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Premier League Matchweek 34 Preview – what to look out for

With plenty more drama guaranteed at both ends of the table in Matchweek 34, Alex Keble looks at the key talking points.

Alexander-Arnold crucial to stopping Kane

The UEFA Champions League spots look a step too far for Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur but, separated by a single point and with Aston Villa showing no signs of slowing down, it’s possible only one of them will be in Europe next season.

Sunday’s showdown promises to be an entertaining encounter.

Spurs’ 2-2 draw with Manchester United saw Ryan Mason reintroduce a counter-attacking approach as Richarlison, Son Heung-min and Harry Kane bunched together to hammer at the door, which should open things up for the sort of end-to-end contest that Liverpool can rarely resist taking part in.

Better still for neutrals, Liverpool have conceded four goals in their last two home matches while Spurs have conceded 31 on the road across the season, already their most in a single campaign since 2008/09. Leaky defences plus quick forwards usually means goals.

But Jurgen Klopp is working hard to halt the chaos, and the visit of Spurs presents the perfect test for his latest tweak: Trent Alexander-Arnold moving into central midfield.

Over the last four matches Alexander-Arnold, though nominally starting as a right-back, has moved alongside Fabinho to help screen against opposition counters and create chances in that fertile No 10 space.

After the 6-1 victory over Leeds United on 17 April, Klopp praised Alexander-Arnold’s passing and his defensive cover from central midfield: “He can do both, but we do need to be protected better because we have been conceding too many counter-attacks.”

Alexander-Arnold touches v Leeds
Alexander-Arnold was superb against Leeds and played a huge part in the Reds’ emphatic success

Tellingly, Alexander-Arnold had 151 touches against Leeds, his most in a match this season, and 121 against West Ham United, his fourth-highest total, while in the same two encounters, Liverpool recorded their two highest totals of the campaign for tackles in the middle third with 12 against West Ham and 10 versus Leeds.

Liverpool tackles v West Ham
Liverpool were far more combative against the Hammers as the dots show how many tackles they won

Everyone knows how lethal Kane can be in the zone of the pitch now occupied by both Fabinho and Alexander-Arnold. Kane was superb against Man Utd who, even with Casemiro at the base of midfield, could not get close to him in the second half.

Here, then, is a pivotal moment for Klopp and Alexander-Arnold. If he wins his head-to-head with Kane, Liverpool’s new formation might become a permanent feature.

Villa’s narrow midfield posing problems

Aston Villa are third in the Premier League table since Unai Emery took charge in October, winning 42 points from 21 encounters – and just five fewer than Arsenal having played one less match. Had this sequence started in August we would be talking about Villa as outsiders for the title as late as mid-February.

There’s a good reason to think their 10-match unbeaten run will be extended at Old Trafford on Sunday. Granted, United are unbeaten in 14 at home in the Premier League and Villa, who won 3-1 in the reverse fixture, haven’t done the league double over United since 1955, but Emery keeps finding the right tactical method to outwit his opponent.

And in this case, he’s done it before.

Emery’s first contest in charge was that 3-1 victory in which Villa deployed a 4-4-2 formation with the wide men, Jacob Ramsey and Emiliano Buendia, playing more like attacking midfielders, ghosting in off the flanks to arrive in the middle and confuse the Man Utd midfield.

The first and third Villa goals were the result of that tactic. In the first image, note how Christian Eriksen has lost Ramsey just before he plays in Leon Bailey to give Villa the lead:

Villa v Man Utd #1
Ramsey (top circle) and Buendia (bottom circle) were a big threat in that pocket of space between Man Utd’s midfield and defence

This time Buendia is in a surprise position, and after he feeds Ollie Watkins to counter-attack it is eventually the other winger, Ramsey, who pops up to finish the move from the centre of the penalty area:

Villa v Man Utd #2
Man Utd must be more aware of Buendia (top circle) and Ramsey (bottom circle) or they could face a similar result at Old Trafford this Sunday

Villa have changed a little since then, moving to a 4-2-3-1 with Buendia stationed in the middle, but the tactical identity is the same. Meanwhile, United have arguably become even more vulnerable to Emery’s strategy.

As previously mentioned, Kane ran the midfield on Thursday. Eriksen and Casemiro struggled with the sudden changes of tempo in the contest, which forms part of an emerging pattern of United falling flat in second halves: across the last four matches in which United did not win, eight of the nine goals conceded came in the second 45.

By contrast, Villa have scored a goal in the final 10 minutes in four of their last five matches. They will keep pushing right to the end – and with a plan that has borne fruit against Erik Ten Hag’s side once already this season.

