A lot can change in a couple of months. There was a time in the season where the top four race didn’t look like much of a race at all but now, thanks to Chelsea’s collapse and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s magic, it’s a three-horse race for that final Champions League spot.
With United back in fourth for a week, at the very least, and with Arsenal coming up at the weekend, it’s a good time to look at how the race is shaping up. We’re entering the final stretch of the season. Who will get their noses across the line?
Eight-game winning runs to start a managerial reign are always likely to have some degree of good luck, but there’s no denying that Solskjaer has made United better in his short time in charge.
Interestingly, the biggest improvement has been on the defensive side. The quality of chances that United are now conceding per game has gone down from 1.39 expected goals to 1.13. Relative to the rest of the league, this is a rise from midtable to around the top four.
Mourinho will have been ruing the fiery finishing form and handful of penalties that Solskjaer has benefited from. Now that the magic has worn off, we can see that United’s attacking output has stayed relatively stable under Solskjaer.
The team are taking marginally more shots per game, 12.7 to 15.08, with open-play expected goals bumping up slightly, 1.53 per game to 1.58.
How the competition are doing
At the beginning of the season, Maurizio Sarri said that it would take three months to instil his playing style on the Chelsea team. It actually seems like it took three months for it all to fall apart.
Up until November, they were doing well, vying with Liverpool and Manchester City for the title. Since then — since their first defeat of the season, against Tottenham, in fact — they’ve been trundling along at a similar pace, performance-wise, to Arsenal.
Since ten games in, at which point the Gunners seemed to find their feet under Emery, they’ve averaged +0.31 more expected goals than their opponents in their matches. Solskjaer’s United have been going at +0.45, and Chelsea since November have been at +0.35.
United, then, have the edge in form, and that could come in handy during the run-in.
This is because United don’t have the most favourable set of remaining fixtures.
While Chelsea and Arsenal will have more away games than home (after the Blues’ re-arranged fixture against Brighton), they both face fewer top six sides than United do.
Chelsea’s game in hand against Brighton could put them up to a point ahead of United, but after that they — like Arsenal — only have four of their nine remaining games at home.
United have it the other way around, with five remaining matches at Old Trafford, but they have three games against fellow top six sides while Chelsea and Arsenal only have two and one respectively.
In fact, after this Sunday, Arsenal’s run-in becomes very friendly. An away match at Wolves is the next-most dangerous looking fixture for them.
For United’s part, it’ll be a fight until the end of April, with back-to-back league games at Old Trafford against Chelsea and Manchester City. If Solskjaer’s men are still in contention after that, then their remaining two games, away at Huddersfield and home to Cardiff, should be an easy six points.
It could all come down to the rub of the green and who hits a hot streak as we enter spring, but United’s better form may give them a slight edge.
*all odds are subject to change
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by Tom Bodell