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.
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.
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.
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.
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