It’s hard to know who is more upset about the way the race for fourth is shaping up. Arsenal supporters, like your favorite columnist, have to be livid that their team is not only not contending for the title but are looking like they might well slump to fifth and miss out on the Champions League entirely. Manchester United supporters have to be at least a little bit conflicted over the possibility that a fourth place finish and an FA Cup title might be enough to keep Louis Van Gaal in place for another season. Who should be more upset?
Arsenal supporters have to be in abject fear of missing out on the Champions League. What little pride that supporters have left are tied to their long record of appearing in that competition and advancing to the knockout stages. In seasons other than the present one, Arsenal have basically done what the money says they should do. They finish behind the teams, Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United, that outspend them and they finish ahead of the ones that they outspend. That gets them to the Champions League where they are generally good enough to beat the minnows of their group and finish second in their group only to go out quickly to a knock-out stage opponent who, again, the money says SHOULD beat them.
In that light, this season was already going to be bad enough for Arsenal because the teams that have outspent them have all stumbled despite their financial might. That they will lose out on the title to one of Leicester City or Spurs means that all that talk of Arsene Wenger doing such a good job of punching above his financial weight while the Gunners moved from Highbury to the Emirates was overvalued. Not one but two clubs with fewer and far fewer resources respectively are significantly outpacing Arsenal to the title. Manchester City jumping ahead of Arsenal for third can be explained away due to the insane amount of money they spend but if Manchester United, in a season filled with managerial angst, underperformances, and injuries pip Arsenal for fourth then it’s hard to paint it as anything other than an abject failure.
Perhaps the “Wenger Gone!” contingent is actually happy about the potential of losing out on Champions League because it might finally force the Board/Stan Kroenke to make the move they want to see made. For the “Let Wenger Go Out On His Own Terms” crowd, it’s going to be hard to continue to justify a position that has clearly seen a huge step backward. The manager’s comments after the match that he has work to do to repair what appears to be a broken collective psyche points the finger straight back at the man in charge of the psychological state of the club. If he’s in charge of bringing in the players and in charge of putting them in the best frame of mind and either the players aren’t good enough or they aren’t mentally tough enough to win what should be relatively easy matches then what exactly is Wenger providing?
Turning the page to Manchester United, the same argument could be made about the fate of Louis Van Gaal and United supporters in reverse. At some level, of course, United supporters want their team to do well and qualify for the Champions League but do they want it badly enough for it to mean that Van Gaal might be allowed to stay for another season?
To be honest, Manchester United supporters seem to be a bit confused over what exactly they want. They know they aren’t interested in more Louis Van Gaal. They don’t, at least not as a unified group, seem to be all that excited about Jose Mourinho in anything other than a very mercenary way. They aren’t excited about him the way that Liverpool supporters were excited about Jurgen Klopp or City supporters are surely excited about Pep Guardiola.
So, if you’re a fan base of a “big club” that isn’t exactly sure what they want to happen next with their managerial situation, what do you hope for? Do you hope your club qualifies for the Champions League because that’s what you’re supposed to hope for once you’re essentially eliminated from title contention? Do you hope that you don’t qualify in hopes that it pushes your manager out the door but then thrusts your club into even more uncertain waters? It really is hard to know what to root for. Traditionalists say that you should root for your club to win every single time out because, traditionally, that has been all there’s been. The immense amount of money and the internal club politics that accompany that money at some level make things much more complicated.
Ultimately, the answer that it’s really complicated being a supporter these days and there isn’t any “right” answer. Everyone has to figure out for themselves what they think is best for their club next and root for the things to happen that they think will get them to that outcome.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Leicester City – The first slip down the stretch. The stoppage time penalty from Leo Ulloa was certainly spun as a huge bounce back at the time and was undoubtedly dramatic television but with Spurs crushing Stoke City on Monday, the narrative switches from “A great Leicester City comeback” to “Spurs are charging hard and putting on the pressure” with a side of “Can Leicester City pick up points without Jamie Vardy?”. The Foxes still have a five point cushion with four matches to go for each side but the fixture list appears to be tilting toward Spurs. Manchester United is the toughest opponent remaining for either side and it is Leicester City must face them. Making matters more difficult, Jamie Vardy faces charges from the FA for his reaction to being sent off. He will definitely be missing against Swansea this coming weekend but missing a further match would mean missing a match against a Red Devils side that has a lot to play for as Arsenal continue to drop points and give them hope that a top four spot is a distinct possibility.
