9:00 AM ET
Mark OgdenSenior Writer, ESPN FC
Forget the race for the Premier League title: the stakes are at their highest in the battle to finish fourth. Three huge clubs — Arsenal, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur — appear locked in a race for the final spot in next season’s Champions League after all being plunged into crisis this season, but they are taking different routes to salvaging their ambitions which may yet be dashed by the unlikely presence of West Ham United.
United are taking a strategic gamble right now on the managerial situation at Old Trafford. Despite back-to-back home defeats — some would say humiliations — against Liverpool and Manchester City, sources have told ESPN that the Glazer family, United’s owners, believe that holding their nerve with manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer offers the best chance of the team achieving the minimum aim of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
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Tottenham, meanwhile, have taken an alternative view on their prospects of a top-four finish. After suffering consecutive losses against West Ham and Manchester United — two direct rivals for the top four — Spurs chairman Daniel Levy sacked manager Nuno Espirito Santo and moved quickly to replace him with former Chelsea coach Antonio Conte.
United chose not to sack Solskjaer and turn to Conte after the 5-0 loss to Liverpool last month, but the calculation at Spurs was that a change had to be made and that doing so now would keep the team’s Champions League hopes alive. At the time of Nuno’s dismissal, Spurs were in eighth position, just two points behind fourth-placed West Ham.
And then there is Arsenal. Remember when the Gunners were the Premier League’s club in crisis and Mikel Arteta was fighting to stay in his job as manager at the Emirates? The days of Arsenal’s worst-ever start to a top-flight season, following three straight defeats against Brentford, Chelsea and Manchester City when they conceded nine goals without scoring, appear a distant memory in the wake of a revival that has seen Arteta’s team climb to fifth following six wins and two draws in eight games since.
Sources told ESPN that Arteta’s position was never deemed to be under threat by the Arsenal hierarchy. It was seen within the club that the former Gunners midfielder, appointed as successor to Unai Emery in December 2019, was simply experiencing the pain and difficulties that were anticipated when he set about the task of re-shaping the squad and turning the team around.
Arsenal’s support for Arteta was unequivocal, with no hint of a change being made in the manager’s office. At United, however, sources have said that potential options such as Leicester City’s Brendan Rodgers are being considered should the situation deteriorate further following a dismal run of four defeats in six league games.
So which approach will prove to be the most astute and successful when the season reaches its conclusion? Arsenal’s unswerving faith, Tottenham’s ruthlessness or United’s policy of, depending on your point of view, keeping their options open or dithering. West Ham, under David Moyes, may prove to be the fly in the ointment for all three clubs if they are able to sustain the form that has seen them climb to third position going into November’s international break, but United, Spurs and Arsenal have all taken their own individual decisions on the basis of what is most likely to enable them to deny the Hammers.
Some will argue that Chelsea, City and Liverpool have not yet pulled away from the pack to make their top four positions secure, but check out their respective goal differences — +23, +16 and +20 — compared to the rest and you will see that their firepower alone has already put them streets ahead. Arsenal are on 0, United +2 and Spurs -7, so it gives an indication of their inability to win games easily in comparison to Chelsea, City and Liverpool.
Although they have dropped to sixth, five points adrift of the top four, United would seem to be the best-equipped team to climb back into the Champions League spots by virtue of the depth and talent of Solskjaer’s squad. But the big question at Old Trafford is whether Solskjaer is capable of arresting the slump by finding a way to get the best out of under-performing players such as Jadon Sancho, Harry Maguire, Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. And can he devise a formula to do that at the same time and ensuring Cristiano Ronaldo is able to continue scoring goals?
The Glazers are banking on the 48-year-old doing just that because missing out on the Champions League would see United miss out on at least £80 million in prize money next season. Their calculation right now falls in Solskjaer’s favour, but it may change in the weeks ahead. By then, however, the decisiveness of Spurs and Arsenal may have given them an edge over United.
Arsenal are now reaping the rewards of their decision to hold firm on Arteta. After the international break they travel to Liverpool, play Newcastle United at home and then visit Old Trafford. It is a pivotal sequence for Arteta’s team and their improvement and future prospects will be much clearer to all once they have emerged from that run of games. If their unbeaten run survives the games at Anfield and Old Trafford, then we can talk about Arsenal returning to the Champions League for the first time since 2016-17.
Spurs will also believe they can force their way back into the top-four race. Conte is a proven winner in Serie A and the Premier League, having won the title and FA Cup with Chelsea, and his first objective will be to get Harry Kane scoring again. With just one goal in 10 league games so far, any improvement will be a positive for Spurs and potentially decisive in turning defeats into draws and draws into wins. Tottenham avoid the top three in their next five league games, so by the time they host Liverpool on Dec. 19, Conte will have had the chance to get his team motoring and possibly back into the top four.
Time will tell which approach is most successful — back, sack or wait — but after just three months of the season it looks as though only one at the most of Arsenal, United and Spurs will be rewarded with a top-four spot.