Six into four just doesn’t go and thus Premier League fans are annually treated to a pretty tasty battle for Champions League qualification, as the English top flight’s ultimate elite desperately scramble to earn a place in Europe’s top competition.
The 2020/21 campaign looks set to be no different and if we assume Liverpool and Manchester City will be ahead of the pack once again with Chelsea trying to keep pace just behind after bringing in so many high-quality names during the summer, fourth place looks set to be a Mexican standoff between Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United.
Arsenal finished a lowly eighth last term but after a strong start to the current campaign, winning three of four games, this could be the season that sees them return to the top four for the first time since 2015/16 - overtaking Spurs and United in the process.
Here are eight clear reasons why…
Arsenal used the summer to improve their spine
It’s often said that every top team needs a spine that combines strength with quality and that’s exactly what Arteta added to Arsenal this summer through the club’s two most expensive signings of the transfer window - defender Gabriel and midfielder Thomas Partey.
The former has already impressed following a summer move from Lille, netting against Fulham and thus far averaging the most aerial duels won per match of any Arsenal player, while Partey adds an element of Diego-Simeone-style tenacity and positional discipline to the engine room.
Compare that to United, who failed to bring in a new centre-half, are still relying on the aging Nemanja Matic in holding midfield and could only acquire a 33-year-old Edinson Cavani to bolster their centre-forward options.
Tottenham, meanwhile, did sign Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg but the heart of their defence is a bit of a mess and it’s still not clear what their best midfield actually is. Instead, Spurs’ most notable recruitment came on the flanks through the likes of Matt Doherty, Sergio Reguilon and Gareth Bale.
Arteta’s proving to be a fantastic manager
The fact Arteta has only ever lost seven games as Arsenal manager - four of those being against Big Six rivals - has almost slipped under the radar. The Spaniard has actually been pretty exceptional since taking over a side that were a lowly tenth when he got the job, finishing last season on a real high in lifting the FA Cup by beating Chelsea at Wembley.
That gives him a loss rate of just 20%, alongside a win rate of 63%, and despite being handed the reigns at their respective teams amid largely similar circumstances, that record is far more impressive than Jose Mourinho’s and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s.
Mourinho has won the same number of matches as Arteta, 22, but from seven games more, while his loss rate with Spurs stands at 29%. Solskjaer, likewise, has won just 51% of the United games he’s been in charge for, also losing 26%.
Now 35 games into his Arsenal spell, the Gunners’ good fortunes under Arteta are clearly more than just a honeymoon period. He’s added substance to their style and consistently chalked up impressive results.
Solid defence will be the key differential
Amid an era in which the Premier League has a greater emphasis on scoring goals than ever before, it’s also becoming increasingly apparent that goals conceded is a more consistent dictator of where a side will finish the season.
Take last term, for example. While United scored only the fifth-most goals yet finished third and Bournemouth scored the 14th-most yet suffered relegation, Liverpool, Man City and United ended the campaign from first to third respectively for both points and goals conceded. Likewise, all three relegated clubs finished in the bottom four for goals conceded, the only exception being Aston Villa who escaped the drop by a single point.
And contrary to the historic perceived wisdom of Arsenal being an offense-minded team, defensively they’ve been incredibly tight since Arteta took over. From his 35 games in charge they’ve only conceded 40 goals, and in just eight of their 24 Premier League matches under the Spaniard have they allowed in more than one goal.
For comparison, United have conceded more than once in all three of their games at the start of this season, including an embarrassing six last time out, while the Lilywhites have conceded 1.4 goals per game under Mourinho - a rate 0.3 higher than Arteta’s Arsenal.
Thomas Partey acquisition allows for more variety
It shouldn’t be underestimated how important a signing Parety is for Arteta, because tactically speaking, it really opens up his options at Arsenal and allows him to deploy teams using his preferred setup.
Having played under Arsene Wenger and worked alongside Pep Guardiola, Arteta is very much a student of 4-3-3, but after starting his Arsenal stint using a 4-2-3-1 variation, he switched to 3-4-3 in June - seemingly unconvinced of his side’s shape in his favoured system and whether they had the personnel to pull it off.
