites.
Positives – In the aftermath of the defeat to Arsenal, there are many Chelsea fans despairing. Perhaps the biggest positive given the flaws in ‘Sarri-ball’ shown in that game (press Jorginho and the structure crumbles faster than Andy Carroll’s hamstrings), is the Italian has been able to bring in attacking reinforcements. Everywhere Sarri has gone, he has always been able to bring in players from former clubs in order to more effectively transmit his detailed approach onto the pitch; it was the main reason why Jorginho was signed, and Chelsea made heavy overtures for Koulibaly and Higuaín in the Summer. Having a striker, the department the Blues are weakest in, who is familiar with what the Italian demands should be a huge benefit to the cohesion going forward. Perhaps most importantly, it will allow Hazard to return to the wing, unleashed from the shackles of the central role he has occupied in recent months.
Negatives – Whilst they are currently occupying 4th spot, Chelsea have looked anything but a Champions League side in recent fixtures. Using the template ruthlessly displayed by Pochettino and Spurs, opposing managers have figured how the key to stopping the Blues is an intense high-press, at the very least sticking a man on Jorginho, and the build-up play resorts to David Luiz playing long balls from defence. The confusing combination of positional deployment by Sarri only worsens the issue. As their chief creator is stifled, one of the most talented wingers in the Premier League has been shunted into a central role, leaving him with little room to manoeuvre. Despite the player’s insistence on how well he works with Giroud, the French World Cup winner has seen his game time reduced to token sub appearances, when he is the perfect foil to enable Hazard to perform. I’ve described him as the World’s greatest backboard footballer due to his ability to simultaneously hold off defenders with strength, whilst delicately flicking the ball to support players. Hazard would and has thrived off this, so Sarri’s refusal to utilise this potential link up is baffling. I know every pundit and their Grandma has been commenting on how not playing N’Golo Kante as the holding midfielder and shoehorning him into a box-to-box role is incredibly bizarre, so I won’t belabour the point… But seriously, as underrated as some of Kante’s technical attributes are, they are not best suited to an influential attacking role.
Completing the trifecta of bizarre tactical decisions is Marcos Alonso’s continuing impression of a left back. If his defence were half as good as his lawyers’ the system might work much more smoothly. Unfortunately he is positioned so high up the pitch his already dodgy abilities going backwards are further exposed; Match of the Day highlighted how he was basically playing as a centre forward at times during the Arsenal match. His offensive abilities are legion, but you’d need an army to cover for his defensive frailties; Sarri shouldn’t keep soldiering one with this. Emerson showed in the Carabao Cup that he should be more of a consideration for that position (and also that he still exists).
One to Watch – The oft overlooked of the Stamford Bridge wingers Pedro has stepped up to the plate recently, even in a misfiring Chelsea side. With the arrival of a big (in every sense of the word) striker, he will now be in direct competition with Willian for a starting position. The creativity, hybrid-playmaking that the Spaniard is capable of, in addition to his underrated finishing, would give him the edge over the Brazilian for me
Positives – The improved performances, if not necessarily always results, against the other ‘Big 6’ sides in the league should give Arsenal a decent chance in at least overturning Chelsea. This adage is often applied to sides at the other end of the table, involved in relegation scraps, but is equally relevant in such a tight battle for fourth. Aside from a dismal display at Anfield, Arsenal have shown themselves capable of competing for 90 minutes with every big side they have faced this season. Even at the campaign’s outset, faced with the daunting duo of Manchester City and Chelsea, I thought Arsenal equipped themselves quite well despite losing both matches. Certainly at Stamford Bridge, it was only a couple of lapses in concentration and two glaring misses from the Gunners away from being a surprise draw/victory. The same can be said for the trip to Old Trafford; the manner of the goals conceded that day were farcical. At home, the resolute nature of the defence has provided the solid attacking platform that resulted in comfortable victories over Spurs and Chelsea, as well as an impressive draw against table-topping Liverpool – that’s a sentence I’d never thought I’d write.
I’d also argue, despite being as stocked in the creative department as an Orwellian art class, Arsenal have the most experienced and lethal striking options. Second to only Mo Salah in the scoring charts, the xG.-defying Aubameyang has already shown in his brief time in England his propensity for finding the net. Importantly, he has added to the type of goals he can score. Beyond his poacher reputation, he has evolved this season into a player comfortable with more speculative attempts. Lacazette’s contribution too shouldn’t be overlooked. Although his goal record is not as eye-catching, in tandem with the Gabonese striker he links possession between different sectors of the pitch, enabling the attack to function in the absence of a more natural creator. Whilst Chelsea struggle for a consistent front-man, Spurs rely on a male model dressed as a footballer to support Kane, and United’s attackers only re-learning what joy feels like in the last month, Arsenal’s advantage here could prove crucial in decisive moments.
