Premier League hits and misses: 'Unique' Trent Alexander-Arnold is back to his best, Man Utd miss Harry Maguire

Plus: Emile Smith Rowe's growing importance to Arsenal, Manchester United's need for a strong finish, how Brendan Rodgers is nearing reward for his Leicester work, and Fulham's underlying problem...

'Unique' Alexander-Arnold is back to his thrilling best

MANCHESTER UNITED 2-4 LIVERPOOL 3:08
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool's win over Manchester United in the Premier League

What more can Trent Alexander-Arnold do? If his man-of-the-match performance in Liverpool's 4-2 win over Manchester United does not convince Gareth Southgate to reconsider his stance on the 22-year-old's England involvement, then perhaps nothing will.

Alexander-Arnold was the best player on the pitch at Old Trafford as Southgate watched on from the stands. The England boss has plenty of options in the right-back position. But none of them can do the things Alexander-Arnold does when he is at his best.

"It's unique that a full-back is the most creative player in any football team, but that's what he is for this team," said Jamie Carragher.

His performance was an exhibition in elite-level distribution. There was the trademark set-piece threat, shown by the pinpoint delivery powered into the net by Roberto Firmino for Liverpool's first goal, and there were also deft through-balls to carve United open and stunning long-range passes, one of which put Sadio Mane through on goal.

There was plenty more, too. Alexander-Arnold had four shots - one of which allowed Firmino to convert his second goal - and ranked top among Liverpool players for chances created (five), passes in the opposition's half (32), and passes into the box (nine).

He was irrepressible and not for the first time recently. Indeed, this performance did not come from nowhere. His poor displays in the first half of the season are well behind him now. He has either scored or provided an assist in four of his last eight appearances.

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Alexander-Arnold has recaptured his best form and he is contributing defensively too. At Old Trafford, he won possession more times (14) than any other player on the pitch. Southgate cannot ignore him any longer.
Nick Wright

Solskjaer needs a solution to his Maguire-shaped hole

Harry Maguire watches on from the stands during Man Utd's 4-2 defeat to Liverpool
Image: Harry Maguire watches on from the stands during Man Utd's 4-2 defeat to Liverpool

The sight of Harry Maguire on crutches in the stands at Old Trafford would have been a huge worry for everyone associated with Manchester United as they look ahead to the Europa League final in just under two weeks.

However, Liverpool's 4-2 victory, during which Jurgen Klopp's side continually cut through the United defence with ease, will surely have heightened those concerns with the England defender in a race against time to be fit for the final against Villarreal in Gdansk.

In the absence of Maguire, former Manchester United defender Gary Neville described Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side's defending as "erratic" and "frantic" with "unforced errors all over the pitch" as Victor Lindelof and Eric Bailly struggled to deal with Liverpool's attack.

Manchester United's defensive wall outside of the stadium has been better than the one inside the stadium. They've been really bad defensively.
Gary Neville

And, according to Neville, the performance highlighted just how important Maguire is to United and just how good a defender he is.

"The lack of Harry Maguire's presence in the Man Utd defence is obvious for all to see," he said during the game. "People question how good is Maguire but you only see it when he is not playing."

Solskjaer - whose side have now conceded 27 home goals in the Premier League this season, the most they have conceded in a single league campaign since 1969-70 (also 27) - also said what a big miss Maguire, who is likely to be out of United's final two league games of the season, is to his side.

"Harry's been really important for us," the United boss told Sky Sports. "He's been absolutely top since he came to the club. So, of course, we're going to miss him. But he's out so we've got to deal with that. We've got good enough players to be able to deal with it. So now it's about regrouping and starting to build our confidence and momentum again."

That starts on Tuesday when United face Fulham, live on Sky Sports, as Solskjaer looks to find a solution to his Maguire-shaped hole.
Oliver Yew

United's set piece problem...

33% of Manchester United’s Premier League goals conceded this season have been from set piece situations (14/42, excluding penalties), the highest ratio in the division

Inconsistency holds Everton back again

ASTON VILLA 0-0 EVERTON 3:03
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Aston Villa's draw with Everton in the Premier League

Four wins from Everton's last six away games suggested the Toffees would put in a result, if not a performance, to keep up their European hopes at Aston Villa on Thursday night.

But again Carlo Ancelotti's side messed up an opportunity to progress in a season where when push has come to shove, his team have often been found wanting.

