The Battle for Fourth: North London and Merseyside


Halfway though the  Premier League season, Simon Smith surveys the chances of Arsenal, Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in finishing Fourth…

At the start of the season nearly everyone predicted a Manchester top two by this point, and Chelsea looked a good bet for third after a busy summer in the transfer market to improve on a dire league campaign last season.  Fourth place, just as in 09/10, 10/11 and 11/12, looked to be the position most hotly contested for a lucrative Champions League spot.  At the halfway point, with so many more questions than answers, it seems a good time to review the four contenders vying for fourth place.

Back in August it was a difficult position to predict, with both Arsenal and Tottenham losing talismanic players, Robin van Persie and Luka Modric, and bringing in a number of replacements.  Interestingly, both seemed to choose the same strategy of spreading the workload rather than seeking one world class replacement, and Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Clint Dempsey and Moussa Dembele have been a rather mixed bag of signings.  Both were probably always going to be at the same part of the table and fighting over the last spot in Europe’s top table.  Those early games in which an Arsenal title challenge was talked about – with Gervinho as the principle striker – seem long ago now.

The challenge from Merseyside has been somewhat unexpected. North London accumulated 139 points by the end of last season, if Arsenal and Tottenham’s points totals are added together, with Merseyside 31 points adrift on 108.  This season however they are only 6 points behind North London’s 74 with 22 games played, on 68: a significant improvement even with Arsenal’s game in hand factored in.

Everton have been the league’s leading underdog team. While West Bromwich Albion were the real surprise package early on and Swansea have won the plaudits for their style, it was always Everton that appeared most likely to cause an upset to the order over 38 games. Liverpool, on the other hand, have performed only in fits and starts, outplaying the champions one game and being deservedly beaten by relegation threatened Aston Villa another, but despite this could have ended the weekend level with Arsenal had their comeback at Old Trafford become an unlikely win.

Can David Moyes guide Everton to Fourth?

Can David Moyes guide Everton to Fourth?

Interestingly, both Everton and Liverpool have had similar back stories to the season.  Neither were especially active in the market (although Everton certainly were by their own standards), making astute additions rather than marquee signings.  One explanation for the improvement on last year’s position might come from a degree of stability: neither had to cope with the loss of a major player and keeping hold of Luis Suarez and Marouane Felliani (so far) has proved to be a coup for both.  Whether they can sustain the challenge through the spring remains to be seen, but Everton in particular have reached a greater level of consistency than any other challenger for fourth place this season.

Tottenham look like the team to beat right now.  Andre Villas–Boas has added a degree of strategy to Harry Redknapp’s entertaining side and the fluid style of play has got the best out of players such as Aaron Lennon and Jermaine Defoe who many might have predicted to be marginalized under the new management.  Continental in taste he may be but snobby he is certainly not, and the belief in the squad that any player can earn a place on merit seems to have had a positive impact on team spirit.  Although six league defeats is worsened by only Liverpool of all the challenging teams, 12 wins is impressive from 22 games and the team look well placed for the run in with 40 points.

It’s not like Spurs to be quiet in the market but with a large squad signings should only really be made if they add quality rather than depth. Rivals will be worried about a marquee signing, especially up front where despite good performances from Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor there does appear to be room for improvement.


Theo Walcott’s contract is still being negotiated

Arsenal are surely envious of their local rival’s start. They have come under much criticism this season for their failure to get the result in games they should win, with the home game against Fulham perhaps the best example of this. Nonetheless, while they may be the worst of the four teams on a bad day, the derby result demonstrates how devastating they can be when they play to their maximum.

How frustrating it must be for Arsene Wenger that they cannot recreate this more often. Four defeats is not the concern so much as the nine wins in total, certainly nowhere near enough for the team’s ambitions, and much will depend on the difficult run of fixtures they have over January and February having wasted the opportunity to build some momentum in a kind late 2012 schedule through poor form.

