Premier League Top Four Finish: United's struggles give Leicester & Arsenal hope

Man Utd manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Solskjaer will struggle to get top four this season.

Alex Keble takes a look at the contenders to finish in the top four, predicting that Man Utd will miss out as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer traps the team in limbo...

"But if that wasn’t bad enough, the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo has dismantled Man Utd’s off-the-ball shape – the one roughly-acceptable tactical contrivance of the Solskjaer regime up to this point."

You know things must be bad for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when even his friends and former colleagues in the media are starting to question whether Manchester United have a plan. He has been insulated from criticism for far too long but finally, as we approach his three-year anniversary in charge, Solskjaer's flaws are going mainstream.

Throughout his time at Old Trafford Man United have been a team buit on vibes, on allusions to the club's glorious past and spurts of quality from players who, for the most part, wander around the pitch, lost in the woods. There is no structure when they have possession - no detailed tactical plan, no take on the contemporary demands of Premier League football - and that leads to pointlessly ambling performances.

Inevitably they win a decent amount of games sheerly through the superior technical ability of this expensively-assembled team, but whenever United face a well-drilled defensive shape they have no idea how to pull it apart; no masterplan from which to work.

But if that wasn't bad enough, the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo has dismantled Man Utd's off-the-ball shape - the one roughly-acceptable tactical contrivance of the Solskjaer regime up to this point. Ronaldo's total absence of pressing, or of cutting off the first pass into midfield, has created massive holes through their formation that allows the likes of Leicester City to cut through with remarkable ease. United have been cut adrift in the supposed four-way title chase, and can now backed at 44.043/1 to win the league on the Betfair Exchange.

What should worry Man Utd fans is that nothing will change. Reports over the weekend indicate Solskjaer, who signed a new contract in the summer, retains the support of the board. As always, he will find a big result just at the tipping point. As always, United will learn nothing from it and continue to float aimlessly through matches.

United have hit a ceiling under Solskjaer, and until they appoint an elite tactician to fine-tune them into an actual team - with clear patterns both on and off the ball - they will hover in limbo.

That purgatory could be broken, however, over the next few weeks: between now and the end of November, they have three crucial Champions League games and play the other five of the 'Big Six'.

It might leave United cut adrift from the top end of the table, opening an opportunity to one of the chasing pack to sneak into the top four. Here are the main contenders.

Arsenal's clear strategy is an advantage over Spurs

Arsenal are still hovering on the verge of their breakthrough moment, but it will only take another couple of wins for Mikel Arteta to solidify their top four hopes, making it well worth a wager, at 5.59/2, before the odds get shorter.

Arteta finally has the squad he needs for his richly-detailed, Pep Guardiola-inspired tactics. In this regard, he is essentially the opposite of Solskjaer, and with a solid press-evading midfield in Albert Lokonga and Thomas Partey, plus a burgeoning partnership between Martin Odegaard and Emile Smith Rowe, Arsenal now look like a well-coached team with a clear and modern plan.

Mikel-Arteta-1280-Arsenal-closeup.jpg

That suggests consistency is just around the corner, which can't be said of Tottenham Hotspur despite back-to-back wins putting Nuno Espirito Santo's team joint-fourth in the table. Nuno's side are still a tad confused, haphazardly moving between hard-pressing one-touch football (easy enough to do against a team as disorganised as Newcastle) and a kind of Mourinho-lite.

Harry Kane is finding his feet again, but there surely isn't enough consistency in this team to finish fourth, especially not with an air of toxicity hanging over the club at the moment. Spurs are perpetually on the verge of crisis and should not be backed at 6.511/2.

Leicester's individual talent will deny Everton

Brendan Rodgers has got off to a bad start to the season, and indeed it had looked as though the players are emotionally exhausted following the high of winning the FA Cup and the low of missing out on the Champions League again last season. Consequently Man Utd's problems could not be better timed: Leicester are only four points off fourth, after all, and should be rejuvenated by Saturday's win.

As important is Rodgers decision to finally move back to the 3-5-2 that worked so well last season. The Foxes were instantly more fluid and self-assured in their movement as James Maddison and Jamie Vardy showed a vast improvement.

In this shape, and with Rodgers' expert coaching, Leicester 12.011/1 have the individual quality to outperform the majoity of their rivals over the course of the season.

Certainly they should finish above Everton, knocking Rafael Benitez's side out of the race for the top four. They have made a strong start and will continue to play a brand of cautious, stable counter-attacking football that gets the best out of Richarlison, Demarai Gray, and Andros Townsend. But reactive tactics cannot take Everton, priced at a long 14.013/1, to the necessary points tally.

Man Utd's ability to avoid full crisis blunts the rest

The same can be said of West Ham 13.012/1, who having failed to add significantly over the summer would be very happy just to equal last year's points total. Playing in the Europa League is a fresh barrier to Premier League success, and despite a good start there is little to suggest they will climb any higher.

Brighton are very long outsiders 31.030/1 largely because they just don't have the forwards to make the most of Graham Potter's brilliant tactical setup, as the frustrating 0-0 draw at Norwich City showed at the weekend.

More importantly, neither of these outsiders will finish above Man Utd, who through sheer financial power are incapable of crisis on that scale. Winning the moments, through flashes of brilliance, will keep them collecting just enough points for Solskjaer to float around the top six area. That ought to worry United fans.

He has a habit of pulling out a big result right at the last, and his preference for sitting deep in big games (the simplest tactical strategy to teach) means United will probably get a big win against a title contender soon - resetting things and beginning the cycle again.

If you were given the challenge of tanking Man Utd, but nobody was allowed to find out, could you do better than hiring Solskjaer? A likeable figure protected by the media, trapping the team in an endless limbo by never quite falling into crisis despite failing to improve. It is a slow-motion disaster for the club and, luckily for neutrals, it should open up an intriguing top-four race this season.

Daily Offer - Get a Free £5 Bet on Multiples!

Stake £20 on multiples over the course of a day, and, after the bets have settled, you'll get a free £5 to use on multiples. Bets must settle before 23:59 on the day they're placed. No opt-in required, T&Cs apply.

Get a Free £/€20 Exchange Bet

  • Join Now - Open account using promo code VAL225
  • Bet - Place a £/€20 Bet on the Exchange
  • Earn We'll Refund You £/€20 If the Bet Loses

T&Cs apply.

Read past articles