July 19, 2024

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Explained: The race to make the top four

5 min read
Explained: The race to make the top four

“The top four”. The phrase is bandied about by players, managers and pundits alike in the Premier League and what it represents — Champions League qualification — has almost become the gold standard for success among English clubs over the past two decades. 

Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal famously qualified for the group stage for 19 consecutive seasons between 1998 and 2016, and the north London club’s absence from the competition over the past five years has led to two managerial sackings and a near-total overhaul of the playing squad.

Playing in Europe’s premier club competition is about more than just status. The financial benefits, a kinder fixture schedule and the ability to attract the world’s best talent are also tangible rewards.

This season, Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United, West Ham United, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Tottenham are vying for the final two qualification spots behind Manchester City and Liverpool, the clear top two, with the race made even more intriguing by games in hand and competing teams yet to face each other for the second time.

The Athletic breaks down everything you need to know as the top-four battle enters its final stages.

Premier League race for the top four

Pos.

  

Team

  

Games

  

Points

  

GD

  

3

30

62

41

4

31

57

19

5

30

54

9

6

32

51

10

7

31

51

7

8

32

49

5


The form guide

Arsenal: (L vs Brighton, L at Palace, W at Aston Villa, L vs Liverpool, W vs Leicester)

Arsenal had been hitting form at a fantastic time, before three defeats in four have seen them slip out of the top Champions League spots. The 3-0 loss at Palace was particularly startling, with manager Mikel Arteta branding it “unacceptable”. With no cup or European fixtures in the coming months, Mikel Arteta’s side just have Premier League games to concentrate on and will need to fight hard to reclaim fourth place.

Chelsea: (W at Southampton, L vs Brentford, W vs Newcastle United, W at Norwich City, W at Burnley)

Chelsea’s shock loss to Brentford was their first since a narrow defeat at Manchester City on January 15. They had looked impressive against Spurs and Burnley, while the late wins at Palace and against Newcastle were invaluable. Chelsea’s form had been questioned, but a 6-0 demolition of Southampton quickly restored faith in Thomas Tuchel’s side.

Manchester United: (L at Everton, D vs Leicester, W vs Tottenham, L at Man City, D vs Watford)

United’s form has been patchy all season and that has continued in recent weeks. The draw at home against Leicester was wholly uninspiring and that was followed by a disastrous defeat by relegation-threatened Everton. Interim manager Ralf Rangnick will need greater consistency from his team in the tricky weeks ahead.

Tottenham: (W at Aston Villa, W vs Newcastle, W vs West Ham, W at Brighton, L at United)

Spurs appear to be hitting form at just the right time. The defeat by United was indicative of a side lacking a clear blueprint for success but they have won four on the spin since including the 4-0 win over Villa and 5-1 victory against Newcastle. Antonio Conte’s side have risen above Arsenal — albeit having played a game more than their north London rivals.

West Ham: (L at Brentford, W vs Everton, L at Tottenham, W vs Aston Villa, L at Liverpool)

West Ham have also struggled for consistency, with a promising win over Everton giving way to a lacklustre loss against Brentford. A small squad, injuries and their Europa League exploits mean their top-four battle will be a struggle as we enter the crunch weeks of the season.

Wolves: (L at Newcastle, W vs Aston Villa, L vs Leeds, W at Everton, W vs Watford)

Wolves’ form has dipped in recent weeks, as their previously strong defence has seen them concede two goals to Crystal Palace, three to Leeds and only keep two clean sheets in their last nine matches. Two defeats in three games now mean their top-four hopes look very slim.


When do they play each other?

  • April 20: Chelsea vs Arsenal
  • April 23: Arsenal vs Manchester United
  • April 24: Chelsea vs West Ham
  • May 1: West Ham vs Arsenal
  • May 7: Wolves vs Chelsea
  • May 12: Tottenham vs Arsenal
  • May 14/15: Manchester United vs Chelsea

Fixture and fixture difficulty

We’ve graded each side’s upcoming fixtures by degree of difficulty, borrowing the system the Fantasy Premier League uses in its popular game.

The games are ranked out of four, with the easiest-ranked fixtures listed in light green, then no colour, light red and the hardest matches getting dark red.

Top Four Contenders’ Next Five Fixtures

Team

  

Fixtures

  

Southampton (A)

Chelsea (A)

Man United (H)

West Ham (A)

Leeds (H)

Arsenal (H)

West Ham (H)

Everton (A)

Wolves (H)

Leeds (A)

Norwich (H)

Liverpool (A)

Arsenal (A)

Brentford (H)

Brighton (A)

Brighton (H)

Brentford (A)

Leicester (H)

Liverpool (A)

Arsenal (H)

Burnley (H)

Chelsea (A)

Arsenal (H)

Norwich (A)

Man City (H)

Burnley (A)

Brighton (H)

Chelsea (A)

Norwich (H)

Liverpool (A)


How do the European places work this season?

The top four Premier League teams qualify automatically for next season’s Champions League group phase.

The Europa League group stage spots go to the fifth-placed side and the winners of the FA Cup, with the Carabao Cup winners earning a place in the Europa Conference League play-offs.

As Liverpool have won the Carabao Cup, the Europa Conference League spot is likely to go to the team who finish sixth.

This all gets slightly complicated when factoring in the potential winners of the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League.

If the winners of the FA Cup also finish in the top six, seventh place takes the Europa Conference League spot.

And if a Premier League club win the Champions League or Europa League, they will automatically qualify for next season’s Champions League.

That means if one side in those competitions — so Manchester United, Chelsea or West Ham, for the purposes of the top-four race — wins it while finishing outside the top six, England gain an extra club in the Champions League next season. If a UEFA competition winner finish in the top six, everything stays the same.

If, however, the Champions League and Europa League are both won by English clubs who finish outside the top six domestically, the fourth-place finishers in the Premier League drop down into the Europa League — England are allowed a maximum of five representatives in the Champions League.


And what about prize money?

The last season when the Premier League officially released its prize money per position was 2018-19. This was the breakdown then:

  • 3rd: £34.5m
  • 4th: £32.6m
  • 5th: £30.7m
  • 6th: £28.8m
  • 7th: £26.9m

How many points are teams likely to need to finish fourth?

There is a definite downward trend in terms of the points needed to get into the top four over the past five seasons.

  • 2020-21: 67 (Chelsea)
  • 2019-20: 66 (Chelsea)
  • 2018-19: 71 (Tottenham)
  • 2017-18: 75 (Liverpool)
  • 2016-17: 76 (Liverpool)

(Graphic by Sam Richardson)

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