I just wanted to take a moment to appreciate the complete and total craziness that has been and will be the Premier League this season. The phrases “anything can happen” and “that’s why they play the games” are overused in punditry and usually used as an after-the-fact description rather than a predictive outlook, but can you honestly tell me you have any idea what is going to happen with the remaining Premier League slate?
Well, other than Manchester City winning the league going away because they are monsters and are dominating everybody. And that’s without Kevin De Bruyne in the lineup. Beyond City claiming the title, I could make an at least semi-legitimate case as to why every side ranked 2-10 will finish in the Top Four. And I could do that same for why they won’t.
The question, which may not need an answer, is whether that is because there are so many strong teams or because all the teams at the top are flawed. Another question that may not need or have an answer: is this the craziest Premier League season in recent memory? Ever? The only season that comes close is the 2015-16 season. But in that one, the traditional powers rounded out the top 5 behind Leicester City’s title. This year, the PL might send West Ham, Everton, and Aston Villa to the Champions League. It has already had the most teams ever finish a matchweek top of the table. We’ve seen clubs all the way down the table to 14th-placed Crystal Palace look like they might make a run at a European place at some point this season.
It feels like any club can beat anybody on their day. Well, other than, like Fulham or West Brom beating City. That ain’t happening.
Circling back to the teams currently in the top half of the league, here are my thoughts:
- Manchester City: winning the title. The only question is when they manage to clinch it.
- Manchester United: continue to believe they are mostly smoke and mirrors. Definitely flat-track bullies. Probably have picked up enough points to not crash out of the CL spots but half of their remaining matches are against top half teams, and they are still in both the Europa League and the FA Cup. Again, they’re more likely than not to hold onto a CL spot, but would I be totally surprised if they fell apart? Not at all.
- Leicester City: the most inconsistent of the top clubs. Capable of magic with James Maddison and Jamie Vardy and also capable of completely fizzling when those two aren’t firing. The James Justin ACL tear will hurt them more than most people realize. Like United, have probably picked up enough points already to hold onto a CL spot, but also like United, have half their remaining matches against top half clubs.
- Liverpool: most likely of the current top four to miss the Champions League entirely. They just have too many injuries, especially at centerback. On top of that, Alisson is having a particularly poor stretch of matches. But their attacking trio (and depth) has the scoring punch to keep them in any match, and they only have four matches remaining against the top half of the league.
- Chelsea: who knows what Chelsea are right now. They are still trying to establish an identity under Thomas Tuchel and learn his systems. They have loads of attacking talent but still haven’t found the right combination to get it all pulling in the same direction. They are the most likely of the sides outside the CL spots to finish the season in the top four, bold prediction to make that call for a side one point off fourth right now, I know. They’re arguably the most “trending upwards” of the top half sides right now. They’ve got seven matches against the top half remaining, including all of their final four matches and 5 of the last 6 against good teams. They could come up short right at the end.
- West Ham: do I really have to write about West freaking Ham? They’re so beige. They’re tied with Arsenal for the second-lowest goal difference in the top half. Tomáš Souček has been wonderful lately and is driving their success, but I’m extremely wary of any team that’s being carried mostly by the brilliance of one player, especially when that player is in the midst of the best form of his career. We’ve seen this story numerous times — those players get “solved,” or marked out of matches, or come back to earth. They’ve got seven matches left against top half teams. They’re not finishing in a European place. Book it.
- Everton: the Toffees were great to start the season, then regressed a bit, then were great again, and now are regressing again. They are consistently inconsistent. They have the worst goal difference of any of the top half teams. They have eight matches remaining against top half sides. None of that inspires confidence. The two games in hand over most of the top half will help, but I think they will just miss out on a European place.
- Aston Villa: when they pipped Arsenal to open the month, I wrote that they are a high floor, low ceiling club. I stand by that assessment. They know who they are and they play their system well, but that system is designed to win matches 1-0. It doesn’t take much going wrong for 1-0 wins to turn into 1-1 draws and a stumble down the table. And while Jack Grealish is a magnificent player, the rest of their attacking roster isn’t littered with stars; they don’t have the scoring pop to keep up with a dip in defensive form. That said, they have two games in hand, and I think they’ll finish in 6th or 7th, but they won’t threaten the CL spots.
- Tottenham: lol Spurs. “Title-challenging” Spurs. Other than everyone, who could have seen this coming? A Jose Mourinho side that is overly reliant on two players (Harry Kane and Heung-min Son) to carry the attacking load, who had been converting chances at an unsustainably high rate brutally regressing to the mean? Color me not surprised at all. They’ve got six matches remaining against the top half. Spurs are cooked. We’ll be celebrating St. Totteringham’s Day again this season (*knock on wood*). I’ll be a MASSIVE Manchester City fan on April 25th (the day of the League Cup final).
- Arsenal: what to make of the Gunners? For me, alongside Chelsea, they’re the most “trending upwards” of any of the teams in the top half. The Aston Villa and Wolves losses (well, Wolves was stolen not lost — it’s going to REALLY suck when that match and it’s ripple effect to the Villa match end up being the difference in table finish) were disappointing, but the team still played well in both contests. The first half against Leeds was the breakthrough that had been coming, and if they keep that level up, they’ve got a shot. To be fair, Arsenal are tied for the second worst goal difference in the top half, but that’s mostly because the attack was anemic for most of the season. There are signs that is changing now.
The $64,000 question is whether their improved form will be enough to lift themselves out of the massive hole they dug from October to December. They’ll need to sustain the current level / keep improving, and they’re going to need some help. I recently read somewhere that Arsenal will likely need around 2 points per match to give themselves a good shot at a European place, which is doable but tough. Data website 538 gives them a 30% chance of finishing in an EL place and a 4% chance of a CL spot. There are a lot of teams between Arsenal and 4th, but the Gunners are only 6 points adrift.
Arsenal will need a “surprise” result or two to make a European place happen. The Gunners have seven matches remaining against the top half, but I feel alright about those tilts. Mikel Arteta has shown in his time in charge the ability to put together solid tactical plans against good teams. My bigger concern is with the other matches against the bottom half teams. Arsenal cannot afford any dropped points.
And the remaining matches against Everton and West Ham are absolutely massive. My gut tells me whoever wins those matches finishes above the other. I’m definitely biased, but I think Arsenal get to at least 7th, which means that if Manchester City beat Spurs in the League Cup Final, Arsenal make the Europa League again.
For posterity’s sake, my predicted end of season table:
- Manchester City
- Leicester City
- Manchester United
- Aston Villa
- West Ham
However it plays out for Arsenal, the last three months of the season, again title race aside, are going to be fun. A club wins two or three in a row, and they jump four or five places in the table. Embrace the chaos.
Edit: the Carabao Cup spot this season gives entry to the Europa Conference League, the new competition a step below the Europa League. So it’s just 5th place and FA Cup winner into the Europa League this season. If the FA Cup winner is already in Europe, that place goes for table finish, as usual. The same thing with the Carabao Cup winner but again, that’s just for the Conference League now.