Everton have put together runs of two or more consecutive wins only three times all season, albeit with a major caveat that on two of those occasions they went on four-match winning streaks, but the streakiness of their form has stopped them in their tracks when they have threatened to realise their potential.

The same thing happened at Villa Park. There was precious little tempo throughout from the visitors who drew just their second blank on the road since October, and only once threatened Emiliano Martinez in the home goal.

Ancelotti protected his players after full-time, pointedly insisting they had "tried their best" to earn victory, but against a side with only pride to play for they did nowhere near enough to threaten that gratification.

The Toffees now need to rely on results elsewhere for any hope of playing in Europe next season, and face a tough ask in going head-to-head with champions Manchester City on the final day.

It might be one season too soon for the Ancelotti project, which is certainly going in the right direction. But until his team can cope with pressure and find that consistency, it will not be enough.
Ron Walker

Smith Rowe carrying the torch for Arsenal

preview image 3:02
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Arsenal's 1-0 win over Chelsea.

Mikel Arteta challenged Emile Smith Rowe to add more goals to his game after he scored his first of the season in the Premier League in Sunday's 3-1 win over West Brom. It seems the message landed.

Three days later, the 20-year-old found the net again, his early strike at Stamford Bridge proving decisive as Arsenal battled their way to three points against Chelsea.

The goal was no classic - a scuffed finish from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang's cut-back - but the way in which he forced the crucial error from Jorginho summed up what he brings to this Arsenal side.

Smith Rowe speeds things up with the ball at his feet but he also leads their pressing without it. "We worked on that in training this week," he told Sky Sports with a smile afterwards.

He did not get many opportunities to shine in an attacking sense. Arsenal had just 32 per cent of the possession overall. But everything positive went through him. There were deft touches, clever passes, and even a nutmeg on Thiago Silva.

preview image 2:02
Emile Smith Rowe, who scored in Arsenal's 1-0 over Chelsea, says getting victory over their London rivals was a really important result

These performances have become a regular sight since he broke into the side for the 3-1 win over the same opponents on Boxing Day. And, for all Arsenal's recent struggles, it is worth noting that only Manchester City and Manchester United have taken more points than them in the Premier League since then.

It has a lot to do with Smith Rowe, whose hunger and desire, in addition to his considerable quality, were apparent throughout. In total, he covered nearly 12km. Even in the third minute of stoppage time, when others were flagging, he had the energy to sprint back and slide tackle Reece James in front of the watching Arteta.

"He didn't get man of the match but I thought he was the best player on the pitch," said Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp. "He made things happen and everything he did, he did with purpose."

Arsenal must show that same purpose as they try to tie him down to a new contract. Arteta has made no secret of the fact his squad needs work this summer. But Smith Rowe is someone to build around.
Nick Wright

Chelsea's familiar finishing problem

Thomas Tuchel post-match 2:54
Thomas Tuchel says Chelsea's 1-0 defeat to Arsenal was totally their own fault and feels Jorginho's mistake was a gift for the Gunners

After Chelsea's defeat to Arsenal on Wednesday evening, Thomas Tuchel alluded to a player selection he regretted for the match. "I'm not happy with my line-up," he told Sky Sports. "It's something in particular - but I will not tell you!" Let the guessing game begin…

But in truth, even with the XI Tuchel fielded against Arsenal, featuring seven changes from the win over Man City and with the FA Cup final just days away, there were still a lot of talented players in blue shirts at Stamford Bridge.

The real problem - the recurring problem, for Tuchel and Frank Lampard before him - is Chelsea's finishing.

Under the German, Chelsea's defending has been exceptional. But it has needed to be, with the Blues goal-shy at the other end of the pitch and counting on all those clean sheets to edge tight matches. They rank seventh-bottom in the Premier League for conversion rate this season.

Jorginho's error for Arsenal's goal put the pressure on Chelsea's attack to respond and they could not find the finishing touch. Kai Havertz had already blown a golden opportunity with a one-on-one but, despite the late woodwork double-hit from Kurt Zouma and Olivier Giroud, Chelsea did not cause a deep-defending Arsenal enough problems in the final third.

