Hawkeye Sidekick

Opinion: English Premier League Top Four Battle

Title all but won but top four battle looks interesting

I have tried to watch the German Bundesliga for the past two weeks only to realize quite quickly that Planet Hollywood (Bayern Munich) are miles clear of the rest of the league. My adopted team Mainz 05 look in serious relegation trouble. The thoughts of the English Premier League return is something that I am looking forward to with each passing day.

In this blog post, Hawkeye Sidekick looks at the top four battle which will ensue in the English Premier League upon its resumption. Liverpool could be potentially one game away from league title glory but the battle for the third and fourth place spots looks intriguing.

Title in touching distance

Liverpool Fixture Run In:

  • Everton (Away)
  • Crystal Palace (Home)
  • Manchester City (Away)
  • Aston Villa (Home)
  • Brighton (Away)
  • Burnley (Home)
  • Arsenal (Away)
  • Chelsea (Home)
  • Newcastle United (Away)

Liverpool commence their league campaign with the Merseyside derby against Everton. The venue is subject to discussion and could be held at a neutral venue something both clubs would like to avoid if at all possible.

Given that Manchester City face Arsenal in their first game, there is the potential that this derby fixture could herald the coronation of the EPL title for Liverpool, their first league title success since the 1989-90 season.

The fixture run in a typical season could have represented a few banana skins with top four and bottom three relegation candidates in the schedule but such is the advantage that Liverpool have on Manchester City, the league is as good as won.

The interesting subplot will be when Liverpool win the league title, will their form dip off and allow teams looking for Champions League or relegation survival an opportunity to take points away from them?

Manchester City focus elsewhere?

Manchester City Run In:

  • Arsenal (Home)
  • Burnley (Home)
  • Liverpool (Home)
  • Southampton (Away)
  • Newcastle United (Home)
  • Brighton (Away)
  • Bournemouth (Home)
  • Watford (Away)
  • Norwich City (Home)
  • Chelsea (Home)

This league resumption will feel like a massive anti-climax for Manchester City. The league is good as over and the focus will be to add to the Carabao Cup success from last March. Can the side go further in the Champions League?

The fixture list is an interesting one for Pep Guardiola’s men. An initial three home game stand starts with the visit of Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal and concludes with a mouthwatering tussle with champions elect Liverpool.

Manchester City should be comfortable to secure second spot in the league without much fuss. The question is whether any of the relegation threatened teams on the schedule are able to nick any points or be spared from a massacre.

Leicester City face tricky run in

Leicester City Run In:

  • Watford (Away)
  • Everton (Home)
  • Crystal Palace (Home)
  • Arsenal (Away)
  • Bournemouth (Away)
  • Sheffield United (Home)
  • Tottenham Hotspur (Away)
  • Manchester United (Home)
  • Brighton (Home)

Leicester City will hope to start the league resumption in the same fashion as the league concluded back in March when they hammered Aston Villa 4-0 at home. Brendon Rodger’s side face though a very tricky run in with four fixtures against teams in the top six currently.

The criticism leveled at Leicester City this weekend has been squad depth and with the congested fixture list, Rodgers is going to have to juggle the playing squad and perhaps this will result in points been dropped. The fixtures between Sheffield United and Manchester United will tell plenty.

Leicester City will look to their pace and speed in the middle third to unleash Jamie Vardy with further goal scoring opportunities. The outstanding fixture to be scheduled against Brighton looks huge to confirm a top three berth.

Chelsea squad depth concerns?

Chelsea Run In:

  • Aston Villa (Away)
  • West Ham (Away)
  • Watford (Home)
  • Crystal Palace (Away)
  • Sheffield United (Away)
  • Norwich City (Home)
  • Liverpool (Away)
  • Wolves (Home)
  • Manchester City (Home)

Frank Lampard has introduced youth to the starting line up and the season to date has been inconsistent at times. Good unbeaten forms then a period of mixed results followed by another good run of results. Abraham, Mount, Gilmour will flourish further in this end of the season run in.

The fixture list looks manageable for Lampard who will need to trust his squad more. The end of season fixtures look tasty and should provide further proof for Lampard and Chelsea board on the squad improvements required in the off season.

Chelsea are in a good position to drive on and secure the top four league berth but there is a lingering question on the squad depth and perhaps it opens the door for the likes of Wolves, Manchester United, Tottenham or Sheffield United to take advantage.

Strong finish required from Ole and team

Manchester United Run In:

  • Tottenham (Away)
  • Brighton (Away)
  • Bournemouth (Home)
  • Aston Villa (Away)
  • Southampton (Home)
  • Crystal Palace (Away)
  • West Ham United (Home)
  • Leicester City (Away)
  • Sheffield United (Home)

The league break came maybe at a wrong time for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and side who were starting to find their rhythm and groove. A good run of form in February and March looked to setup the side for a top four charge but now with the season curtailed, has that momentum stalled?

