The race has a number of exciting possibilities.
The PL title race might be near over in favor of Manchester City, but the top 4 battle is yet again on fire.
For another season, the UCL spots are far more competitive than the title race.
This season, there are a number of clubs competing for that coveted 4th place and it looks like it will go down to the wire Between Rangnick's Man United, Moyes' West Ham, Arteta's Arsenal, and Conte's Tottenham.
In this piece I will aim to analyze their chances separately, and give a reasonable prediction for who I think will get that position - so let's get into it.
Manchester United - A storm of sporadic brilliance and structural issues
Current Position: 4th - 38 Pts (1 match in hand)
Manchester United have a lot going against them, but also have a lot going for them. Ralph Rangnick might have not set the team on fire, but slowly he is implementing his way into the side. Man United biggest pro is indeed their attacking line, led by Cristiano Ronaldo. He might not be as prolific as before, but he is as crucial in the dressing room and as a clutch player like he was in their Champions League campaign so far.
Flanked by the likes of Rashford, Sancho, Elanga, Cavani and (hopefully soon) Hannibal from the academy, this attacking line can get the job done for United with the speed and effectiveness they can provide. In the back, they have arguably one of the most revived GK's in the world in David de Gea.
He was their hero more often than not and makes up for lots of mistakes made by his teammates. His saves per match average (3.8) is only second to Brentford's Alvaro Fernandez which shows how important he can be, but also how bad the defense is ahead of him. Which leads nicely to...
Speaking of bad defense, that doesn't just stop at the backline. In fact, there is a little bit of improvement in that regard. However, it's more about the collective way of defending, which lacks any amount of pressure from the midfield. Also, it lacks serious tracking back from the wingers.
The need for a Central defensive midfielder never been more apparent than in their time under Solskjaer and leading into Rangnick stint too. That position has been a huge headache that was left unaddressed for years, and was only patched up by the likes of Matic, McTominay, and mainly Fred. The Brazilian midfielder can have the odd good performance when he runs forward and can be a good outlet, but his defensive game is so bad that it literally costs them matches.
Then, there is the backline itself. Despite the acquisition of Rafael Varane, the changes were not radical. There is still an ungodly amount of bad positioning and concentration lapses that leave De Gea exposed. Harry Maguire remains a curious case on his own, and the full-backs as decent as they can be don't seem to play a major role in attacking and supplying Ronaldo in particularly.
West Ham - It's all about endurance for Moyes and his boys!!
Current position: 5th - 37 pts
West Ham have been very impressive this season under David Moyes, who is now a very far version from the uncertain manager he was with Manchester United and Everton before. He has found his grove with a side that is well applied and drilled and a squad that is clicking along nicely.
The Hammers probably have one of the most workaholic yet underrated midfield lines in the PL. In Declan Rice, they have a very hot commodity in the center of the park where class is so needed. And In Thomas Soucek, they have a driving engine that helps cover ground and provides a great asset on set pieces.
The Irons are the 4th strongest attack in the league with 41 goals, with only Man City, Liverpool, and Chelsea scoring more. Although their top scorer Michail Antonio only netted 8 this season, the supporting season around him can come up with solutions too. On the top of that list is Jarred Bowen who leads the G/A charts at the club with 13 contributions in a stellar season for the 25 year old. In general, they have a variety of players with different profiles that can come up with different solutions to settle matches.
On the negative side of the fence, the defensive stats just speak for themselves. 31 goals conceded might not sound like much, but considering that the next 4 teams on the table have conceded less, it is a very worrying trend similar to Manchester United.
Also, they seem to lose their way in certain games, mainly not knowing what to do at a certain situations. For all their impressive outings, in some key games they seem to relinquish control of games in stupid ways and just fade out completely (see their 1-0 loss at Old Trafford just a couple of weeks ago). Moreover, as good of a squad as it is, it looks thin as paper especially with the Hammers competing in the Europa League as well. Thus any unfortunate inury could throw a spanner in their season, particularly in the midfield and attack.
Arsenal - A sleeper favorite with no pressure.
