Premier League: Breaking Down the Race for the Top 4
With 11 games remaining this Premier LEague season, the title race in the EPL is pretty much wrapped up. Manchester City hold a 16-point lead over second-place Manchester United, and considering that City have dropped only 9 points so far this season through 27 games, even if Manchester United win their final 11 league games, it would still be very unlikely that they would win the title.
So, with the title race no longer truly in doubt, let's take a look at a race that is actually heating up -- the race for the top 4 and the lucrative Champions League spots that come with it. Let's take a look at the five sides battling it out for the three remaining spots.
Second Place, 56 Points
Aside from their crosstown rivals, Manchester United are in the best position to finish the year in the top four. It's a tight race, though, as United are just four points clear of fifth-place Tottenham, so a bad stretch could lead to Jose Mourinho's side dropping out of the top four.
However, despite not yet breaking away in the standings, United seems to clearly be the second-best team in the league. The Red Devils have the best defense in the league (league-best 19 goals allowed this season) and they have a better goal difference (+32) than anyone in the league not named Man City. Plus. they were able to swap Henrikh Mkhitaryan (6.96 WhoScored Rating for Man Utd), who never really fit in with Mourinho, for Arsenal star Alexis Sanchez (7.33 WhoScored Rating with Arsenal) this January, so they will also benefit from an added boost to their attack in the final stretch of this season.
Third Place, 54 Points
Liverpool are currently in third place in the EPL with a +30 goal differential. Throughout the Klopp era, Liverpool has been an offensive-minded team, and this year is no different. Liverpool rank second in the league in goals scored (61), but their defense lags behind, ranking sixth in the league in goals allowed (31).
The good news for Liverpool is that they added an elite center back this January in Virgil van Dijk, who should be able to stabilize their defense, especially as he continues to integrate into the squad. Van Dijk has already provided a boost to Liverpool's defense in his first three league appearances, as he has posted an impressive 7.45 WhoScored.com rating in that time.
On the flip side, Liverpool sold Philippe Coutinho this January, which is a devastating loss. Coutinho scored seven goals with six assists in only 14 league appearances for Liverpool this year, and he led the team in dribbles completed per game (2.8). However, even without Coutinho, Liverpool should still be able to score goals -- they do still have Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane, and Roberto Firmino, after all -- and the addition of van Dijk to a putrid defense helps offset the loss of Coutinho.
Fourth Place, 53 Points
The defending champions have failed to match their outstanding season from last year, as they are currently hanging onto the fourth and final Champions League spot by a single point. Chelsea boast one of the top players in the league in Eden Hazard, who has scored a team leading 11 goals this season to go along with a league leading 5.0 dribbles completed per game.
However, despite having such a dynamic offensive player, Chelsea still rank last amongst the top six in goals scored (49). Lack of goal-scoring ability (at least relative to the top six) could make Chelsea more susceptible to draws down the stretch, although, admittedly, this has not been the case so far this season. Perhaps a bigger concern for Chelsea is that their next two league games are away to Manchester City and away to Manchester United. If the Blues fail to come up with any points from those games, they will be in major trouble.
Fifth Place, 52 Points
Spurs are currently fifth in the table, just one point behind Chelsea. Spurs are similar to Chelsea in many aspects, as their goals scored (52 for Spurs; 49 for Chelsea) and goals conceded (23 for Chelsea, 24 for Spurs) numbers are very close. Like Chelsea, Tottenham also possess one of the best offensive talents in the league in Harry Kane, who is currently leading the EPL's golden-boot race with 23 goals.
Despite Spurs and Chelsea being evenly matched, Tottenham could have the edge in the race for the top four due to their easier schedule. Chelsea still play four games against teams inside the top six, while Tottenham will play only two such games for the remainder of the season. So if these two teams end up battling for the fourth spot, Tottenham will have the advantage in terms of scheduling.
Sixth Place, 45 Points
The team with the worst top-four odds is Arsenal, who currently sit in sixth place, seven points behind Chelsea for fourth place Prior to last season, Wenger's teams had been known to make late runs into the top four.
However, this year seems different as Arsenal lost arguably their best player in Sanchez -- his 7.33 WhoScored.com rating in 19 league games was second-highest on the team before his departure -- in January, and they have by far the worst goal differential (a modest +15) out anyone in the top six. It may be too early to give Arsenal no chance of a Champions League finish, but it does not appear that they have the talent to finish inside the top four barring a miraculous late-season run.