I’d like to talk a little bit about the race for that last Champions League spot, because I think it’ll be a very exciting one to watch – there are about 5 teams that could potentially take it. I think it’s pretty obvious that Chelsea, United and City will make up the top three and will finish approximately 10 points above the rest.
If I was putting money on it, I would say Tottenham and Arsenal are the main contenders, just because Tottenham are now looking pretty strong under AVB, and Arsenal have never finished outside the top four, at least not recently. But then David Moyes has kept the likes of Baines and Fellaini happy at Everton when either of them could quite easily get into the team of a title-winning team, like Man Utd or Chelsea. They have got a fantastic team spirit and work ethic there, and a goalscorer in Jelavic. Everton could fancy their chances and let’s not forget they currently occupy that 4th spot. Liverpool have got some tough games coming up but I think, if he’s given time, Brendan Rodgers can instill a lot of confidence in those young players, plus Newcastle haven’t started great played some tough games and are still getting used to playing on Thursday night. They’ve got an outside chance. I genuinely think the chase for fourth spot could go down to 2 or 3 teams on the last day.
So I’d like to have a look at these five teams, how they’ve started, the squad they’ve got, tactics, all that sort of stuff.
Whilst there have been flashes of promise, Arsenal have broadly speaking had a poor opening quarter of the season. Having to play the likes of Stoke, Man City, Liverpool and Chelsea in their opening 8 games doesn’t make up, in my opinion, for being 9th in the table and the woeful display against Norwich for me proves that they have to be more consistent, and that’s if they want fourth spot, not the title.
They’ve got four massive derby games coming up against QPR, Man Utd, Fulham and Tottenham, that they have to win at least three of to inspire some confidence and get back into the driving seat. What makes me think they can do it, is that, Norwich game aside, they do look capable of creating chances with Arteta’s football brain, Cazorla’s passing quality, Podolski and Gervinho’s movement from wide and Walcott’s pace could see them onto some goals. The main thing they need in January, is a holding midfielder- I think Abou Diaby has impressed at times but his lack of natural fitness suggests he is more of a good squad player- to keep the positional shape of the team and reduce pressure off the defense, they also maybe need a centre-back, because Mertesacker does seem to lack mobility at times as big as he is. I’d also argue a goalkeeper, because Szczesny is still young and liable to mistakes when he returns from injury. I’d also question whether Kieran Gibbs has it in him to be anything more than a decent squad player, from what I’ve seen of him I’m not sure that he’s good enough. That’s where I think Arsenal need strengthening, but knowing Wenger he’ll probably sign another central European creative midfielder.
The Spurs need to take the momentum they had before the Chelsea game, winning four Prem matches on the spin, into their next few games. Playing the likes of Southampton, Norwich and Wigan, all near the drop-zone, should help them regather that momentum before going to Man City, and then the north London derby.
I’ve noticed in a lot of games AVB likes to line-up with an attacking 4-5-1, with Defoe on his own up front. Many people, backed up by the evidence of their latest results will say this is a very controversial statement, but I do personally think that system is flawed. For me, Jermain Defoe craves a target man, a Crouch, alongside him to get all the flick-ons and knock downs and do all the donkey work. Defoe is 30 now, and if he’s spending the whole time chasing lost causes and closing down the defense he loses that bit of agility for what he’s really good at- scoring goals in the box. He’s a poacher, and I think all aspects of his game should be geared towards him being in the box to come alive and score goals from tight angles. He’s a sniper like that, but he can’t do it if he’s not given a hardworking striker to play alongside him. Tottenham have certainly got the creativity in midfield though, with the likes of Bale, Lennon, Dembele, Sigurdsson, Dempsey and arguably Huddlestone, I’d just argue they need another striker, or maybe Adebayor to get more games, to ensure Defoe defo gets the service he needs.
The toffees hold 4th at the moment, but they’ve got a few tricky games coming up next, and some very difficult fixtures in late November/early December time, hardworking a team as they are I can’t quite see them still being 4th at Christmas- I think Arsenal or Tottenham might takeover. The other thing about Everton… I’m not quite sure why they’ve signed Thomas Hitzlesperger. I remember him scoring a fantastic goal for Aston Villa against Blues like 10 years ago to put them 2-0 up, but he seems ancient. He must be into his thirties now. It seems a bit of a smash and grab signing by David Moyes, which is not like him. If they are struggling for midfield options, I’d like to see Ross Barkley in their team- he looks a real prospect and could be the long-term replacement for Phil Neville or Osman.
Liverpool’s top four aspirations should probably be more directed towards longer-term plans than this season, it seems more unlikely that they’ll do it this year but they’ve got some exciting young players. I think for the Reds it’s a case of taking a step back in terms of expectations now, to take two or three forward in the long-term. If I was the Liverpool chairman, I’d be prepared to take a mini-gamble and give Rodgers 5 years to assemble the squad as long as they always get into the top 10, and build for the future. The worst thing Liverpool can do now is sack Brendan Rodgers and get another manager. The so-called failures of Hodgson and Dalglish proved that the club isn’t as good as it used to be, it’s in transition phase and Rodgers is the man to lead it.
Alright… I don’t actually think Newcastle will finish fourth this season, it was mainly so I can drag the article out a bit. Cisse and Ba look a real handful and Newcastle could get into the top six or seven if they can keep those two fit and fresh. They probably need to improve defensively if they want to kick on this season, but Fabricio Coloccini’s experience might help their younger defenders do that and the likes of Cabaye , Gutierrez and Hatem Ben Arfa are more than capable of providing for the big front men. They’ll certainly finish in the top half of the table this season, and possibly even 6th or 7th depending on how well their squad can handle the rigours of playing midweek in the Europa League.
My more unreserved verdict for who will get fourth place will depend on whether Wenger invests £30 million+ in January on Arsenal’s defence and a holding midfielder, whether Everton can stay 4th with tricky games in the next couple of months or so, and whether AVB signs a striker.
I don’t want to sit on the fence until then, so I’ll stick my neck out for Arsenal. I think once Arsene starts actually listening to Steve Bould, now his assistant manager, they should tighten up at the back and the prospect of a solid back four combined with the creativity and movement in that team is a mouthwatering thought. They just have to become more consistent.
I nearly went for Tottenham there, so I think they’ll narrowly miss out, Everton a few points behind. I don’t think Liverpool will put a run of wins together to mount a significant chase for 4th in the new year, they’re probably in too much of a transition phase. Newcastle did well to get 5th last season, but it will be a different story this year having to play in Europe and could suffer, to some extent, from the ‘continental hangover’ effect.
I’m looking forward to seeing how things pan out though, and the 17th November, the north London derby, is a TV date that’s going straight into my diary.