Sunday, January 16, 2022

United’s best top 4 hope? This is a slow paced champions league race

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You’d think Manchester United would be in good shape after signing the all-time Champions League goalscorer, a four-time winner with Real Madrid and a 21-year-old prodigy who has already played in the knockout rounds twice would be way to get a top 4 placement now. If it just could be that easy.

This season, the first serious title challenge was to come at Old Trafford. It has instead resulted in the departure of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, a bloated and unsettled squad and the appointment of an interim manager who now has around four months to reverse the results and meet the minimum expectation: qualify for the Champions League.

Last week’s defeat to Wolverhampton Wanderers was Ralf Rangnick’s first but still United lie in seventh place, six points off target and bottom of a hard-fought four-horse race. When looking at the table situation there is little reason for optimism, especially not when looking at the past seasons.

The minimum score for a place in the top four is 76 points. Never has a side taken so many and failed to qualify for the Champions League, but there’s usually scope. In the last ten years came fourth place with an average of 71 points. Go back 20 years when the Premier League first had four qualifying places, that average drops slightly to 70.

After 19 games, which is the equivalent of half a season’s games, United are currently on track to finish on 62 points – desperately short of the passing mark and those averages, and a standard that a club of United’s size, stature and spending shouldn’t have problem to reach. As a rule, 62 points are not even enough for fifth, but sixth place.

Only two teams have ever finished on fewer than 62 points and qualified for the Champions League – Liverpool in Gerard Houllier’s last season as manager and David Moyes’ Everton the following year. That was in the mid-2000s, the last time the Premier League was dominated by a significant Big Three, and a resemblance between that era and this season could be United’s salvation.

Because while Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have long since separated themselves from the crowd and have all but sewn up the other three Champions League spots, their dominance has contributed to a slow race for fourth and final place. None of the competitors are accumulating points at a rate above this 70-point average.

All have clear weaknesses, all have flaws to be exploited, but each also has an advantage that the others don’t, making it an imperfect but finely balanced race.

West Ham, for example, have points on the board – 37, in fact, after beating Norwich 2-0 on Wednesday night. On the other hand, they have now played at least one more game than their rivals and have no postponed games in hand that could be rescheduled later.

Given the choice, you’d take the points every time, but after 21 games, the projected total of 67 points is still a few points below average. It would be West Ham’s best result to date in the Premier League, but only four teams have finished with fewer points since the introduction of four qualifying places.

Moyes is one of the few Premier League managers over the past two decades who knows what it takes to duck under the velvet rope and crack the top four, as mentioned, but he may have to hope that the greater pedigree of the rivals West Ham says nothing in the second half of the campaign.

Arsenal have played a game less but are also on their way to a 67-point finish thanks to a real uptick in performance that can’t be ignored. Since moving to Liverpool in mid-November, Mikel Arteta’s side have been second in the form table having won five of their eight games and although they have lost the other three they will feel they could go unbeaten .

Some of this can be attributed to a favorable schedule, with Leeds and Norwich’s defense being particularly accommodating, but unlike earlier in the season, Arsenal have held their own against tough opponents.

The 2-0 win against West Ham before Christmas was impressive, the 3-2 defeat at Old Trafford could have ended either way, and the controversial defeat by Manchester City on New Year’s Day survived on faint optimism. Even after leaving the FA Cup after Nottingham Forest, the 0-0 in the semi-finals of the Carabo Cup in the 10-man team at Anfield was a thrilling reaction.

There are still legitimate questions as to whether this is sustainable, whether old flaky habits are returning and whether Arsenal’s true level is still a good but not a very good side, let alone a great one. But it’s hard to deny that there has been at least some improvement over the last month.

When Arsenal are on form, Tottenham have the manager and the strongest argument that the second half of the season will be radically different from the first. While Spurs amassed just 1.5 points per game under Nuno Espirito Santo, that number has risen to 2.25 since Antonio Conte’s appointment – a number more associated with title contenders and even title-winning teams.

The difference is stark and puts Tottenham on course for a 70-point finish, right on average in fourth place. With Conte in the dugout for the remainder of the campaign, that number should only go higher. However, given the schedule, there’s an argument to take some steam off this impressive launch.

Tottenham have only played one side in the top half in Conte’s eight games in charge, a Covid-depleted Liverpool. Trips to Brighton and Leicester have been postponed, adding to the odd fact that Spurs have only played eight away games in the league this season. Sunday’s north London derby at home will be a better test of their qualification and visits to King Power and Stamford Bridge follow.

United have also benefited from a smoother run of games lately, not that it’s done them much good. That’s perhaps one of the least-noticed but still worrying aspects of Rangnick’s provisional tenure: that games against Crystal Palace, Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley and Wolves haven’t resulted in higher levels of performance, let alone results.

Their advantage over their rivals is simple: the quality mentioned above, the consistent Champions League goalscorer and four-time winners complement a side set to play in the knockout rounds of this competition next month. United are the only contenders in this race to have competed in the Champions League since the pandemic cut short the 2019-20 season. They have quality and pedigree.

Rangnick’s job is to use this, shape it, and shape it into a collective worthy of the reputation of the various individuals. Saturday’s trip to Villa Park and a rearranged visit to Brentford midweek could be crucial to their top-four chances. However, United are currently far from the pace normally required to qualify for the Champions League. Perhaps their best hope is that their competitors aren’t exactly perfect either.

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