TACTICAL football boff Chris Bland (@blandc_1996) analyses the race to finish in the Premier League's top-four.
Premier League: The race for a top-four finish
The race for the top four spots in the Premier League was blown wide open after a set of surprise results for the teams challenging up the top of the league, and with only 10 games remaining for most sides, the race is hotting up for the final spots.
With Liverpool and Manchester City certainties to finish in the top four, it opens up the spots below for the chasing pack.
Leicester to stumble home
Leicester, despite stuttering to a defeat at bottom side Norwich and suffering some indifferent form of late, are still favourites at 1/7 (SkyBet) to seal one of the two available spots, and with an eight-point buffer back to fifth spot, it is hard to see Brendan Rodgers’ side collapsing to such a huge extent.
The Foxes have struggled for form in recent weeks, lacking tempo in attack and struggling to break teams down, but with Wilfried Ndidi and Jamie Vardy expected to return to the side until the end of the season, I would expect them to have enough to hold on.
It is the fourth spot which is of particular interest, and with so many sides closing in on Chelsea, who themselves are suffering from indifferent form, many sides will be relishing the prospect of catching Frank Lampard’s side.
Understandably favourites for the final spot, they are way ahead on the underlying statistics of the sides around them, but Saturday’s draw with Bournemouth was indicative of their problems throughout the season so far, suffering from wastefulness in front of goal, as well as conceding sloppy goals, particularly off set plays.
Consistency has been an issue for Lampard’s side, and the gamble on the top four market would be that the issues surrounding the London sides continue, and those around them can pounce. So if Chelsea are to continue to struggle, who from the chasing pack represents the best value pick?
Wolves to march on
The one side that catches my eye, especially after the weekend’s impressive away win over Spurs, is Wolves. Nuno Espirito Santo has built an impressive tactical unit, and the recent performances over the league’s top sides, coupled with an impressive run in the Europa League, has started to make European football a real possibility for the second season running for the Midlands side.
Wolves have only lost six games all season, and their success has come from building a strong defensive unit, which has seen them only concede 34 goals, and the tactical consistency in the backline has helped build a system that can be utilised against both top opposition, as well as those lower down the league when asked to play on the front foot.
The underlying data behind their defence is equally impressive, with an Expected Goals (xG) against of 30.41, whilst only conceding 11.5 shots per-game, and it is from this base that Wolves have been able to build on, and their impressive forward line has shone in recent weeks.
Captain Conor Coady has been a lynchpin at the back, thriving as the covering centre half alongside Willy Boly and one of Romain Saiss and Leander Dendoncker at the back, and having started every Premier League game this season, it is this consistency at the back which Santo has been able to build on, utilising his charismatic captain to base the team around.
On a separate note, I was surprised to see Coady as big as 33/1 (William Hill) to make Gareth Southgate’s England side, and when considering the form of Tyrone Mings and John Stones ahead of him in the pecking order, he could be certainly worth considering ahead of the friendlies at the end of March.
Old Gold excel in the final-third
A willingness to sit off and counter teams has been crucial to their success, and a lot rests on top goal scorer Raul Jimenez, who possesses such an all round game, which is often hard to find in a striker.
The Mexican has the ability to hold up the ball and bring those around him into play, particularly the likes of in-form Diogo Jota and Adama Traore on the break, whilst his positional play in and around the box means he’s particularly threatening from crossing scenarios, something the wide play Wolves utilise lends itself to.
Jota has hit top form, both domestically and in European competitions, whilst the emergence of Pedro Neto on the wing, as well as the January signing Daniel Podence, means that squad depth in these areas is not a worry for Santo, particularly with a vast amount of games coming up in the Europa League and Premier League.
Behind the attackers, Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho have been excellent, and it is once again their all round game play that stands out, with the Portuguese duo able to fulfil the defensive duties when expected to sit in and counter, whilst also having the ability to dominate games when required, and pick apart tight and compact defences, as was seen against Espanyol, as well as against Norwich.
This tactical flexibility stretches to the backline, with Dendoncker and Saiss both capable of operating in central defence and central midfielder, and it is having so many players capable of fulfilling different roles depending on the opposition which means I don’t see the potential fixture congestion playing a part in any top four push.
The only worry would be an injury or loss of form to star-striker Jimenez, without any obvious replacement, and the absence of the Mexican forward would risk them becoming a bit too one-dimensional, and mean they miss a key outlet up top, something so fundamental to the system they are playing.
It is also the run of fixtures that Wolves have that means I believe they are the best placed side to threaten Chelsea if they are to slip up, and their next four games are going to be crucial to any hopes.
Kind upcoming schedule for Molineux men
They take on relegation-threatened Brighton, West Ham, Bournemouth and Aston Villa as their next four games, and I believe Wolves are extremely well suited to beating all these sides.
The open nature of Brighton and Aston Villa should see plenty of space for Traore and Jota to threaten on the break, whilst West Ham and Bournemouth’s leaky defences will struggle to keep out the Wolves attack, even with the Hammers improving in recent weeks.
A tough run sees home games against Arsenal and Everton, with a trip to Sheffield United also in the mix, and these are the three games that will have the biggest bearing on their chances. Santo’s side have shown they are well suited to taking on the Premier League’s top sides, but trying to break down the resolute defences of Sheffield United and Everton could be the biggest concern in these last 10 games, and avoiding defeat in those two will be crucial.
Well suited to play Arsenal, their counter-attacking play, as well as threat from set plays, should see them have enough to challenge Arteta’s side, and that then sets up an exciting final three games.
Burnley away, followed by Crystal Palace at home, could pose two interesting ties, with sides potentially having nothing to play for in the middle of the table, before a final day trip to Stamford Bridge, potentially setting up a top four show down with Lampard’s side.
If they are to push the Blues to the end, it could set up a fascinating encounter come the final day, and for the tactical reasons discussed, coupled with a favourable run in, I believe that if there is any side to challenge Chelsea for this final top four place, the best value could lie in the Old Gold at 4/1 (BetVictor), especially if they can kick on and win their next four games against relegation threatened sides as expected.
Premier League – Wolves to finish in the top-four (4/1 BetVictor)