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Who Will Finish Behind Manchester City in the Premier League’s Top Four?

With the title out of reach, five teams are vying for the three remaining Champions League spots. Here’s how we rank the contenders.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’ve been saying it for months, but now even Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho is onboard: Manchester City are going to win the league. Yet, while the Premier League title has become a fait accompli, the race for Champions League places is as intense as it’s ever been. With City so far ahead, there are only three spots left for the other five members of the Big Six. Twelve games remain, so let’s take a look at which teams inspire the most and the least confidence for the upcoming stretch run.

To analyze these teams beyond just their records, we’re employing a number of metrics, including expected goals, which uses historical data to put a probability on every shot taken in a given match (If your team takes six 20-percent shots in game, their expected goals output for that game is 1.20.) In general, you can compare a club’s actual numbers to the expected numbers to get a sense of where teams may have been fortunate and where they’re likely to regress. So, let’s get to the rankings.


1. Tottenham

Points per game (league rank): 1.88 (fifth)
Goals scored per game: 1.96 (tied for third)
Goals conceded per game: 0.92 (fifth)

Expected points per game: 2.11 (second)
Expected goals per game: 1.93 (fourth)
Expected goals conceded per game: 0.85 (second)

Top-four odds, per FiveThirtyEight: 68 percent (fourth)

Amid the multiple penalty controversies and the speed- and sound barrier-shattering goals of the final 10 minutes, it’s easy to forget that last weekend’s 2–2 Liverpool-Tottenham draw was actually played over two 45-minute halves. And in those 90 minutes, Tottenham walloped Liverpool harder than any team since … Tottenham.

Coming into the Spurs game, Liverpool had a better shots ratio (the percentage of shots they take per game) than all but one Premier League team this decade. Against Spurs, Liverpool were outshot 13–9. Of course, Mohamed Salah was still able to get his, but those two goals required him to pounce on an unforced error by Eric Dier and to briefly be inhabited by the soul of Diego Maradona. Otherwise, no one else on Liverpool had much of an influence on the game — and that’s what typically happens against a Mauricio Pochettino side. With their combination of brute physicality, coordinated pressing, and skill in possession, Spurs can negate whatever it is their opponent does best.

Led by Harry Kane and his league-leading 22 goals, Tottenham have now beaten Borussia Dortmund twice, grabbed four points from both pairs of matches against Real Madrid and Liverpool, and totally steamrolled a full strength Manchester United team. The 4–1 drubbing by Manchester City in December was embarrassing for a number of reasons, but since that loss, Tottenham are undefeated — five wins, three draws — and they’ve won more points than any team in the league.

Sure, they’re currently in fifth, but they’ve been the most consistent team in the league not managed by Pep Guardiola. After last season’s impressive 86-point second-place finish, the results haven’t always been there in the current campaign, but 26 games in, Tottenham’s attack and defense are both better than they were a year ago.

2. Liverpool

Points per game: 1.96 (third)
Goals scored per game: 2.27 (second)
Goals conceded per game: 1.19 (sixth)

Expected points per game: 2.10 (third)
Expected goals per game: 2.08 (second)
Expected goals conceded per game: 1.03 (fourth)

Top-four odds: 91 percent (second)

WHAT ABOUT COUTINHO, THOUGH?

If we published this at halftime of the Tottenham game, Liverpool would’ve been no. 1. They may have sold their second-best player in January — all hail, Salah — and yes, they recently lost a game to then-bottom-of-the-table Swansea. But as is often the case during the Jurgen Klopp Era at Liverpool, all you need to do is take a couple steps back from the minute-to-minute volatility to realize that things are actually pretty good.

Per FiveThirtyEight’s SPI rating, Liverpool are the seventh-best team … on the planet. Since the start of the festive period in December, they have the same number of points as Manchester City, the supposedly unbeatable team who Liverpool beat less than a month ago. Club-record signing Virgil van Dijk hasn’t exactly hit the ground running, as the team has yet to win a Premier League game with him in the lineup, but all of the club’s vital signs are healthy. They take the third-most shots of any team in the league, and they concede the second-fewest. The quality of the shots they take and concede adds up to the second-best expected-goal differential in England. And with his 21 goals and six assists, Salah might just be the best player in England. Still, due to the way Liverpool plays — a highly leveraged approach that pushes the defense up high and creates a ton of chances but can also concede a few high-quality looks going the other way — they’re bound to have a disappointing result here and there.

But try to breathe easy, Liverpool fans. The Tyranny of the Occasional Bad Scoreline is distracting you from this: Before last season, your club had only qualified for the Champions League once this decade, and now they’re favorites to secure a top-four spot for the second year in a row. Not comforting enough? OK, fine — the Reds have only two games remaining against the top six; everyone else has at least three.

3. Manchester United

Points per game: 2.15 (second)
Goals scored per game: 1.96 (tied for third)
Goals conceded per game: 0.69 (first)

Expected points per game: 1.72 (sixth)
Expected goals per game: 1.73 (fifth)
Expected goals conceded per game: 1.20 (fifth)

Top-four odds: 82 percent (third)

[Petitions Twitter for a feature that allows you to block anyone with a Paul Pogba, Jose Mourinho, or Ed Woodward avatar.]

