What was formerly the Premier League’s ‘big four’ is now very much a ‘big six’. The emergence of Tottenham and the re-emergence of Liverpool have led to an increasingly competitive battle to reach Europe’s most esteemed stage. This year is no different.
With the exception of Manchester City – who now boast an impressive eight-point lead over Manchester United – there are currently only four points separating second and sixth place.
Pep Guardiola’s side have been imperious so far this season, emphatically dispatching most of their clearly inferior opposition. At this point, it is difficult to conceive a scenario in which they squander the title, let alone a place in the top four.
Tottenham have impressed, too, though they have been unable to acquire points with the same ease as the league leaders. Nor have Jose Mourinho’s United and champions Chelsea, who met at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
But it is the two teams that currently sit outside the top four that appear most likely to miss out ultimately: Liverpool and Arsenal.
Both have had seasons so far characterised by inconsistency and frustration. They have shown on numerous occasions their attacking fluency, their propensity for free-flowing, aesthetic football, but there have always been caveats.
Defence is the best form of defence
In defence. Liverpool have conceded 17 goals in just 11 league games with Arsenal managing just one fewer. Both teams have porous backlines and, by comparison, their rivals do not.
Since the start of the season, Jurgen Klopp has been incessantly berated for his failure to secure a centre-back in the summer. With the performances of Liverpool’s current options, in particular the much-maligned Dejan Lovren, it’s not hard to see why.
On top of this, many of the goals the Reds have conceded have been avoidable, largely down to individual errors. Mistakes have culminated in points being dropped unexpectedly and there are few signs to suggest that the issues have been fully addressed.
Que Salah, Salah
This is not to say that Liverpool should be entirely ruled out. In their victory over West Ham on Saturday, they demonstrated a fearsome counter-attacking ability spear-headed by the rapid duo of Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane on either side of Roberto Firmino.
Salah, in particular, has been fundamental to Liverpool’s season so far. With 12 goals after 17 games in all competitions for Liverpool so far, Salah has scored more goals than Luis Suarez and Fernando Torres had at the same stage of their Liverpool careers, despite playing as wide player rather than as an out-and-out striker as they did. As things stand, Salah is already only two goals short of Philippe Coutinho’s tally of 14 last season.
Of course, this may be explained by the fact that Liverpool’s attack last season operated through fairly egalitarian principles with the goals being shared around the forward line. The downside to this prolific run of form for the Egyptian wide player is that Liverpool could become too dependant on his scoring proficiency. Were he to pick up an injury later in the season, Liverpool’s season could be further derailed.
Liverpool are undoubtedly top-heavy, then, but balance could be provided if the right additions are made in the January transfer window. That said, the strength of the sides above them and their habit of unnecessary slip-ups means it is difficult to back Liverpool for a Champions League place.
Arsenal’s ‘soft underbelly’
The same can be said for Arsenal. They were left visibly frustrated with a 3-1 loss at the Etihad on Sunday despite being unfortunate at times. But the soft underbelly was again evident as Guardiola’s fluid outfit repeatedly cut through with far too much freedom.
There is still a lack of confidence at Arsenal, a feeling that this is a side still some way off the pace. Last season was the first time Arsene Wenger had failed to achieve a top-four finish and the evidence so far this campaign suggests it could quickly become two in two.
At times, the Gunners have shown glimpses of their best, most attractive football, but uncertainty and inconsistency have hindered their progress.
Attack is deemed to be Arsenal’s strong point but at times they have been offensively lacking too. While there are still doubts over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, Alexandre Lacazette has impressed but he has too often been used as a substitute.
The main concern is at the other end, though. A goal difference of +4 tells you everything you need to know about a team who are scoring but also conceding. Swansea, sitting in 19th place, have conceded three fewer goals than Wenger’s side, while lowly West Brom and Bournemouth have shipped two fewer. Only Watford and Liverpool of all the teams in the top half have let in more.
Then there’s the Europa League. Sidelined as a competition for youngsters and fringe players in a comfortable group stage, it could perhaps become more of a distraction if Arsenal reach the latter stages. That said, as Jose Mourinho can testify, it could yet prove to be their most likely route into next season’s Champions League.
Dropping back into the pack
Most damningly for Arsenal and Liverpool, however, is the fact that they sit level on points with Sean Dyche’s modest Burnley with almost a third of the season played. Only goal difference separates the clubs, perhaps the clearest indication that they are trailing behind their rivals.
It goes without saying that both Liverpool and Arsenal will still have aspirations of a top-four place, particularly given the evidence of Chelsea’s vulnerabilities this season. But Antonio Conte’s side are three points clear even after a somewhat shaky start and last weekend’s crucial win against Manchester United is indication enough that they won’t do down without a fight.
Catching the current top three, though, has grown increasingly unlikely with every passing week. Spurs and United have a better balance and sturdier foundations, if not quite the irrepressible brilliance of Manchester City.
It may not be due to regression on the part of Liverpool and Arsenal – perhaps the significant improvement of their rivals barring Chelsea – but they may soon be cut adrift as the two stragglers in the ‘big six’.
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