Current position: 6th - 36 Pts (Two matches in hand)
Arsenal genuinely are ,in my eyes at least, the sleeper favorites to get that 4th spot. The main reason is one they now share with their north London rivals, which is not having European football to distract them and pressure their calendar. Also, now they don't have extra domestic competitions as they were knocked out of both the FA Cup and Carabao Cup.
The second big reason is the livelyhood and freshness of the squad. With Pierre Emerick Aubameyang now heading to Barcelona, this frees up space for the likes of Smith-Rowe, Martinelli, and Saka to be the leading players in front with all their vitality. This freshness also translates in a big improvement in chemistry between the players, with their recent game against Man City being the biggest example of their improvement.
Third, and the most crucial reason, is they have a much solid defense than the other contenders in terms of organization with Gabriel and Ben White putting some brilliant performances as well as a very underrated season from Takehiru Tomyiasu on the right side. Also, they have a tremendous presence between the sticks for (surely) future no1 goalkeeper for England in Aaron Ramsdale.
Unfortunately between the solid defense and vibrant attack, there is a very questionable midfield in-between. While Manchester United for example, have qualities in their midfield going forward, Arsenal lack those qualities in most of their midfielders.
Thomas Partey is as inconsistent as he can be, rarely delivering a great full game (if he is fit in the first place). Mohamed ElNenny is a decent tempo setter, but doesn't have that second gear of class in him to put dominant performances. Then, there is Granit Xhaka, who is somehow still on Arsenal's payroll despite his consistent stupidity and rash decisions that saw him being the most red-carded player in the PL. While Albert Sambi Lokonga is far from being the finshed article
Also, for all the advantages of their vibrant attack, Arsenal lack a clinical finisher. That is why they were chasing the likes of Dusan Vlahovic and Alexander Isak in the market. Aubameyang is long past his glory pre bumper contract days, and Lacazette isn't clinical enough for someone who's been with the club for FIVE seasons. In a battle like a top 4 place, scoring goals matters on many levels, not just winning points and games but also gaining extra advantage on other contenders in case of equal points tally.
Tottenham - A wild card under Conte??
Current position: 7th - 36 pts (Three games in hand)
First of all, Tottenham are the only side of the 4 who have done some business in the transfer window. It's true they lost more players than what they signed but if you look at the list of departure, you can tell they have no place under Conte. Bringing in Bentancur with massive experience and quality, and in particular Kulusevski who can be very versatile and useful in their front line can be tie breakers when it comes to having a quality squad that Conte can work with.
Tottenham feel fresher and more intense under Conte than under Nuno Santo. Clearly it's one of Conte's top priorities to focus on fitness levels and endurance for players, even going as far as omitting Ketchup from their diet. And it seems that it's working as they feel more energetic even in some losing efforts, as they still work hard till the last whistle.
As mentioned for Arsenal, Spurs have no European football to contend which can make them second favorites behind the gunners.
We have to start with Harry Kane though here. 5 goals in 19 apps in the PL is not exactly up to standard, for a player that basically carried the team last season and ended as top scorer and assist maker. And it's not only about his stats, but his performances in general feel very liveless, almost as if he wants out of the club and the board denied him that in the summer (wink wink). His performances kind of infected all the attacking line, with even Son and (to a lesser degree) Moura looking lucklsutre.
Also, similar to Arsenal, Spurs' midfield doesn't have loads of quality and versatility. Conte might get the best out of the players he has as well as Bentancur, but it still feels that the likes of Skipp, Hojbjerg and Winks have very similar profiles which can be good if you are sticking to one style of play, but can't be creative when things are tense.
And although their record defensively seems strong (24 goals conceded), they look breachable almost in every game and against any opponents with very wide spaces in between the midfield and defense (usually) trio now under Conte.
Prediction: All four sides seem to have defensive and midfield issues, but the ability to get the most points, particularly in rough games can be the decider as far as who will get the top spot. Thus, based on everything mentioned, my prediction goes to Arsenal who i feel can be more consistent than Spurs, West Ham and especially Man United.
If you liked this article, share it around and comment what you think. If you feel like debating, reach out on Twitter @GouesmiO. Until next time!.