Saturday, January 22, 2022

Premier League top-four race: West Ham, Tottenham flying under the radar; Manchester United still the favorite

Rodri’s 93rd-minute winner for Manchester City against Arsenal may have a bigger impact on the top-four battle in the Premier League than the title race. While City are 11 points clear at the top of the league having played one more match than Chelsea and two more matches than Liverpool, the Gunners are only four points ahead of seventh place in the league.

Tottenham, West Ham, and Manchester United are among those chasing Arsenal and due to games being called off due to the surging positives cases of COVID during the Omicron variant spike. All teams but West Ham have played fewer matches than Arsenal. To get back into the race, Tottenham and Manchester United changed managers and it has made all the difference with Ralf Rangnick and Antonio Conte steadying their respective ships.

Looking at the league since those appointments (after Dec. 3), Manchester City have run away with things but you can’t split the teams after them:

Manchester City

7

7

21

Arsenal

6

4

2

12

Tottenham Hotspur

5

3

2

11

West Ham United

6

3

1

2

10

Manchester United

4

3

1

10

Liverpool

5

3

1

1

10

Chelsea

6

2

3

1

9

Crystal Palace

6

2

1

3

7

Southampton

5

1

3

1

6

Leicester City

4

2

2

6

It is important to note that when Rangnick joined Manchester United in December, Conte already had a month under his belt. Spurs are still third in the form table in their eight games unbeaten since November but it would see them collect an impressive 18 points trailing Manchester City and Liverpool.

Tottenham’s 1-0 New Year’s Day win over Watford showed the way that Conte has improved the team. They now have an identity in their 3-4-3 formation as a defensively solid side that creates just enough chances to make up for the lack of attacking talent. One of the big ways that they have improved in attack is scoring from set plays. Spurs have scored five goals from those situations all season and four of them were scored since Conte’s appointment.

Davidson Sanchez’s winner against Watford shows how much set plays matter and good coaching staffs ensure that their teams are well drilled in those situations because they add victories over the course of a long season. Spurs are fifth in goals from set plays since Conte took over, only trailing Manchester City, Southampton, Liverpool and Aston Villa.

While Arsenal lost 2-1 to City in dramatic fashion, that shouldn’t take away from the impressive run that they have been on under Pep Guardiola protégé Mikel Arteta. Gabriel Martinelli has been in excellent form, scoring four goals and assisting two more. Like it or not, the team has improved and has not skipped a beat since Arteta flawlessly exiled Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and gave the captain’s armband to Alexandre Lacazette. With the team’s defensive improvement thanks to the additions of Ben White and Aaron Ramsdale, Arsenal are no longer a pushover side. The North London Derby is usually a tight affair, but with the two teams so close in the table, their clash on Jan. 16 will have extra spice and added significance.

West Ham United have flown under the radar in their chase for a top-four spot, but out of the contenders they have notched the most impressive victories. The system and culture that David Moyes has instilled has them in the Europa League knockout stage — stream on Paramount+ —  while also honing in on the top four. Sporting the thinnest squad of any team in the top seven, the consistency of West Ham’s starters has been so impressive. The defense can be shaky at times, but Said Benrhama, Jarrod Bowen, Pablo Fornals and Michail Antonio have combined to form one of the best attacks in the league.

Manchester United have had a shaky start to life under Rangnick with their draw against Newcastle United standing out as a particularly dark moment, but it is easy to look past the scoring issues considering they have only allowed two goals in the four games that they’ve played under new management. Eventually, Rangnick will figure out his best 11 but it may require additions in the transfer market.

Looking at the four teams, Tottenham have the best points per game at 1.83, but they have also played the weakest schedule and ties with Arsenal, Chelsea, Wolves and Manchester City are coming over the next few months. Manchester United have the best roster, but most of the squad doesn’t suit how Rangnick would like them to play.

West Ham have the best resume and Arsenal have form on their side. With the transfer window now open, there will be player movement that can’t be predicted but the needs of each team are pretty clear. Tottenham could use a midfielder and a right back. Manchester United need a defensive midfielder and possibly a center back. Arsenal might be set as a squad but if they can find a suitor for Aubameyang they need to bring in a forward especially with Lacazette’s contract up in July. West Ham could also use a forward but with how long it takes for Moyes to get new players up to speed, January additions don’t make too much sense for them. 

Head-to-head results will make the difference, but if we had to pick a team right now to finish fourth it would be Manchester United because talent usually wins out during the long, grueling grind of a season. The biggest question is around how Paul Pogba will be used but Rangnick’s 4-4-2 with double sixes is a formation that he can thrive in if he wants to play. But in a race so tight, a key transfer this month could make all the difference.

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