With an early Champions League exit to Bayern Munich seeming not unlikely and memories of the League capitulation in 2010 after humiliating European and domestic cup defeats etched into supporters’s memories, team morale will perhaps be more crucial than signings. January additions would help ease the burden on the likes of Cazorla and Mikel Arteta, but the new deals for the young British quintet of Carl Jenkinson, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Kieran Gibbs will be beneficial to the team spirit – even if Theo Walcott continues to be the elephant in the room.

Everton will be nothing but pleased with their first half season, proving once again the value of stability to a club and the brilliance of David Moyes both in the market and on the training pitch. They have been the most consistent by far, nowhere near as bad as Liverpool or Arsenal on their off days but perhaps not as dazzling when they manage a good win: 10 draws is testament to that.  One thing this suggests is that should the North London clubs suffer a capitulation, Everton will be best placed to build a lead. Moyes will not tolerate anything but total commitment and with a bigger squad than usual thanks to signings such as Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith they look set to cope with the second half of the season.

The once prolific Nikita Jelavic’s second season syndrome may be the biggest concern at this stage, especially with only limited alternatives.  Recent impressive performances by Victor Anichebe, notably against Newcastle, may prove food for thought and essential competition to the Croat, especially given Everton’s financial problems and subsequent unlikeliness of January signings.

New boy Daniel Sturridge

New boy Daniel Sturridge

Liverpool are perhaps a controversial inclusion in this dynamic.  If there is one factor in their favour it is that no team looks certain to make fourth place their own and the openness of the race gives them a chance.  Actually, if there is one thing in their favour it is Luis Suarez: ever controversial, he has been at his mercurial best this season and at times single-handedly – Mansfield Town pun not intended – rescued Liverpool. Much will depend on whether he can continue his form while playing a different position to accommodate new signing, Daniel Sturridge, and indeed whether Sturridge can find greater consistency in his favoured central role than he has on the wing in recent years.

Ever fearful of a repeat of the overspend on Andy Carroll, any addition to the squad this window are likely to be young and cheap – and with Suso, Jonjo Shelvey and Raheem Sterling settling into the side it seems unlikely that even that will happen. In the meantime long term misfits Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing may well have to prove themselves or be moved on.  Perhaps the real mystery of the current Liverpool team is how room can be found for square peg Downing – admittedly playing significantly better in recent weeks – but not the excellent and seemingly natural fit into Brendan Rodgers’s philosophy, Nuri Sahin.

All four teams look set for what promises to be a titanic battle for the final Champions League spot and the second half of the season promises to be every bit as exciting as the first. Having come agonizingly close last year – both to finishing ahead of Arsenal for the first time since 1995 and reaching the Champions League – Tottenham could go a step further this season and momentum and belief certainly seems to be swinging in their favour while the likelihood of an English team becoming European champions appears decidedly slim. Everton have their fate in their own hands but one would be foolish to underplay the importance this season holds: they cannot hope to keep Moyes forever and his ambition cannot be constrained indefinitely without improvement.

Increasing understanding between Cazorla and Wilshere will be crucial for Arsenal in the second half of the season but defensive lapses, as proven once again against Manchester City, may be their undoing. Liverpool are nobody’s favourites to sneak into the top four but may turn out to be the most important of the three in deciding the end result as kingmakers. In any case, Merseysiders everywhere will be delighted to see the improvement on last season and the swift changes in fortunes in recent seasons present a stern warning for North London on the viciousness of the Premier League.

In 2010 Liverpool failed to beat Tottenham to fourth in a four way battle that included Aston Villa and Manchester City – now in the relegation zone and champions of England, respectively.  It would be a surprise in three years time were a team from Merseyside or North London to win the league or get relegated but the outcome of this season may prove a barometer for which teams are looking up and which down in 2016.

