If the past couple years have been the Premier League’s Golden Age, thanks to the league’s development of top-to-bottom quality and a powerful Big Six, making it the one domestic league all soccer fans practically must follow, then this season might just be this Golden Age’s Golden Year. All season we’ve watched with rapt attention the blistering title race between Manchester City and Liverpool, legitimately two of the best Premier League clubs of all time. And after a few weeks of fortuitous results, solidified by this weekend’s round of fixtures, it’s now clear that the race for the Champions League places is possibly even more scorching than the title chase.
Since the EPL’s Big Six really came into being as a solid block of consistently great teams (and Manchester United) that each expected to qualify for the Champions League every year—the marker for this being the summer of 2016, when Pep Guardiola, Antonio Conte, José Mourinho, and Jürgen Klopp all embarked on their first full campaigns at their respective EPL clubs—we’ve not seen the combination of title and top-four races that were as competitive as we’re seeing now. Only one point separates Man City and Liverpool atop the table, and while there is a big gap between them and the rest of the Champions League qualification hopefuls, right now there’s almost nothing between the other four members of the Big Six in their efforts to secure themselves one of the two remaining spots in the top four.
Here’s how things stand in the league table today: Tottenham are in third place with 61 points, Arsenal are in fourth with 60, Manchester United sit one spot behind the Gunners with 58, and Chelsea are in sixth with 57—though Chelsea have played one fewer match than the others. That’s a mere four points separating the glory and riches of third place and its attendant Champions League spot from the Europa League ignominy of sixth place. Because of the closeness of the race and the almost imperceptible margins that separate the teams in terms of quality, the rest of the season is all set up to play out like a ridiculously intense and high-stakes game of musical chairs with four contestants, two chairs, and an all-out fight not to be the one left standing.
While the top-four hunt is now closer than it’s ever been this season, the way each of the teams have arrived here could hardly be more different. The big winners from this past weekend were Arsenal, whose path to top-four contention has been the quietest of them all. The Gunners have been allowed to sneak by under the radar for the bulk of the season—probably because of Arsène Wenger’s absence and the wild swings from elation to hysteria the Frenchman’s presence made almost synonymous with the club during his reign—but that all changed on Sunday when Arsenal battered United to leap into fourth.
Before this weekend, United were one of the most in-form teams in England, arguably even in the whole world. New manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s revival job hit its peak just days earlier, when the Red Devils drop-kicked PSG square in the nuts and ran the Frenchies out of the Champions League in amazing, humiliating fashion. That performance was of a piece of the greater upward trajectory United have been on of late, going from long shots to even fight their way back into realistic contention for a top-four finish to being right there in the thick of it. Sunday’s performance against Arsenal, however, was a decided departure from the excellence of before.
For United, the 2-0 loss to Arsenal had to sting, though the enduring high of the PSG result that probably contributed to Sunday’s lackluster performance had to have dulled the pain. For Arsenal, though, the win was huge. By sealing the three points, thanks to a diabolically knuckling Granit Xhaka shot and a typically poor-but-good-enough penalty from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gunners hopped over United to capture a seat in the top four. After two depressing seasons outside the Champions League places, to find themselves even temporarily back in the table position once considered theirs by birthright, and doing so after beating up on a direct rival for the upper quadrant of the table, must have felt like a release and a reason to focus on finishing the job to make sure they end the season up there.
It’s fitting that a weekend that broke so well for Arsenal went so badly for Tottenham. On Saturday, Tottenham, a team that not just a couple weeks ago could with some justification consider themselves challengers for the title, blew an early lead and wound up taking an L from relegation battlers, Southampton.
Tottenham have dropped out of the title race and into the group trying to consolidate one of the other two places behind City and Liverpool thanks to terrible month where they’ve won just one of their last five league games. This weekend’s match against the Saints should’ve been a happy one, since, with Dele Alli’s return to the field after more than a month out with a bum hamstring, the club appears to have made it out from the other side of a horrifying spate of injuries to some of their most important players. And though Alli and Harry Kane, who only recently returned to health himself, linked up for the game’s first goal, their combined forces weren’t enough to see Spurs past one of the division’s weaker squads. Spurs’ fall from grace has been precipitous, and unless they get back to their best quickly, they could find themselves on the outside looking in in no time.
As for the final remaining Big Six representative, this weekend was more of the same unevenness we’ve come to expect from them. Chelsea drew at home to Wolverhampton on Sunday, which on paper wouldn’t be a big deal. Wolves are a legitimately good team who could give any member of the Big Six a scare on any given weekend, as they are solid favorites to hoist the Best of the Rest trophy at season’s end. However, the match exposed once again Chelsea’s attacking woes as they could only score once from 22 shots.
Chelsea started the season brightly but soon fell into the sort of inconsistency that has defined their season. A couple weeks ago it looked like the club had hit its nadir and was on the verge of sacking first-year manager Maurizio Sarri before the season was even up after the reputed attacking genius coach failed to build a team that can consistently score without the direct, often completely isolated contributions of Eden Hazard. And just when it looked like the Blues might’ve turned things around, they went and drew Wolves this weekend.
With their suddenly frugal owner, a looming transfer ban, and the growing certainty that Hazard will be taking his talents to Spain in just a few months, Chelsea have maybe the most to lose should they fail to qualify for the Champions League. They’re still in solid shape—win the the game they have in hand and they’d be level on points with Arsenal in fourth—for the run-in, and Gonzalo Higuaín has looked pretty decent since joining the club on loan in January, so the results Chelsea need are still completely within their grasp. But if things don’t get good there soon, they could get really, really bad.
And that’s where we are now in the top-four race with only two months left in this spectacular season. Like the title challenge, the fight for the Champions League spots looks certain to last until the very end. Imagine a world where we get to the last game of the season with every single member of the Big Six being in contention for either the title or a top-four place. It could be a culmination with the potential to exceed even the famous “Agüeroooooooo!” day, and it would be the ending this phenomenal season deserves.