Ralf Rangnick admitted that ‘right now’, fourth is the highest Manchester United can finish.
But of the more traditional contenders, it doesn’t seem anyone wants fourth place – Antonio Conte said he’s not familiar with talking about finishing fourth, while Mikel Arteta refuses to speak about it at all. Since the new year, none of them have even looked like putting a run together and putting breathing room between themselves and the chasing pack.
Since taking over, Rangnick could’ve hardly wished for a more generous fixture list. He’s played Burnley twice, Newcastle, Norwich, Crystal Palace, Brentford and Southampton to name a few, and results have been lacking.
More frustratingly, it’s come at a time when their top-four rivals are dropping points for fun.
Conte looked to be turning Tottenham around; after that dour start to the season under Nuno Espirito Santo, the Italian was getting a tune out of his players. They were tight at the back and looked good going forward. That ridiculous ending at the King Power, where Steven Bergwijn scored in the 95th and 97th minutes had Tottenham a point clear of Arsenal and Man Utd, having played a game fewer than their North London rivals, and two fewer than United.
But three straight defeats to Chelsea, Southampton and Wolves could – or should – have seen them getting cut adrift, with United playing Burnley and Southampton, but the Reds were unable to win either game.
Across North London, Arsenal couldn’t get past Burnley, and with Wolves creeping up on the outside, a backs-to-the-wall performance at Molineux kept Bruno Lage’s men at arm’s length.
After a series of impressive results, with the other contenders falling over themselves, a win over Arsenal would’ve left Wolves well in the hunt, but despite a win over Tottenham, they’re 14/1 for a top-four finish this season.
As you can see, the table isn’t the easiest to figure out at the moment. Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester United have all been favourites for the top four in the last few weeks and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they all had spells as favourites again between now and the end of the season.
There are reasons for both optimism and pessimism at Old Trafford right now.
The optimism is that they’re now creating chances they weren’t before. Their xG against Crystal Palace, Norwich, Newcastle, Burnley and Wolves was 1.42 per game. The five games since against Aston Villa, Brentford, West Ham, Burnley and Southampton is up to 1.86 a game.
Also, their rivals are faltering. Tottenham may have the best manager of the contenders, but question marks remain over their squad, despite Conte getting to put his stamp on it on deadline day, and three straight defeats have exposed vulnerabilities.
Arsenal have been patchy all season, and it’s hard to know if they have what it takes to put together a run of form that will leave Spurs and United behind.
Jadon Sancho is finally turning into the player the Reds bought in the summer and seems to have cemented his place in the starting XI, and Paul Pogba is back after a three-month absence. Manchester United are 12/1 to finish third and 13/5 to finish fourth.
The pessimism however will come at the other end of the pitch. While they’ve not reached the nadir of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s final days, they’re also no better than they were at the start of the season. Conceding goals and chances regularly, the form of Harry Maguire is a major concern, and Rangnick still doesn’t seem to have a favoured left-back.
A bigger concern may be the fixture list. After two months in charge, the German is yet to oversee a match against the traditional big six, but has only taken 19 points from a possible 30. And after Brighton on Tuesday, their next five games are Leeds (a), Watford (h), Man City (a), Tottenham (h) and Liverpool (a). United are 5/2 to finish fifth and 5/1 to finish sixth.
Beat Brighton and the Reds will be back in the top four. But failure to win for the third time in a week will see Champions League football drift further out of sight.