Premier League: Who is Going to Take the Last Champions League Spot?

With the Premier League title race turning into a run away, the race for the top four Champions League spots is still on. Here is a look at the contenders for those coveted tickets to Europe.

When I feel like my soccer eyes deceive me, which seems to happen often, I turn to the numbers. I look at the statistics to see if what I am seeing is actually what I am seeing or is it as rare as a lost diamond in a pizza shop. So as I look at the Premier League Champions League contenders, my eyes are showing me all their flaws. The numbers tell me even more.

There are three big Premier League races every season: the league title, the Top 4 (for Champions League qualification, sorry, Europa League fans), and escaping relegation. The race for the title appears to be a one-team sprint to the line. Liverpool is running away with their first league trophy in three decades. For the Reds, dreams of doubles and trebles are dancing in their heads. This leaves the battles for European qualification and to stay in the league as close contests.

There are four Champions League qualification spots. The first three slots appear to be locks. Aforementioned Liverpool is 33 points from fifth place. Manchester City and Leicester City sit 17 and 14 points ahead of the pack of hopefuls respectively. Though weird things do happen, it would take the Earth being sucked into a black hole resulting in cats running everything and Wesley Snipes leading a resistance movement for these teams to not qualify. I almost guarantee that is not going to happen. I hope.

So, who else is going to qualify for the Champions League spots?

The numbers tell us some possibilities. Here are the contenders:

Chelsea

The Blues are clinging onto the last spot in the Premier League top 4 by six points. However, there are serious concerns. Tammy Abraham, the team’s leading goal scorer, has a significant ankle issue and it is unclear when he will return.

They also have a dual problem. Frank Lampard‘s club is second-worst in the league in stopping opponents from converting goal chances and converting their own goal chances into goals, per understat.com. This is a horrible combination moving forward. Only a combination of vodka and corn flakes would be worse. Chelsea needs help in the transfer window. Edinson Cavani and Boubakary Soumare, where are you?

Oh, and the Blues are worst in the league, by far, in save percentage.

When you have trouble converting goal opportunities and then can’t stop teams from converting theirs, then staying in the top four is as difficult as driving backwards in rush hour traffic.

Champions League qualification? No.

Manchester United

United manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is in a no-win situation. On paper, he does not have a reliable top-four squad level to put on the pitch. His top two players, Paul Pogba and Marcus Rashford, are both out injured for significant amounts of time. The fan base seems ready to run him on a boat back to Norway.

His bosses, Ed Woodward and the Glazers, would be happy to let him be the scapegoat while their own incompetence at running a football club reaches Sunderland-level bad. It also does not appear that anyone of note will come during the transfer window, making things even worse.

Despite this. United is in fifth place.

Manchester United is fourth in the league in expected goals against (xGA), expected goal difference (xGDiff), and expected goal difference per 90 minutes (xGDiff/90), per FBref.com. However, they are the fourth worst in stopping opponents goal chances and fifth worse in converting their own goal chances in the league. It’s getting dire.

Champions League qualification? No.

Tottenham

Say what you will (and you will) about Jose Mourinho, he has guided Spurs from 14th position to sixth in the Premier League in twelve matches. He has won six, drawn two, and lost four in the league since he took over.

Christian Eriksen is about to jump on the one-way Premier League express to Italy. Harry Kane is out until April.  However, Tottenham might actually be better off without them. Eriksen did not want to play for Spurs and should have left last summer, while the club has demonstrated being able to win even without the oft-injured Kane.

Per FBref.com, Spurs sit ninth in xGDiff/90, ninth in xG, tenth in xGA, and eighth in non-penalty expected goals plus expected assists in the league. These numbers have only marginally improved in Mourinho’s early tenure. However, per understat.com, they are third-best in the Premier League in converting their goal chances into goals.

Though they brought in Gedson Fernandes on loan, Tottenham do need additional help and the window is closing soon.

Champions League Qualification? No.

Sheffield United

Chris Wilder‘s club has an excellent run in their first season after being promoted from the Championship. The fact that they are in the conversation for European competition is a testament to their pesky play. They are currently in eighth place in the table and nine points away from fourth.

After a strong start, the Blades have struggled to just one win in their last six. In their defense, they had to play Manchester City twice and Liverpool in that stretch. Sheffield’s xG, per understat.com, in their last six was: 0.78, 0.92, 0.86, 0.63, 1.23, and 2.04.

According to FBref.com, the Blades are sixth in the Premier League in xGA, but 14th in xG, just behind bottom of the table, Norwich City. The biggest thing that has helped this club to outperform expectations is the fact that Sheffield are second best in the league at stopping opponents from converting goal chances. This makes this team hard to beat.

Last week, Chris Wilder signed left-back Jack Robinson from Nottingham Forest, which was their second signing of the January window. It does not look like anyone else is coming to provide additional offensive muscle.

Sheffield will stay in games with their defence, but they lack the ability to score when they need to. This makes a challenge for the top four quite difficult.

Champions League Qualification: No.

Wolverhampton

Last week, Wolves became the only the second team this season to have a higher xG than Liverpool in a match. Though they lost 2-1, this says something about the state of their club. You can not count them out in any game.

They are seventh in the table and tied for fifth on points. They are six points from Chelsea and are in better shape than all the others that are within striking distance.

They also earn points. Only Arsenal has more draws this year, but only Liverpool and Manchester City (whom Wolves have beaten twice) have fewer losses.

Wolves are fifth in xGA and sixth in xGDiff in the Premier League by a wide margin, per FBref.com. More importantly, these numbers are significantly better than Tottenham, Sheffield United, and Southampton.

Wolves have four players who have played at least 17 league matches, Raul Jimenez, Diogo Jota, Pedro Neto, and Adama Traore who have a non-penalty expected goals and expected assists per 90 minutes (npxG+xA/90) of 0.35 or higher, according to FBref.com. Manchester United has four as well, but their top player, Marcus Rashford, in this metric is out for an indefinite time period.

Another factor concerning Wolves chances that should be considered is the fact that the only other competition that they are playing in is the Europa League. Wolves have been eliminated from all other domestic competitions. Tottenham, Manchester United, and Chelsea are all in two other competitions.

Wolverhampton is unlikely to spend any money in the current window. They are at an $83.6 million deficit in transfers for the season, per Transfermarkt. They did get a free transfer, center-back Leonardo Campana, this past week which may provide defensive depth.

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If Santo’s club can fix one glaring weakness (per understat.com they are third worst in the league in stopping opponents goal chances) then they are in a strong position to rise up.

Champions League Qualification? Yes.