7 Doesn’t Go into 4: The Race for a Top 4 Finish
7 doesn’t go into 4 and I hope that the owners of England’s 7 top clubs realise that.
The Premier League returns this weekend with the race for a top 4 finish never having been so competitive. Whilst some clubs will be vying for the title, gaining a Champions League spot is the priority with the amount of money that qualifying for the competition brings in. A top 4 finish has also began to influence sponsorship deals after it was revealed Adidas’ staggering £75m a year deal with Manchester United will be cut by 30% should United fail to qualify for the Champions League for the 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons. And then there’s the problem that clubs who fail to qualify for the Champions League have in attracting the biggest names in world football to their club.
No wonder Tottenham Chairman Daniel Levy has sacked 6 managers in the last 10 years! But that highlights the very problem. There are only 4 Champions League spots available with 7 teams feeling they are capable of taking one. In fact, only 6 teams can be guaranteed European football. So which sides will miss out this season and how will the owners react?
When I grew up watching the Premier League there was the emergence of the ‘big 4’- Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool. In the 6 seasons between 2003 and 2009 they comprised the top 4 places with the exception of 2004/05 when Everton took 4th spot. Going into a season there was rarely any doubt that these 4 sides wouldn’t make up the top 4, the main question was who would win the league.
That all changed in 2008 when the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City. It may have taken them a few years to build up their squad to compete with the elite, but in the 2010/11 season the club finished 3rd and qualified for the Champions League.
Liverpool subsequently slummed for a couple of seasons, Chelsea missed out under Andre Villas-Boas and it was Manchester United’s turn last season to fail to finish in the top 4.
With the start of the 2014/15 Premier League season about to get underway, we’ve got 7 teams going for 4 spots. Liverpool are back in contention after last season’s heroics and Manchester United have renewed optimism under Louis van Gaal. Everton and Tottenham are getting closer but you feel ultimately the 5 above them are a lot stronger. And this is all presuming there’s no other side who can surprise everyone and take a European place.
Out of the 7 teams there are arguably only 2 that everyone would agree will definitely finish in the top 4- Chelsea and Manchester City. Their spending power has already seen them both strengthen in the off season, with Chelsea most notably bringing in Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas to solve the problems they had in attack last season. Both sides also have the ability to spend big in January should they sit outside the top 4. The influence of the two managers also shouldn’t be underestimated. Manuel Pellegrini was a huge factor in City winning the league last season after bringing the off field calmness which Roberto Mancini struggled with maintaining. At Chelsea, Jose Mourinho knows how to win. Look at the 2-0 victory at Anfield last season. The Chelsea manager knows how to set his team up depending on the circumstances and has the tactical know-how to ensure his side pick up enough points for a top 4 finish.
At Liverpool, Brendan Rodgers faces two difficult questions this year. How does he replace Luis Suarez? And how does he better last season’s success? In truth, he will struggle to do either, but then it’s important to remember that Liverpool overachieved last season to finish 2nd. A top 4 finish is a priority and the belief is back at Anfield that it’s possible. The key will be tightening their defence this season, and the signing of Dejan Lovren could see them keep more clean sheets to stand them in better stead for a title challenge.
There’s plenty of optimism around Manchester United after the arrival of Louis van Gaal as manager, but the Dutchman doesn’t bring the guarantee of a top 4 finish. United hit rock bottom last season finishing an embarrassing 7th and will be keen not to repeat this. United still need new signings, particularly in defence. No European football at Old Trafford this season will give United an advantage over their rivals. You feel van Gaal will be given longer than David Moyes should results not improve on last season, but ultimately the threat of the 30% decrease in the Adidas deal could see the panic button being hit.
Of the 7 managers, it’s actually the longest serving that I worry for the most. Arsene Wenger has been brilliant in the past at consistently getting a top 4 finish for the Gunners without making any big name signings. Now the board have backed Wenger with the signing of Alexis Sanchez in addition to the club’s record signing of Mesut Özil last summer. How will Wenger repay the board? A top 4 finish is the aim, but what would failure to qualify for the Champions League mean for the Frenchman?
Last year’s FA Cup victory helped to overshadow what was a catastrophic collapse in Arsenal’s title challenge, but it has ensured there’s plenty of optimism around the Emirates compared to previous seasons. A 5th place finish would be seen as a step backwards.
Whilst many predict 4 of the 5 teams mentioned above will take the Champions League spots, Everton and Tottenham have been knocking on the door for years and will be looking to break into the top 4 this year. Everton have signed Romelu Lukaku for £28m, laying down a statement of intent. Roberto Martinez’s side were outstanding last season, and tying down Ross Barkley to a new 4 year contract is another statement that they are now ready to compete with the best.
Tottenham were able to turn their season around last year after Tim Sherwood took over but now he’s been replaced by Mauricio Pochettino who becomes their 7th manager in 10 seasons. Top 4 is the aim so what happens if they finish outside the Champions League spots? You’d think that Pochettino will be given more than one season to bring Champions League football to White Hart Lane, but we could well see history repeat itself.
When owners invest in their team and results don’t see a return on that investment, it’s the manager who pays the price. The pressure each of the top 7 managers are under to secure that top 4 finish has never been so great.
7 teams. 4 places. 3 must miss out. I hope the owners realise this.