The race for Europe

Pos Team Pl GD Pts
3 NEW 33 +34 65
4 MUN 32 +10 63
5 LIV 33 +23 56
6 TOT 34 +6 54
7 AVL 34 +4 54
8 BHA 31 +21 5
Man City can stretch their legs at the top

Wednesday’s annihilation of Arsenal was the moment Manchester City became clear favourites to win their fifth title in six years, but Sunday is their first opportunity to actually move into top spot. They haven’t been there since 17 February, and only briefly, whereas this time they have the opportunity to sit and stay at the summit.

Pep Guardiola’s side will undoubtedly stay focused and vigilant for their run-in, but from the outside looking in their visit to Craven Cottage might feel like a lap of honour: a chance to really stretch their legs and show everyone why they are the best team in the country. 

Fulham have lost five of their last seven Premier League contests and were torn apart in a 3-0 defeat to Arsenal in March, the last time one of the current top four visited them. Man City have won seven in a row in the league. It would be one of the upsets of the season if the hosts were to take anything here.

Instead, Man City will look to run riot and we may even get to see Erling Haaland break another record. He is now just one behind the Premier League record of 34 goals in a single season, set by Andrew Cole in 1993/94 and Alan Shearer in 1994/95, and after he quite literally let his hair down to score against Arsenal on Wednesday, Haaland will be at his swaggering best.

If there is any hope for Fulham then it rests with Joao Palhinha – who was conspicuously absent for the Arsenal defeat. His 119 tackles this season are 28 more than anyone else but on Sunday his direct opponent is Kevin De Bruyne, a man with seven goal involvements in his last four outings.

Palhinha v Leeds
Palhinha showed why he is so important to Fulham, making six tackles in the 2-1 win against Leeds

As Arsenal found out – pressing high up only to see Man City go long – there are just too many different ways Guardiola’s team can hurt you. Fulham will, most likely, be the unlucky foils for Man City’s victory parade.

Forest must end away hoodoo

It’s rare that a team can gain confidence from a defeat, but the manner of Nottingham Forest’s 3-2 loss at Liverpool gave supporters hope that there is still a chance, and sure enough four days later a 3-1 win against Brighton & Hove Albion has put them back in the race for Premier League safety.

What those two matches had in common wasn’t just the deployment of Steve Cooper’s new 3-4-2-1 formation, but a total disinterest in possession: Forest held 20 per cent at Liverpool and 26 per cent at home to Roberto De Zerbi’s side.

Their tactical methods have been simplified even further. Forest now deploy a narrow box-shaped midfield to try to stop passes entering their final third; a back five to swarm the penalty area and block the goal; and a quick front three capable of breaking at speed.

Forest's formation v Brighton
Forest’s new formation worked to excellent effect against the Seagulls

It’s a good platform, but frankly Forest will not stay up unless they improve their away record. They have produced the fewest points and fewest goals scored on the road this season, with six and seven in each respective department and have lost each of their last six away matches – conceding two or more goals in each.

Forest’s last two home encounters are against Southampton and Arsenal and even winning both of those would only give them 36 points, which may not be enough to finish 17th.

Consequently they have to find a way to scrape points on their travels and a trip to Brentford could be an ideal place to start. Thomas Frank’s side beat Chelsea 2-0 in midweek with just 27 per cent possession and, like Forest, they are yet to win a contest this season while holding the majority of the ball. 

Something’s got to give. Cooper will certainly hope his team’s extra motivation will be enough because, should they record back-to-back wins for the first time since January just before hosting Southampton, all of a sudden Forest would have all the momentum.

Leicester versus Everton a must-win

Based on current points-per-match averages, at least 35 points will be required for safety, which means both Everton and Leicester City need a minimum of two victories. A look at their respective fixture lists tells us one of those wins probably needs to come in this contest: a six-pointer if ever there was one.

Leicester’s revival under Dean Smith is beginning to take shape. Four points from two matches is a decent start, and with some sharper attacking football returning in the form of the rejuvenated James Maddison and Jamie Vardy, Leicester fans are feeling optimistic.

Still, they are running out of time and this Monday’s encounter with Everton is a must-win. The Foxes have Liverpool and West Ham in their final two home matches after this one, and their away fixtures against Fulham and Newcastle United are no easier.

As for Everton, they are without an away win under Sean Dyche but face Man City next at Goodison Park before welcoming AFC Bournemouth on the final day. In order to still be in with a chance on the final weekend, Everton will have to collect three or four points on their travels.

In other words, they cannot afford less than a win – and neither can Leicester. By the final whistle, we might just discover which of the Premier League stalwarts, both considered far too good to go down back in August, are on their way to the Championship.

The relegation battle

Pos Team Pl GD Pts
15 WHU 33 -10 34
16 LEI 34 -13 30
17 LEE 34 -24 30
18 NFO 34 -32 30
19 EVE 34 -25 29
20 SOU 34 -32 2

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