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Thursday, July 7, 2022

Best of the Rest: Predicting the Premier League’s Top-Four Order, European Qualifiers

Premier League top four odds
Can Jesse Lingard carry West Ham to a top-four finish? John Walron/EPA.

Soccer’s brief flirtation (and swift rejection) with a European Super League has distracted from the small matter of a Premier League season that needs finishing.

The top four will seemingly qualify for the Champions League, as is tradition, though the prize for those finishers looked unknown for about 48 hours amid talk of a breakaway competition. Manchester City are guaranteed to reclaim the Premier League crown provided they can take 11 points from their six remaining games, but a more frantic run-in awaits those directly below.

There are as many as seven teams still in with a realistic chance of securing their places in the next edition of the Champions League—but not all odds are created equal.

Remaining fixtures for the Premier League’s top-four contenders (with estimated points totals)

On the Home Straight: Manchester United

Second place remains Manchester United’s best league finish in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era, but even matching that feat this term should see Ole Gunnar Solskjaer lavished with praise.

The only team in England’s top flight yet to lose away from home this season, United have revelled in the no-fan phase of soccer’s comeback. Their three remaining road fixtures against Leeds United, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers won’t be all that intimidating, although Liverpool and Leicester City might make more of an impression as guests at Old Trafford.

Following an autumn wobble, the Red Devils have taken 59 points from the last 78 on offer and more closely resemble the often impossible-to-beat United of ages past:

Ten points separate Solskjaer’s side from third—seven if Leicester City win their game in hand—and they’d likely need to lose half of their remaining fixtures to fall outside the top four.

Even with a Europa League semi-final against AS Roma (and potential final) on their plate, it would take a capitulation of mammoth proportions for United to miss out at this stage.

Flying Foxes: Leicester City

FA Cup finalists for the first time in 52 years, the Foxes have two possible routes into next season’s European den, but only their league finish can lead to the Champions League:

Leicester will have lots of opportunity to cement their top-four credentials before meeting Chelsea at Wembley on May 15. It’s almost a shame four of their seven games left to play will be at home, with the Foxes feasting more fervently outside the King Power Stadium this term; they’ve won 22 points at home compared to 34 on the road.

Brendan Rodgers will delight in knowing he’s already got results against each of Leicester’s remaining opponents in the reverse fixtures earlier this season. Of those seven teams, only Manchester United and Crystal Palace managed to take points of their own, although Chelsea promise to be a different beast now that Thomas Tuchel is in charge.

This season’s top-four chase is trending very similarly to last season when 66 points was the cut-off. Four more wins would push Leicester over that mark with some elbow room to spare and looks very doable for a club only recently deemed not that ‘Super’…

Bubbling Over: West Ham United

The Hammers are on the verge of breaking new ground if they succeed in qualifying for their maiden Champions League campaign in David Moyes’ second stay at the helm.

West Ham have enjoyed a harmonious ‘clicking’ in a campaign that’s earned Moyes’ widespread calls to win Manager of the Season, and for good reason.

But there’s a nervousness that comes with built-up expectations at this point of the year, usually more so for those charting unfamiliar territory. That tension is increased further by the silhouettes of Chelsea and Liverpool threatening from a close proximity in the standings.

West Ham have a favorable run-in given four of their six remaining opponents are currently situated in the bottom seven, earning eight points from a possible 12 in their first meetings with those sides this term:

But despite that good fortune, it’s a hard truth that West Ham’s top-four aspirations could be made or unmade at home to Chelsea in Week 33. Harder still is the idea that only three points will give them any sense of control in the chase considering Tuchel’s reworked machine has proved so difficult to derail since he came on board.

The Hammers have outdone themselves in attack and are out-performing their xG (Expected Goals) metric by approximately nine goals, helped on by the mid-season loan signing of Jesse Lingard. That chiseled exterior doesn’t run as deep as defense, however, which has conceded beyond xGA (Expected Goals Allowed) projections and makes West Ham the second-worst defense in the top half of the table as things stand.

There’s no title at stake, but that old adage about offense winning games while defense wins championships may ring true in West Ham’s search for their own grand prize.

