Premier League preview: Epic fight in store for final Champions League spot


(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

Welcome to Yahoo Soccer’s Premier League Starting XI. This lineup of stories will get you ready for the upcoming season as we count down to kickoff on Friday.

Scroll to continue with content
Ad

At Arsenal’s 2012 Annual General Meeting, then-manager Arsene Wenger made a comment that has invited ridicule ever since.

“For me there are five trophies every season: Premier League, Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League,” he said to the room full of club investors. “The fourth is the FA Cup and then the League Cup.”

By effectively stating that fourth place in the Premier League is a trophy in its own right, Wenger was chastised for setting his sights too low. The Frenchman’s comment also overlooked the obvious fact that no silverware is distributed for finishing below the top in a league.

However, there was plenty of logic in Wenger’s statement. After all, for the biggest European clubs, qualifying for the Champions League is either a necessity or a highly desirable target. When a big player is being touted on the transfer market, he wishes to play for a Champions League side — not an FA Cup-winning side.

In the current iteration of the Premier League, perhaps it would be wise to produce a trophy for the fourth-place finisher.

Because in 2019-20, there is going to be an almighty fight to nab that crucial Champions League qualification berth.

Arsenal and Manchester United used to battle for the Premier League crown. This season they'll likely battle for fourth place. (Reuters)
Arsenal and Manchester United used to battle for the Premier League crown. This season they'll likely battle for fourth place. (Reuters)

In years gone by, the Premier League has traditionally boasted a “Big Four” of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. They would routinely lock up the top spots, almost without exception. Now, of course, Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City have fleshed out a “Big Six,” which means we have six teams who expect nothing less than Champions League soccer.

Two global behemoths of the game are always going to be disappointed when they have to settle for Thursday night Europa League matches instead of soccer’s premier club competition (and cash cow).

The problem is intensified by the fact that we already have a pretty good idea of the teams who will occupy the top three positions.

Last season, Manchester City and Liverpool virtually created their own league at the top of the table. As the pair gave us a thrilling title race, runners-up Liverpool ended up finishing 15 points ahead of third place.

Save for some kind of Leicester-esque oddity, it is highly likely that City and Liverpool will take the top two spots once again. Pep Guardiola’s side have shown no signs of slowing down and the Reds’ 30-year wait for a domestic title continues to drive their hunger.

Third place, meanwhile, is likely to be taken by Tottenham. Against the odds, Spurs have managed to hold onto their biggest stars, only jettisoning Kieran Trippier (which, by many Spurs fans’ reckoning, is not a huge loss).

They have also strengthened by fighting off the competition for Tanguy Ndombele’s signature, and, most crucially, they have managed to keep manager Mauricio Pochettino. With this in mind, the balance of power in North London is highly likely to stay at White Hart Lane instead of Arsenal.

All this means that three of the Big Six will be fighting for a single place — while facing the threat of an interloper from an increasingly competitive Premier League top half.

Who will win the hypothetical Arsene Wenger Trophy? Let’s take a look at the contenders, starting with the team that used to camp permanently in fourth place.

Arsenal

Under Wenger, the Gunners qualified for the Champions League for an incredible and unmatched 19 consecutive seasons. Entry to the competition (and a Round of 16 exit at the hands of Bayern Munich) was a dead certainty.

However, under Unai Emery, a top-four place is far from assured. Many view Arsenal as the least likely Big Six side to seal a Champions League berth via the league, as their squad overall is simply of a lower quality.

Emery does not appear to have imposed a philosophy on a side that was built so heavily in Wenger’s image, and there are heavy question marks around the ability of defensive stalwarts such as Shkodran Mustafi.

On the bright side, the loan capture of Dani Ceballos is a boon and the $87 million purchase of excellent wide forward Nicolas Pepe will certainly boost confidence. But why so much money is being spent on an area of the field that is reasonably well covered, instead of a world-class center back, is anyone’s guess.

Gunners fans need not despair, though: The race for fourth place is wide open, and according to Sporting Index’s “super computer” simulations, they will narrowly steal it.

Frank Lampard is a Chelsea legend as a player, but questions remain about his inexperience managing such a high-level job. (Getty)
Frank Lampard is a Chelsea legend as a player, but questions remain about his inexperience managing such a high-level job. (Getty)

Manchester United

If the general trend of bookmakers’ odds is to be believed over the super computer, Manchester United are actually the favorites to secure fourth place.

The Premier League era’s most successful side expect nothing but the best, but have finished outside the top four in four of the six campaigns since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down. Theirs is an unbalanced squad, forged from a mishmash of players bought by managers with different ideologies, whose current boss boasts little experience outside of the reserves and the Norwegian top flight.

Encouragingly, United have spent well this summer in Daniel James and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, thus far resisting the urge to buy megastar players who have more presence on social media than the field of play.

And, unlike Arsenal, they have gone a long way toward improving their back line with the world record capture of Harry Maguire. As we all know, defenses win Top Four Trophies.

The best reason for United clinching fourth place is the relative weakness of the competition: Arsenal do not look stronger and Chelsea are a completely unknown entity.

Chelsea

The opening weekend of the Premier League will gift us a fixture that may help determine the outcome of the top four race, as Frank Lampard’s Chelsea will visit United at Old Trafford.

Lampard is a bonafide Chelsea legend, who showed his managerial credentials by bringing Derby to within a whisker of Premier League promotion last season. But at the very top level, he is untested. He may need time to settle in.

In his maiden season as Blues manager, Lampard is also handicapped by a two-window transfer ban. That means beyond promising American Christian Pulisic, there will be no replacement for departed star player Eden Hazard, and no potential for the purchase of a high-quality striker to bag 25 goals.

In the positive column, Chelsea have a strong squad, which should benefit from the necessity to promote youth and academy players, like Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount, who may otherwise have missed their opportunity. A lack of signings didn’t hurt Tottenham last season, and may even help to galvanize the Blues in this one.

The other contenders

The strength of depth throughout the Premier League is unparalleled throughout the rest of Europe’s major leagues, which means some Davids will earn some unexpected victories over some Goliaths. It also means that an outsider may sneak in and take fourth place.

Everton have consistently been the strongest team outside the Big Six, and following a transitional season in 2018-19, they are set up for success. The shrewd signings of Fabian Delph and Moise Kean will strengthen the belief that they could surprise everyone with a first Champions League berth since 2005.

Leicester, meanwhile, have looked increasingly impressive under Brendan Rodgers’ tutelage — and they know a thing or two about upsetting the hegemony of the league.

And Wolves finished seventh last season, in spite of their newly promoted status. With a strong squad and the backing of super agent Jorges Mendes, there’s every reason to believe the midlands side could climb even higher in 2019-20.

Yahoo Soccer’s Premier League Starting XI

(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)
(Paul Rosales/Yahoo Sports)

What to Read Next