The Premier League title is two Chelsea wins away from going back to Stamford Bridge, while the race for the Top 4 is done and dusted thanks to Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur falling apart at the worst possible time. Here is a look at the five key differences between the best 4 teams (Chelsea, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City) in the Premier League and the rest of the pack.
Good business last summer
The biggest factor behind Chelsea’s rise to the top of the Premier League is their business in the summer. Not only did Chelsea manage to extract 50m for David Luiz off Paris Saint Germain, they also managed to get Everton (a club that almost never spends any money), to fork out 28m for Belgian striker Romelu Lukaku. Replacing them with Diego Costa got Chelsea a return of 19 goals and 16 assists in the Premier League itself. When you consider the fact that the players recruited for positions in which they were sorely lacking one year ago hit the ground running, Chelsea’s rise to the top does not look so surprising anymore.
Moving over to north London, the purchase of Alexis Sanchez by Arsenal was a crucial factor in the Gunners getting to the Top 4 and staying there. One must note that Arsenal did not get into the Top 4 until New Years’ Day, and constantly relied on goals from Sanchez to bail them out. The Chilean was directly involved in at least 16 goals during the first half of the season. Were it not for his presence in north London, Liverpool supporters would be savouring a return to the Champions League rather than sitting at home and wondering what might have been.
Ability to win ugly
Manchester United may be riding a wave of positivity that has suddenly set them further away from the chasing pack in the race for a place in the Champions League, but Louis van Gaal’s side spent most of the season scratching and clawing their way to draws in games they would otherwise have lost, and winning games they didn’t otherwise deserve to win. Daley Blind’s winner at West Bromwich Albion and Robin van Persie’s goals at Southampton were a throwback to the Manchester United of old, when the Red Devils made it a habit of winning even on days when things were not going so well. Man United supporters watched Liverpool win many games the same way during the first half of the 2013-14 season; and despite the fans’ fears of everything falling apart sooner than later, Louis van Gaal’s side actually turned this into a platform for a timely return to the Champions League.
Speaking of Arsenal, the aforementioned Sanchez not only brought his talent to north London, but also a winning mentality developed at Barcelona, where even the most difficult games can be salvaged into victories. He provided the Gunners with breakthroughs time and again, pushing them closer to the top during a first half of a season that was otherwise average at best. One may say that Chelsea have limped over the finish line in recent weeks, but ever since the free flowing football of the fall stopped flowing the same way, they have constantly found a way to win (through customary headers from Branislav Ivanovic) when it mattered.
One must also not ignore Manchester City, despite their horrifying run of form since the turn of the year. Even average performances like the one earlier today at home to Aston Villa are good enough for 3 points; compare that with Liverpool in 5th who have managed to lose twice to Aston Villa in a single season.
Luck on their side
Even though Chelsea’s run of form during the fall had people talking about a potential unbeaten season, the Blues were incredibly lucky that other teams around them played well below their potential. Manchester City played well only in patches, thanks to historically reliable players like Yaya Toure and Vincent Kompany turning in one poor performance after another. Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur took time to get going in trying to implement a certain philosophy through new managers, Arsenal were bang average, while some awful management from Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers set them back a long way. Hence, they could afford to take their foot off the gas, so to speak, post the turn of the year, and still remain at the top of the table.
The same can also be said of Manchester United. Man United fans can compare their rise up the table to that of Liverpool last season. Liverpool supporters may remember getting a few refereeing decisions in their favour, while they had to endure some terrible luck through Daniel Sturridge’s injuries and match making moments like Phil Jagielka’s equalizer at Anfield in September. Manchester United took timely advantage of slip ups by teams around them, while also scoring/saving goals at dying moments that made a material difference to the points table. Man United fans will openly admit the fact that Liverpool played better than them during their 3-0 win at Old Trafford in December, but will also happily accept all the luck in the world if it means a return to the 2015-16 Champions League.
Stability provided by goalkeepers
Manchester United’s willingness to not bid for Gareth Bale if it means keeping David de Gea at the club speaks volumes of the influence the Spaniard has had on their season. Louis van Gaal’s side would not be anywhere near the Top 4 if de Gea had performed the way he did in 2011.
De Gea’s replacement at Atletico de Madrid, Thibaut Courtois, provided Chelsea with a much less publicized but equally important stability at the back. He may have had less work to do on a regular basis than David de Gea, but he often made crucial saves for Chelsea whenever their otherwise strong defence was breached. Look no further than his saves during Chelsea’s 6-3 win over Everton as evidence of what a goalkeeper like him is capable of. Chelsea have also had the luxury of fielding a second choice goalkeeper as good as Petr Cech whenever they feel like, while Joe Hart has cut out the moments of madness that hampered him with Manchester City and England for close to 18 months.
Arsenal goalkeeper Wojciech Szcz sny is a notable exception. Simon Mignolet grabbed all the headlines for his dodgy performances during the first half of the season, but the Belgian is on track for a Golden Glove while the Pole is following the footsteps of ex-Arsenal goalie Lukasz Fabianski.
Strength at home
Manchester United once won a Premier League title despite winning just 5 games away from home.
It is no coincidence that the best teams in the league are the teams that win their games at home. Manchester United could afford to be lambs away from home thanks to their home record, while losing at home is not an option for a Jose Mourinho managed Chelsea. Winning all but 3 games at home made a big difference in Liverpool’s run up to 2nd one season ago. Home support can make a big difference, and making it count can win you titles, or in Manchester United’s case, a place back in the Champions League.