All or Nothing: Chelsea

A whirlwind inauguration as Chelsea manager could yet see Tuchel win a European and domestic double less than four months into his Stamford Bridge stay. Competing across three fronts could end up a poisoned chalice for the coach, however, if spreading resources too thin ultimately means Chelsea end up reaching not three, but none of their goals.

Real Madrid present a top-tier challenge as Champions League semi-final opponents, but one Tuchel will feel he can best having beaten Manchester City to set up an FA Cup decider with Leicester.

In three short months, Tuchel has taken the ample tools inherited from predecessor Frank Lampard and turned Chelsea into an efficient, task-ticking machine, and one that’s ideally suited for cup competition. But the Premier League has a habit of confounding even the best-equipped tacticians in unforeseen ways; for example, say, a 5-2 loss at home to West Brom (albeit with only 10 men).

Tuchel has gone unbeaten in his other 11 English top-flight outings and improved Chelsea’s points-per-game ratio this season from 1.52 with Lampard to 2.08 thus far with him at the helm. That half-a-point change is gargantuan in a push for places that could well come down to goal difference.

The Blues suffer from the opposite dilemma to West Ham. While their defense is the second-best in the land (31 goals conceded), a lack of finishing has seen the attack fall flat. Chelsea have averaged 24.87 shot-creating actions per game in 2020-21 (second only to leaders City), yet their tally of 50 goals is only the seventh-highest in the division. Timo Werner’s struggles in front of goal have not helped matters, though not for a lack of opportunity.

England is the only nation with two teams in this term’s Champions League finals, but unlike Manchester City, Chelsea’s domestic business is far from secure with only a handful of games to play. Theirs is a tough run-in to navigate with West Ham, Manchester City and Leicester still to come.

Down But Not Out (Yet): Liverpool

The title defense may have fallen flat not long after Christmas, but Liverpool are hanging until the last in their bid to ensure they at least finish among the top four. It briefly looked as though Liverpool wouldn’t be back in the Champions League even if they earned their spot, but Jurgen Klopp is on a mission to avoid what would be his first finish outside England’s top four (full seasons only).

The Reds have rescued form to sit sixth and recently won three in a row for the first time since September. Klopp’s men briefly occupied eighth place after a run of six losses in seven league games, yet it’s only a hop that separates the Merseysiders from Leicester in third:

As if tailored for such a comeback, Liverpool’s run-in reads like a who’s who of teams either currently in or not far removed from a relegation scrap. Of their remaining games, rivals Manchester United are the sole enemy not currently among the league’s bottom eight teams.

In hindsight, it’s impressive Liverpool are still in this conversation after losing their top three center-backs to injury for effectively the entire season. If one or more of Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez or Joel Matip were to feature in any capacity before the campaign closes, that would represent another timely boost before the curtain call.

Their good grace in opposition combined with the distractions in front of many of their rivals should light a path back to solid ground, particularly if the worst is already behind them.

Outsiders Looking In: Tottenham Hotspur & Everton

For Carlo Ancelotti, the task of improving upon a 12th-place finish in his first campaign at Everton was a simple one. The Toffees looked a sweet bet for a surprise top-four finish before a recent five-match winless streak shoved them closer to mid-table, a loss of momentum their competition will not forgive.

Likewise, Tottenham Hotspur appear low on morale after sacking Jose Mourinho with a month or so of the campaign to run, with Ryan Mason placed as interim chief until the end of the season. The ex-Spurs midfielder hopes to improve matters after The Special One earned just five points from his last five league outings, but it would take a uniquely successful start in senior management for Mason to rescue a Champions League spot at this rate:

Everton are at a significant disadvantage in the event goal difference is required to decide who qualifies for Europe’s top tournaments, with every team above them at least eight better off in that department.

Tottenham far better in that regard and have outscored their xG metric by more than 10 goals, but too often have encouraging spells of results been accompanied by poorer patches dragging them down.

Predicted Top-Six Finish Order (Points Total):

  1. Manchester City (90)
  2. Manchester United (80)
  3. Leicester City (69)
  4. Liverpool (67)
  5. West Ham United (67)
  6. Chelsea (66)

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