Friday, March 1, 2024

Ranking Manchester United, Tottenham and the contenders for Premier League’s fourth spot

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Manchester United breathed new life into their season on Sunday with a 2-1 win over Aston Villa, shaking up the race for a berth in next season’s UEFA Champions League in the process. While Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal feel like locks for the top three spots, the race for the fourth Champions League position felt like a two-horse race between Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur. The former might have been the favorites once upon a time after a first half of the season that saw them pick up big wins over City and Arsenal, but their recent dip in form has not just let Spurs back into the mix but also given United a shot, too.

The race for fourth place is poised to be a very competitive one, too. Since UEFA will change the Champions League format next season, Europe’s top leagues are eligible to pick up two extra competition berths and are locked in a coefficient battle. This season’s Champions League group stage brought bad news for England after Manchester United and Newcastle United crashed out of the competition, which means Italy and Germany are the frontrunners for those extra spots.

As things stand, Spurs sit in fourth with 47 points and Aston Villa are a point behind them in fifth. United are in sixth with 41 points and even though they are a full six points behind Tottenham, there is still plenty of time left this season to give the Red Devils some hope.

Here’s a look at the status of the Premier League’s top four race, with a power ranking of the contenders.

3. Aston Villa

Aston Villa once looked like a dark horse contender for the title, but a poor run of form means they currently sit out of the top four. They have not won back-to-back games in league play since mid-December, and their only Premier League win since New Year’s Eve was last week’s 5-0 win over relegation-bound Sheffield United. If Manchester United are trending upwards and Tottenham are in neutral, Villa are the ones most obviously on the way down.

Their form has been a bit all over the place during this stretch, perhaps because Sunday’s game against United was already their 36th of a season that has included Europa Conference League play. Villa are still finding a way to score but like the others have been defensively inconsistent and are letting that get in the way of their attacking prowess. They are running the risk of flaming out after an impressive start to the season and now, like United before them, are in desperate need of a course correction to keep themselves competitive for a top-four spot.

2. Manchester United

The team’s rollercoaster of a season seems to finally be calming down, and they are arguably on the way up. For the first time all season, United are on a four-game winning streak and their attackers are finding form. Rasmus Hojlund is now up to five Premier League goals and Scott McTominay has seven in his last 17, and those two are a big part of why United are the most in-form team of the bunch at this point.

United are not exactly the most entertaining team to watch for what it’s worth. They are having success on days they are out-possessed and outshot, Sunday’s win over Villa included, which feels more like a short-term strategy for success than a long-term one. It is working, though, especially when combined with Andre Onana’s reliability in goal during league play. Like Spurs, though, United’s defense could be their biggest weakness — while the teams around them have at least a plus-12 goal difference, Erik ten Hag’s side is posting a perfect zero.

1. Tottenham Hotspur

The fun thing about the current shape of the top-four race is that every team in the running is clearly imperfect, meaning a lot of scenarios are in play with a few months left in the season. Spurs may have only picked up their first Premier League win of 2024 on Saturday when they came from behind to beat Brighton and Hove Albion, but they have a few arguments in their favor. Chief among them is the fact that they are the one team that currently occupy that coveted fourth-place spot and the only team on their heels is the out-of-form Aston Villa.

The more compelling point to make about Spurs, though, is that for the first time all season, they actually boast a full squad. Son Heung-min is back from the Asian Cup, as are midfielder stalwarts Pape Matar Sarr and Yves Bissouma from Africa Cup of Nations duty, while the all-important James Maddison and Micky van de Ven are back from injury. Add to that an in-form Richarlison and a strong new addition in Timo Werner, Spurs have their starters back and a little bit of depth in attack. The latter is especially good news considering their big shortcoming in recent weeks — their porous defense. Spurs have not kept a clean sheet in league play since Dec. 15 but have just one loss in that time.

Dark horses: Newcastle United, West Ham, Brighton

The teams directly underneath Manchester United — Newcastle, West Ham and Brighton — are packed closely together, with one point separating all of them. Since there are still three months to go, it’s worth mentioning that they are in the mix for European berths. That said, the fact that they are five to six points behind Manchester United and 11 to 12 points behind Spurs makes it unlikely they will be competing for a Champions League berth come May.

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