Premier League: Tottenham can win top four battle but 45/1 outsiders worth a bet
Alex Keble takes a look at the race for the top four, with Tottenham the most likely candidates even if they lose to Chelsea this weekend...
Chelsea's 1-0 defeat to Bournemouth on Saturday allowed Tottenham to close the gap to three points in the race for Champions League football, and while their head-to-head this weekend has narrowed our focus onto Jose Mourinho's current and former club these are not the only two teams in contention.
Even Arsenal, all the way down in 10th, are just seven points off the pace, and given Spurs closed a wider gap than that in the space of just three weeks we cannot automatically rule the Gunners out - especially with a manager bounce anticipated in the coming week.
With Wolves coming through the difficult group stages of the Europa League unscathed and Man Utd welcoming Paul Pogba back in January, there are five clubs with a realistic chance of making the top four.
Chelsea - 10/11
Still favourites despite losing four of their last five league games, Frank Lampard's Chelsea desperately need to improve over Christmas. The looming spectre of Mourinho is a worry for fans, particularly given that this bad run appears to form part of a long-term trend. Tactical analysis of their season so far suggests things will get worse before they get better.
Lampard preaches aggressive attacking football that aims to simply get the ball forward as quickly as possible and run at the opposition, their slightly out-dated 4-2-3-1 - with inverted wingers - initially given them a winning novel factor. But a lack of specific attacking coaching, and a general impatience in moving into the final third, has seen Chelsea become frustrated as opponents learn to sit deep, shut down the number ten space, and then hit them on the break.
Chelsea's continuing inability to get the transitions right exemplifies how Lampard's high-pressing attacking football is not being coached with enough conviction. They don't compress the shape properly or screen their own attacks like Man City or Liverpool, instead fanning out like a set of players given genuine freedom. That's becoming a major problem.
New signings in January could improve things, but if the rumours of a £150 million splurge on Nathan Ake and Wilfried Zaha prove true then perhaps not. There's certainly no point backing Chelsea at these odds. More frustration awaits Lampard.
Tottenham - 1/1
If you started every club back at zero, and then predicted the outcome of a 21-game Premier League season, most of us would back a Jose Mourinho team to finish with four more points than a Frank Lampard one. And that's before factoring in that Spurs have a better set of players than Chelsea; it seems unlikely Chelsea will finish above Spurs, even if Lampard's side pull off a shock victory at the Tottenham Hotspur stadium this weekend.
Slowly but surely Spurs are looking like a Mourinho team. They have stopped pressing high and instead sit off their opponents in a risk-averse shape, while his unusual 3-2-5 formation when in possession has turned Tottenham into an effective counter-attacking side. Harry Kane, Heung-Min Son, Dele Alli, and Lucas Moura are all in form, enjoying the freedom that comes from dribbling directly at opponents and bursting forward on the break.
There are still huge flaws, of course. Tottenham are vulnerable in the full-back positions and can be got at by hungry attacking sides; Olympiacos, West Ham, Bournemouth, and Wolves used their pace on the flanks to hurt Spurs. But with strength in depth and a manager seemingly in his element, Tottenham are a very good bet to finish in the top four.
Man Utd - 7/2
Back-to-back wins against Tottenham and Manchester City explains the wave of optimism at Old Trafford this Christmas - and explains why their odds have dropped to an it-really-could-happen 7/2. It won't. Man Utd's 'Big Six' results don't disrupt the narrative that Solskjaer isn't good enough, but rather serve to prove it.
His focus on pace and power - on tactics from the 1990s - and dependence on sudden bursts of quality in the final third simply cannot work in the modern game. Football is too territorial, the financial disparity between the elite and the rest meaning the likes of Man Utd are forced to hold the majority of possession in most matches. When that happens, like in the 1-1 draw against Everton, Solskjaer's tactics just don't work.
United will keep doing well against bigger clubs, saving Solskjaer from scrutiny, only to fall short against mid-table and lower. That is nowhere near enough to make the top four.
Arsenal - 14/1
It looks increasingly likely that Mikel Arteta will be the next Arsenal manager, which could prove to be an intelligent and forward-thinking appointment. However, whether it's Arteta or one of the other dozens of names on the shortlist, it seems pretty unlikely the new boss will pull off a miraculous upturn in form in the second half of 2019/20 season.
This is a club rotting from the core, pulled in multiple different directions by the board to create a lopsided squad floating about in existential crisis. It will take at least six months and two transfer windows to get Arsenal anywhere near top four level; Freddie Ljungberg's inability to change things - to give the players any sort of focus - tells the story. It is only the club's history and reputation that makes their odds as short as 14/1.
Wolves - 45/1
Nuno Esperito Santo still doesn't get enough credit for the job he has done at Wolves, who began their season in July and are just five points off fourth despite having played 31 games already. His tactical consistency has been an asset throughout the last 18 months, because each player in the squad knows their role and precisely how to function as part of the collective.
Adama Traore's improvements are a testament to Nuno's coaching, giving Wolves a new attacking element this season that seems to perfectly compliment the more nuanced work of Diogo Jota on the other side. Several draws this month have perhaps dampened optimism about an assault on the top four, and yet it is unlikely Wolves will drop off much between now and May.
Consequently, should Spurs suffer poor form then they could be presented with an unexpected chance. Odds of 45/1 reflect how Santo still flies under the radar, and at that price it is certainly worth a small wager.
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