The fixture list is an interesting one. A number of teams who have taken United’s scalp in recent tussles are on the schedule such as Brighton, Southampton, Crystal Palace. The Tottenham fixture is the marquee fixture and a reunion with Jose to boot.

The question is the squad consistency. When on it, United look quite decent but for so many seasons now, the level of performance has fluctuated like the global stock markets in March. Where does Paul Pogba fit into the plans of the club?

The only positive is that Ole may have told a number of squad players that this is their time to impress or else it will be time to look at new pastures. The fixture list looks setup for United but this is a different United side to those before under Sir Alex Ferguson era. I sense there will be dropped points on the road. Palace at Selhurst Park is a banana skin fixture. Top four looks 50/50 at best.

A team on the up

Wolves Run In:

  • West Ham United (Away)
  • Bournemouth (Home)
  • Aston Villa (Away)
  • Arsenal (Home)
  • Sheffield United (Away)
  • Everton (Home)
  • Burnley (Away)
  • Crystal Palace (Home)
  • Chelsea (Away)

A team who have continued to impress with their passing style and attacking prowess in the middle third. Wolves out of the teams in the top half of the table probably were the one side that required a season break. Their Europa League involvement meaning more burden for the playing squad who have played plenty of minutes this season domestically and in Europe.

Jimenez has really grown into the striker role and his goal threat has been a huge plus for the Wolves side. The central midfield is full of talent and flair with Moutinho turning in masterly performances. The Portugese influence is everywhere in this side and with the warm, dry weather — it is tailor made for Wolves to put teams to the sword.

European football will be secured by the end of this league campaign but Champions League football could be ambitious unless Chelsea or Leicester City collapse massively down the stretch which could happen. A good outside bet for top four berth come the end of the season.

Arsenal up against it

Arsenal Run In:

  • Manchester City (Away)
  • Brighton (Away)
  • Norwich City (Home)
  • Wolves (Away)
  • Leicester City (Home)
  • Tottenham (Away)
  • Liverpool (Home)
  • Aston Villa (Away)
  • Watford (Home)
  • Southampton (Away)

A season which has seen a change in managerial direction and ethos. Mikel Arteta is fully aware of the issues within the side and the off season will be a crucial one to secure signings in central positions in addition to convincing striking duo of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette to stay at the club.

The fixture list looks tough for Arsenal. Manchester City away is a daunting fixture and defensive questions will be raised early. The North London derby and a visit from Liverpool will be interesting to see how the side have evolved under Arteta’s reign but the reality check may come when faced against Wolves and Leicester City whose pace and movement could provide more evidence of the need to invest in better players than currently at the club. European football looks beyond this side this season. Next season is when Arteta and Arsenal should be judged.

Jose needs a big upturn

Tottenham Run In:

  • Manchester United (Home)
  • West Ham United (Home)
  • Sheffield United (Away)
  • Everton (Home)
  • Bournemouth (Away)
  • Arsenal (Home)
  • Newcastle United (Away)
  • Leicester City (Home)
  • Crystal Palace (Away)

The season which offered so much has produced more disappointment for Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino replaced by Machiavellian Jose Mourinho has not produced the lift required for the club. European football is essential for the club considering the stadium upgrades.

The future of Harry Kane is now a big issue. The striker may look to kick on with his career and secure silverware in the off season. The current squad look ill-equipped to challenge for honors this season and questions abound on how the squad will evolve under Mourinho.

A key opening fixture with Manchester United will provide clues on how the club and board will react come the off season. A tricky test for Mourinho to solve. European football looks remote right now.

Fairytale end to the season?

Sheffield United Run In:

  • Aston Villa (Away)
  • Newcastle United (Away)
  • Tottenham (Home)
  • Burnley (Away)
  • Wolves (Away)
  • Chelsea (Home)
  • Leicester City (Away)
  • Everton (Home)
  • Southampton (Away)
  • Manchester United (Away)

Sheffield United have been one of the stories of this EPL season. Chris Wilder and squad have played the season beautifully. Solid defensively and the team collectively contributing with vital goals throughout the season. The squad fitness has been hugely impressive but this run in looks tough. Four teams in the top eight to face and then a couple of fixtures against teams fighting the drop looks like there will be no European football next season.

It should not detract from a superb debut season in the top flight. Wilder will get plaudits from his managerial peers and the likes of Henderson, Fleck and Egan could be approached by other clubs come the off season. The squad improvements in the off season look huge for Sheffield United to continue the solid foundations of this season.

Top Eight Prediction:

  1. Liverpool (no surprise)
  2. Manchester City (no surprise)
  3. Leicester City (stutter but will hold third)
  4. Wolves (impressive end of the season run secures fourth)
  5. Chelsea (squad depth exposed; fourth place pipped last day)
  6. Manchester United (inconsistency central)
  7. Arsenal (work in progress)
  8. Sheffield United (long season tolls in the end)