Follow Simon on Twitter: @smiffysi

Follow The False Nine on Twitter: @The_False_Nine

6 thoughts on “The Battle for Fourth: North London and Merseyside

  1. Nicely written article with some good points. However, you make the assumption that Chelsea will be in the top 3. I believe Tottenham to be hitting the better form, Chelsea and Everton around evens, and Arsenal after them. I would not class Liverpool as any kind of threat this season – and this point is not made out of ignorance – as I believe they can do well next year once everyone has settled down and grown.
    I truly believe the 3rd and 4th spot are up for grabs to Chelsea, Everton, and Tottenham – in no predestined order.
    I completely agree with you about the impact a world class striker at Tottenham…It would change everything and a 3rd spot would most likely go to them.

  2. Liverpool are a massive club and no disrespect, but I cannot see Liverpool finishing in the top Four in the next three years. Arsenal will not have the same impact without RVP. He saved them last year and thems days ares overs. Everton, full of old fashioned pluck and endeavour, will finish 5th one place ahead of Arsenal in 6TH and Spuds will prob finish 3rd or 4th.

  3. Liverpool are not remotely involved in this. To reach the normal requirement of say 68 points, they need 37 points from 16 games eg 11 wins, 4 draws, 1 defeat or 12 wins, 1 draw, 3 defeats. You need to be on drugs to imagine that. So unless virtually everybody else slips up, it just isn’t happening.

    Everton – small squad, and horrific away programme. Their last seven away games include Man Utd, Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea. I can hear the wheels falling off even as we speak.

    Arsenal. Well Wenger said it himself about two weeks ago “I don’t know if this is a good team or a bad team”. Translated, we fall short against teams that show some guts and get in your face. On the other hand if we face a Newcastle that’s tired after tough game at OT, or a team down to ten men, like the Spurs team, that outplayed them with eleven, then we will move you around and beat you up.Increasingly Arsenal look like flat track bullies. However on days when their passing game doesn’t work, there is no Plan B. Plan B is currently residing at OT and Nou Camp.

    The final scores on the door will be( roughly)-
    Chelsea 72, Tottenham 70, Arsenal 65, Everton 62 and Liverpool well behind on 56.

  4. Now that we are in the serious half of the season I have had a look at the performance of the top7 realistic teams against each other so far. My top7 are Man U, Man C, Chelsea, Spurs, Everton, Arsenal and Liverpool (I can’t see West Brom or any others making it).

    Man U – Played 6 for 12pts = 66.67% of available points achieved
    Chelsea – Played 6 for 11 pts = 61.11%
    Everton – Played 6 for 9 pts = 50.00%
    Man C – Played 7 for 10 pts = 47.62% (very surprising)
    Arsenal – Played 6 for 8 pts = 44.44%
    Spurs – Played 7 for 6 pts = 33.33%
    Liverpool – Played 6 for 3 pts = 16.67%

    I am pessimistic for my team, Spurs, as apart from the win at Old Trafford (which can be considered to have been fortunate if you have an honest appraisal of the second half onslaught by MU) we have only beaten Liverpool who were pretty hopless then but are on the improve. We have not drawn any of the matches – won 2, lost 5, scored 11, conceded 16. With our propensity to drop points against the weaker teams (QPR etc) and our inability to match it with the top 5 and our repeated inability to sign top strikers or creative midfield stars, I do not see how we will finish above 6th.

  5. I completely agree that Liverpool will not finish fourth, but they have managed to close themselves to Arsenal to the extent that they ave to be discussed if we are going to consider Arsenal as a contender. The reason why Chelsea are not here is that I seriously doubt they will finish 5th, so even though there is a chance Spurs could end up above them, I don’t really see them in this dynamic because they don’t seem to be struggling to fight for the last place.

    Liverpool’s inclusion is really to highlight the massive power shift away from North London this season, not something I suspect to be a long term movement towards Liverpool but definitely worthy of note anyways. Next season could really be a big one for Liverpool…

    While a world class striker would change everything at Spurs, you could certainly make the same claim about Chelsea: If Tottenham were to sign someone like Damiao and Chelsea Falcao surely Chelsea would be in the better position?

  6. Pingback: Europa League’s English trio: the West Broms of Europe? | The False Nine

Leave a reply