Negatives – This could be an entire, very depressing post in itself so I will limit this section. The injury to Bellerin is huge. Not only because he is a talented young right back who was only a few days back after a month’s layoff, but also because of what he meant to the structure of the side. As a natural defender with pace, he allowed the switch to the back 4 that was so dominant in the Chelsea game. In his absence, Lichtsteiner and Jenkinson do not have the pace or ability to replicate that role and Maitland-Niles, although undoubtedly talented, is not a natural defender. It will probably mean a reversion to the back 5 which has seen Arsenal look so stunted creatively at times, and may well see Ramsey relegated to the bench once more.
A lack of ability, or perhaps more accurately willingness, from the club to invest in January to fill the glaring gaps in the squad is a concern. Coupled with another behind-the-scenes reshuffle, and the long term future of Arsenal will be significantly moulded over the coming months. Operating only in loans, scavenging Europe for bargains, and with key players either departing or marginalised, the transfer window should have been an opportunity for Emery to cement his style on the squad from a player profile perspective. Alas, it looks as though that will have to be pushed to the Summer, if it even happens then. Regardless, whilst others are turning to experienced short-term fixes for problems, Arsenal appear to be negotiating 6 month loans for the fringe footballers of European giants. Not to denigrate the ability and potential of Denis Suarez and Christopher Nkunku, both linked recently, but I don’t know if they are the calibre of signing capable of pushing Arsenal into the Champions League places
One to Watch – A reversion to the back 5 may not be what I would like to see, but it could allow Alex Iwobi to show once again the strides he has made this season. Yet to convert his improvements on the ball into tangible goals and assists, were his improvements to start materialising in the stats column, Arsenal’s chances of climbing the table would drastically improve.
Positives – No Mourinho. It might seem simple to say, but it is quite amazing the effect of having a manager who allows his players to express their wealth of talents has. Oddly enough, when not being called out publicly, deployed out of position, or playing to a style so out-dated it makes Jacob Rees Mogg seem on-trend, the likes of Pogba, Rashford and Martial can actually play football. Even as a non-neutral, watching Paul Pogba in full flow is a joy. The clever touches, quick dribbling feet, and his willingness to try what others can’t see remind you of why he was bought for the world record fee; and why, given the transfer inflation nowadays, that might have been a very good deal. Besides from the evident ‘letting the horses run free’ narrative, Solskjaer has actually proved more tactically adept than I initially thought. Deploying Lingard as a (*stifles vomit for the phrase I’m about to use*) ‘pseudo false 9’ against Tottenham was a very clever way of splitting the defence, forcing the midfield to constantly pivot, and giving the fullbacks and centre backs a decision about who should commit and when. This kind of adept switches to the system prove Solskjaer might have what it takes to warm the dugout of Old Trafford for a little longer.
Despite that last sentence, I actually think the short-term nature of the managerial situation is working to United’s benefit. Unbeholden to the ego management necessary if you are permanently at the helm, the benching of Lukaku and Sanchez is not really Solskjaer’s concern; managers sometimes appear to feel as though they have to play the highest profile members of the squad. Rather, Ole can solely chose his XI based on form, and when Rashford is in such electric form there is no doubt as to whom the number one number nine at Old Trafford is.
Negatives – Sticking with Mourinho for so long. Not to stick the boot into the Jose – I’d much rather do that physically, in person – but United have an Everest-like hill to climb. They have certainly done an impressive job establishing base camp, but the handicap they gave themselves by persisting with Mourinho for so long is probably the main reason to bet against them.
Although the start to his career has been record breaking, Solskjaer hasn’t solidified the defence. At times United still look a little bit open at the back, as proven by the fact they’ve conceded to Huddersfield and Brighton at Old Trafford since the Norwegian took the reigns. The renewed vigour of the forward line is a welcome sight, but relying on De Gea to grow 8 arms and become an immovable wall for 90 minutes is a dangerous platform to build your side upon.
Like Spurs, they too have a competitive Champions League tie to factor into the equation. A Neymar-less PSG might not be quite as formidable as it appeared when the draw was made, but the likes of Mbappe, Cavani, Di Maria, and Marquinhos are still available to provide two stern tests.
One to Watch – The aforementioned Lingard, although not grabbing the headlines and goals of Pogba and Rashford, has already shown tactical flexibility and a willingness to adapt to multiple positions. His work rate is always impressive, but the development of his awareness and speed of thought have enabled the more obvious talents of his teammates to shine through.