But coupled with the re-capture of Dani Ceballos on another season-long loan and former captain Granit Xhaka, Partey offers Arteta an incredibly strong engine room befitting of the formation by encompassing a bit of everything - technique, creativity, power, aggression and positional awareness.
The Athletic claim Arsenal’s technical staff want to build the first team into a 4-3-3 side, echoing Liverpool and Manchester City, and Partey appears an integral signing in helping make that vision a reality.
That may well happen over the course of this season but even if the transition takes a little longer, Partey at least gives Arteta room to change up his side’s dimensions depending on the characteristics of their opposition. That makes Arsenal less predictable and more tactically flexible which, in theory at least, should lead to more consistent results.
Man United are on the verge of implosion
While Arsenal simply has the feel of a club moving in the right direction, the exact opposite can be said of Manchester United, who appear to be on the verge of an all-out implosion.
The international break has come at the perfect time for Solskjaer; although no player likes going away to their national team on the back of a humiliating 6-1 loss, it’s at least given the manager some breathing room and time to work out what exactly is going wrong.
But even if there is now an uplift in results, there are clear long-term problems at United. The players just don’t look prepared for the new season - physically, tactically and mentally - in the same way as many of their rivals, while the club’s recruitment during the summer was well wide of the mark.
It feels like something will give sooner or later and sacking season is just around the corner. A new manager usually means new ideas, new tactics, new players and a period of inevitable transition which could well see United fall out of top four reckoning pretty early.
Tottenham still unconvincing under Mourinho
Spurs may have just bagged a 6-1 win over the Red Devils but they still aren’t completely convincing under Mourinho.
For starters, despite Heung-min Son and Harry Kane being rampant enough in attack to bag a combined nine Premier League goals and seven assists already, they’ve somehow managed to score just once in 180 minutes at home this season and were actually pretty terrible in the first half of their 5-2 away win over Southampton.
Also bearing in mind United went down to ten men after half an hour, so far in the Premier League this season they’ve only really put full-strength teams to the sword for around 75 minutes across four games.
They’re also yet to keep a clean sheet in any competition and limped over the line against Lokomotiv Plovdiv, only coming back from a goal down after their Europa League opponents had two men sent off.
With Gareth Bale still to come into the side, Spurs boast fantastic firepower this season. But to what extent are they a complete side ready to clinch fourth place, or rather just one relying on some key individuals to pave over the cracks?
Need for silverware less prevalent after last season’s FA Cup
When we approach the business end of the season, this really could be a decisive factor.
Of course, all three clubs will be desperate to finish in the top four and Premier League final standing remains the bread and butter, but after lifting last season’s FA Cup there’s certainly less pressure on Arteta to land some silverware in 2020/21.
He’s already ticked that box, so if the Spaniard finds himself having to balance out a Premier League fixture, an FA Cup game and a Europa League match in short succession come April-time, he can get away with prioritising the top flight and the top four race.
Mourinho, on the other hand, has surely been brought to Tottenham to win trophies, the ultimate hallmark of his career, while Solskjaer - if he’s still in the job by then - will know that lifting some silverware might just give him enough credit in the bank to survive the summer, especially if United are the underdogs in the top four battle as they’re currently shaping up to be.
In an ideal world, all three clubs will try their best on every front they’re competing on. But that just isn’t always the reality in the final months of the campaign and Arteta won’t feel the same pressure as his counterparts in ensuring his side are competitive in the cups.
Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can outscore anybody
His overall record for Arsenal stands at 72 goals in 114 games, while in the last two Premier League seasons he’s finished joint-second and joint-first in the Golden Boot race - and that’s during two campaigns in which Arsenal performed below expectations.
Tottenham boast some Golden Boot contenders of their own in Son and Kane, while Manchester United will hope Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can click into gear after underwhelming starts to the new season.
But when it comes to simply finding the net, Aubameyang is as good as anybody and if we assume Arsenal will make more goalscoring opportunities this season because of the improvements we’ve previously discussed - they’ve already shot up from 12th to 6th in Premier League rankings for big chances created - then logic suggests the Gabon international will score more as well.
Throw in Alexandre Lacazette who has already netted three times this season and combine that with Arsenal’s aforementioned defensive resilience under Arteta, and this could be a campaign which sees the Gunners get it right at both ends of the pitch.
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