The race to win the Premier League title is over. But the stakes are high in the fight for fourth place. After being in crisis this season, Arsenal, Manchester United, and Tottenham Hotspur appear to be locked in a race to secure the last spot in the Champions League next season. However, they are trying different paths to save their hopes which could be scuttled by West Ham United.
United is taking a strategic risk right now regarding Old Trafford's managerial situation. Sources tell ESPN that United's owners, the Glazer family of United, feel that keeping their cool with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is the best way to ensure that the team qualifies for next season's Champions League.
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Tottenham have a different view of their chances of finishing in the top four. Spurs chairman Daniel Levy fired Nuno Espirito Santo, their manager after consecutive defeats against West Ham United and Manchester United. He quickly replaced him with Antonio Conte, a former Chelsea coach.
United decided not to fire Solskjaer, and instead chose to turn to Conte following the 5-0 defeat to Liverpool. However, Spurs knew that a change was necessary and would save the Champions League hopes of the team. Spurs were currently in eighth place, two points behind West Ham at the time Nuno was dismissed.
Arsenal is another example. Remember back when the Gunners were in crisis in the Premier League and Mikel Arteta was trying to keep his job at Emirates as manager? After three consecutive defeats against Chelsea, Manchester City, and Brentford, Arsenal's worst-ever start in a top-flight campaign seem distant memories in the wake a revival that has seen Arteta’s team climb up to fifth with six wins and two draws in eight matches.
ESPN was told by sources that Arteta's position wasn't under threat by the Arsenal hierarchy. The club saw that Arteta, a former Gunners midfielder who was appointed successor to Unai Emir in December 2019, was just experiencing the difficulties and pain that were expected when he began the task of rebuilding the squad and turning around the team.
Arsenal supported Arteta unambiguously, but there was no indication of any change in the manager's office. United sources claim that Brendan Rodgers, Leicester City's Brendan Rodgers, is being considered if the situation worsens after a string of defeats in six league matches.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer from Manchester United and Mikel Arteta of Arsenal are unlikely to finish in the Premier League's top 4 this season. David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Which approach will be most successful and savvy when the season ends? Arsenal's unwavering faith, Tottenham's ruthlessness, or United's policy, depending on which point of view, of keeping their options open or dithering, is what I would choose. If West Ham can sustain their form, they may be the fly in the coffin for all three clubs. However, Arsenal, Spurs, and United have made their individual decisions based on what is most likely.
While some will argue that Liverpool, City, and Chelsea have not pulled away enough from the pack to secure their top four positions, you can see their goal differentials -- +23, +16, and +20 -- against the rest. It is clear that their firepower has put them miles ahead. Arsenal are currently at 0, United +2 & Spurs -7. This is a clear indication of their inability win games easily compared to Chelsea, City, and Liverpool.
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They are currently in sixth place, five points behind the top four teams, but United is the most well-equipped team to return to the Champions League spots, thanks to the talent and depth of Solskjaer’s squad. Old Trafford's big question is whether Solskjaer can stop the slump and get the best from under-performing players like Jadon Sancho (Harry Maguire), Harry Maguire, Paul Pogba, Bruno Fernandes, and Paul Pogba. Can he find a way to achieve this while still allowing Cristiano Ronaldo to score goals?
The Glazers believe that the 48-year old will do just that, as United would be without the Champions League. United would lose out on at most PS80 million in prize cash next season. They currently have Solskjaer in their favor, but this could change over the coming weeks. However, United may be able to take advantage of the decisiveness of Spurs or Arsenal by then.
Arsenal is now reaping the benefits of their decision to keep Arteta in place. They travel to Liverpool, then play Newcastle United at their home and then head to Old Trafford after the international break. This is a crucial sequence for Arteta's squad and it will make a huge difference in their future. Arsenal could return to the Champions League in 2016-17 if their unbeaten streak continues at Old Trafford and Anfield.
Spurs will believe that they can push their way back into top four. Conte, a winner in Serie A as well as the Premier League, has won the title with Chelsea and the FA Cup with Chelsea. His first goal will be to score Harry Kane again. Spurs have only scored one goal in their 10 league games, so any improvement could be a positive and can help turn defeats into draws or wins. Tottenham will not be in the top three of their five league games. Conte will have the opportunity to get his team moving and back into the top four by hosting Liverpool on December 19.
Time will show which strategy is the most successful, but it appears that only one of Arsenal, United, and Spurs will be rewarded by a top-four place after three months.