With over 73 per cent possession in the second half, Chelsea managed just two shots on target after the break. "We lack a bit of composure in front of goal, we lack a bit of precision," Tuchel had told Sky Sports ahead of the match. Finding those two elusive traits is easier said than done - but could hamper this Chelsea team in the long run, unless the issue is addressed.
Peter Smith

Rodgers works wonders with Foxes so close

Brendan Rodgers and Pep Guardiola 0:34
Brendan Rodgers congratulated Manchester City, after Leicester's 2-1 victory over Manchester United confirmed Pep Guardiola's side as champions

Brendan Rodgers was at pains to remind everyone Leicester's situation was in their own hands following defeat to Newcastle on Friday night, but inside even he must have been thinking, 'here we go again', as the Foxes threatened to miss out on Champions League football for the second season in a row.

He is fortunate that his side faced a Manchester United team resting most of their key players for Thursday's showdown with old rivals Liverpool, owing to a packed fixture schedule even by this season's standards.

But you can only beat what is in front of you, and they did exactly that. Rodgers described the victory as a "huge" one in their pursuit of a top-four spot, and with an eight-point gap now to fifth spot, even having played more games than anyone around them, their place among Europe's elite finally seems near-enough secure.

The Manager of the Year award rightly is heading to Manchester, where Pep Guardiola has led his team to the Premier League title and their first Champions League final, but the job Rodgers has done is sensational.

We all asked whether the Foxes had missed their chance when they were denied a top-four spot last year. With some more prudent buys, including the incredibly bright prospect of Wesley Fofana, they have come again, and look to have made it this time around.

A repeat performance of 2015/16 may be a fantasy for Rodgers and his squad, but the consistency they have shown over the last two years, in contrast to more traditional top-four occupiers, suggest a longer-term changing of the guard is underway.
Ron Walker

Ings only getting better - how can Southgate leave him out?

preview image 2:54
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Southampton's 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.

Two chances, two goals. That is what you get with Danny Ings. No player to have scored more than 20 goals in the last two seasons in the Premier League has a more deadly conversion rate than the Southampton striker - a whopping 32.08 per cent. To put that into context Harry Kane is working at a 24 per cent rate.

Ings' return of 34 goals during that period averages out at him scoring a goal every 0.64 games. Only Kane has a better return over the past two seasons.

The Saints striker's finishing was the difference between the two teams on Tuesday. His first one was not even really a chance either - a half-chance at best as he swivelled and finished like a world-class predator to find Saints a way back into a match they were struggling to make an impact on.

Ralph Hasenhuttl said: "With Danny we are a different side because he makes the chances we need to score and sometimes also goals when you don't think there is a chance. The first goal was fantastic from him. And this is why he is important for us."

On his return from injury, it was a timely reminder of his qualities with only two weeks until Gareth Southgate names his 26-man England squad for the Euros. Apart from Kane, there is no striker in the Premier League you would rather the ball fell to in the last minute of a game than the Saints man. Southgate has a big decision to make. How can you leave a striker of his ilk at home?
Lewis Jones

Toothless Fulham sum up their season

preview image 3:06
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Burnley’s win at Fulham.

A cruel, ironic but on-the-nose tweet did the rounds in a few football statistical circles on Monday night after Burnley relegated Fulham with a 2-0 win in west London.

"Burnley are the top scorers at Craven Cottage in 2021", was the general gist, as the Clarets added to their 3-0 FA Cup win with another couple of goals from Ashley Westwood and Chris Wood to seal the Cottagers' fate.

That summed things up for Scott Parker and his team, who could have played until Christmas with no guarantee they would mount the three-goal comeback needed to realistically keep their survival hopes alive.

Fulham have conceded only four goals more than Leicester, chasing a Champions League spot at the other end of the division, this season. But they have netted only 25 themselves, eight fewer than any side outside the bottom three.

They have never gone goal crazy under Parker, and did not score a hatload when promoted from the Championship last season, but whereas some relegations are complex and difficult to pinpoint, the reason behind this one is obvious to anyone who has watched Fulham this season.

Whether it will be fixed is another question, and one difficult to answer for outsiders. More worrying is that Parker - a man who could have been easily dispensed with at the end of a disappointing season - did not seem entirely convinced either during his post-match press conference, admitting "big decisions" need to be made but refused to commit himself to being a part of it.

The manager's main hopes were to avoid Fulham growing their reputation as a rollercoaster club, following a promotion or relegation in each of the most recent four seasons.

Perhaps more concern should go to whether the Cottagers make it five in a row next season, something their own manager appears less than certain will happen.
Ron Walker

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