OK, we’ve been through this many times before, and nothing has changed: What Manchester United are doing isn’t sustainable. The only reason it hasn’t all come crashing down below second place yet is the weekly heroics of keeper David de Gea. So, yes, they’ve conceded the fewest goals in the league this season, but everything we know about goal prevention says that the dam is eventually going to break. The logic is obvious: Good defenses don’t require their keeper to make many saves. And guess what? De Gea has saved more shots than any keeper in the league other than Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski.

Despite United’s stout-looking defense, this isn’t your typical fully-reinforced Jose Mourinho team, and the performances this year should ring some alarm bells. Despite the January arrival of Arsenal superstar Alexis Sánchez, they were run off the field by Tottenham a week ago, and much like United’s other performances against the top six this year, the game was characterized by a complete lack of control on either end. Against Manchester City, they completed a total of two passes within 20 yards of the opposing goal. In the bizarre 3–1 win against Arsenal, they gave up 33 shots and 16 on target. And in their three games against Chelsea, Tottenham, and Liverpool this past fall — a 1–0 loss, a 1–0 win, and a scoreless draw, respectively — they were only able to register a combined six shots on target.

Unlike last season, it’s really hard to look at this United team and not see a side that’s totally underachieving, given its resources. But despite all those causes for concern, they’ve banked enough points to remain among the favorites to nab one of the top four slots. FiveThirtyEight projects them to earn fewer points than all of their rivals through the final 12 games, but still end up with one of the Champions League berths.

4. Arsenal

Points per game: 1.73 (sixth)
Goals scored per game: 1.96 (tied for third)
Goals conceded per game: 1.35 (seventh)

Expected points per game: 1.83 (fourth)
Expected goals per game: 1.97 (third)
Expected goals conceded per game: 1.21 (sixth)

Top-four odds: 17 percent (sixth)

What a difference a 5–1 home win against one of the worst teams in the league makes.

Arsenal’s plan for the future is still best represented by “a guy who dislocated both of his shoulders because he shrugged too hard,” but that doesn’t mean the team can’t experience a minor uptick in the short term. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang can be the best striker in the world at any given moment, and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had a hat trick of assists in his first start for his new club. The upgrade at striker and the presence of another creator higher up the field allows Mesut Ozil to do some of the deeper transitional work from the defensive third to the final third that the team has struggled with whenever the always-injured Santi Cazorla hasn’t played. Plus, Aaron Ramsey was quietly having the best season of his career before he got hurt, and well, just look at what he did last weekend:

Now, for the empty part of the glass: Nacho Monreal is 31, Laurent Koscielny is 32, and they’ve played more minutes than all but two Arsenal outfield players. The result: an unreliable defense that’s conceded just two fewer goals than last-place West Bromwich Albion. And on top of that, midfielder Granit Xhaka has spent so much time in “Are we sure he’s good?” territory that the ambivalence about his ability is beginning to answer the question in the negative. This team still has plenty of holes, both within the starting 11 and the construction of the squad going forward — but hey, 12 games is a small sample size, and the front four is talented enough to do some damage over a short stretch. Still, their odds for Champions League qualification are long — about 26 percent when you add in the possibility of them winning the Europa League — and they need to beat Tottenham at Wembley this weekend to really have a chance. They’ve already beaten Spurs once this season, but this one’s away, and outside of the Emirates, Arsenal has just three wins in 13 games.

5. Chelsea

Points per game: 1.92 (fourth)
Goals scored per game: 1.77 (sixth)
Goals conceded per game: 0.88 (tied for third)

Expected points per game: 1.81 (fifth)
Expected goals per game: 1.54 (sixth)
Expected goals conceded per game: 0.89 (third)

Top-four odds: 42 percent (fifth)

Blame Olivier Giroud. Since he came to the club, Chelsea have lost 3–0 to Bournemouth and 4–1 to Watford.

Or blame Jose Mourinho. On January 4, he called Antonio Conte a clown, and then this happened:

Or maybe just blame the fact that soccer is a low-event sport prone to sizable swings in production from year to year. Chelsea’s expected-goals numbers are slightly worse than last year’s title-winning side, but not by much. Yet, they have 13 fewer points than they did at this stage last season. The biggest difference in the team’s performance, then, seems to be what happens when the game is tied. With the score deadlocked, Chelsea scored 42 goals and conceded just nine in the previous campaign. This time around, they’ve only scored 18 and have already conceded 11. Why does this matter? Well, once you score a goal, it’s easier to keep scoring.

Now, you wouldn’t know it just by scanning through the headlines or even looking at the form table, but Chelsea are, in fact, still in fourth place. Yet, with each passing story, Conte sounds more and more like a deluded Nabokov character — the perceived slights against him are actually problems of his own creation. For all of Conte’s misgivings with the club’s transfer approach, Chelsea’s roster is filled with wing backs, center backs, work-a-day midfielders, and big strikers who all fit his systematized approach to the game. It’ll be pricey for Chelsea to cut ties with Conte, but for owner Roman Abramovich, firing his manager has always been the easy part. Rebuilding the team in the wake of Conte’s inevitable departure, though, will require more than just the summer transfer window.

When the Champions League knockout round begins in two weeks, Chelsea faces a horrific stretch of games: home vs. Barcelona, at Manchester United, at Manchester City, home vs. Crystal Palace, at Barcelona, at Burnley, and home vs. Tottenham. But the fatal blow might come before that run even begins. The previous two Chelsea managers were fired after losses to West Brom, and I’ll leave it to you to figure out who Conte’s side is playing this weekend.

All advanced stats via Understat.