Tottenham – What an effort against Stoke City with the pressure on. The Arsenal supporter in me hates to admit it but that sure felt like a title team bearing down on a fading foe. No amount of Spurs excellence can put the North London side in control of their own destiny but they look like they’re going to do everything possible to make life really difficult on the Foxes. It could easily have been 6-0 at the Britannia after Christen Eriksen hit the bar with only the goalkeeper to beat and Dele Alli hit the post with the goalkeeper already beaten. Just sparkling stuff.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Manchester City – It looks like they’ll cruise to third with Aguero and De Bruyne firing on all cylinders. Could this possibly be the Chelsea side that rebounded so nicely under Guus Hiddink during the first half of the season’s second half?
Manchester United – Call me a fatalist but Marcus Rashford hasn’t stopped scoring and that seems to be the difference between United rising up the ranks. They have four points to make up on Arsenal for fourth but all of the momentum favors the Red Devils.
Arsenal – I think my frustration was made sufficiently clear in the introduction. Arsenal are fading rapidly and it feels like they could drop points to just about anyone right now. I experienced this in my NFL fandom with the Philadelphia Eagles and Andy Reid and I’ve made the comparison before but it’s worth repeating. At some point the same voices and methods just get stale even when they’ve previously been very successful. There’s no guarantee that things will improve with the next guy but it seems just as apparent that we’re not going to relive the glory days either.
West Ham United – Another draw against a good team but at this point in the season that isn’t enough. With Manchester United winning it seems that the Hammers won’t be the ones to take advantage of Arsenal slipping up.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – And…done. It feels like there should have been more of a flourish than a 1-0 loss to underline how bad the Villans have been. The sad thing is that there aren’t even many interesting remains to be picked over for the clubs remaining up and those moving up from the Championship. Jordan Amavi might be worth a look if he proves sufficiently recovered from his season-ending injury. Jordan Ayew might be worth a shout on the theory that he was occasionally adequate and was such without much in the way of support. Ditto Rudy Gestede. Maybe Idrissa Gueye. Not too much today.
Newcastle United – A huge weekend in the relegation battle. Newcastle is still only even with Norwich assuming that they win their match in hand but it’s against Manchester City so hard to see that working out for the Magpies. Once the clubs are even on matches played again, Rafa and company are looking at a three point gap with four to play plus two goals to make up in the goal differential category to go ahead of the Canaries. They have two winnable matches (Palace and @Villa) and they will need to win them both and hope that things go really badly for Norwich City and Sunderland. With @Liverpool and potentially title chasing Spurs the other two matches, six points seems like about as many as the Magpies can hope for from the rest of the season.
Norwich City – What a mess they’ve made of the nice little run they had. They let both of their pursuers back in the race. None of their remaining fixtures are particularly easy with @Arsenal, ManUtd, Watford, @Everton the remaining four. Arsenal and Manchester United both have a ton to play for (although you wouldn’t know it the way Arsenal have been mailing in the final portions of the season). Less so Watford and Everton but neither feel like sure things either. With Sunderland
Sunderland – Here we go again. Could we get a five hundredth comeback survival from the Black Cats? They are only a point from safety and they have a match in hand and it will come between Week 37 and Week 38 against an Everton side that are suffering from injuries and won’t have a great deal to play for other than perhaps saving Roberto Martinez’s job (which, if they were that concerned with they would have played better all season). Their other matches are very similar to the Canaries – Arsenal, @Stoke, Chelsea, @Watford. No easy wins but definitely some potential points against a set of opponents who all seem to be fading down the stretch.
What’s Next? Week 34 rumbles on with five mid-week matches that will keep us all busy on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. When we get to next weekend, we have an abbreviated schedule with Sunday the focal point. Sunderland hosts Arsenal with both teams desperately in need of a win. Leicester City welcome Swansea as they try to keep their title chase from stumbling down the stretch. Newcastle’s match at Anfield and Manchester City’s match against Stoke City at the Etihad highlight Saturday. Finally, Spurs play on Monday for the second consecutive week as they hope to have another opportunity to pick up points on the Foxes against West Brom at White Hart Lane. There may not be many matches this weekend but they’re certainly important ones.