theScore examines the most important developments and biggest talking points from Saturday’s slate of action in England’s top flight.
Little hope for Leeds’ exposed defense
Leeds United’s backline resisted Fulham the best it could – with desperate defending typical of a side battling against relegation. Left-back Maximilian Wober heroically sprinted back to cover a hole on Leeds’ right near the end of the first half, intercepting a pass that was headed for an unmarked and dangerous Andreas Pereira. Liam Cooper was poor on the ball; off it, he was a riot of blocks and tackles.
However, protection from elsewhere in Leeds’ lineup was glaringly absent.
The distribution from defense wasn’t great, but few Leeds players higher up the park seemed to want the ball during Saturday’s 2-1 defeat at Fulham. No one appeared capable of taking possession and momentarily relieving pressure. In the absence of Tyler Adams – who’s sidelined for an indefinite period – the midfield continues to be anonymous: Weston McKennie’s form is a growing concern as he constantly loses the ball, and a video of Marc Roca’s season highlights would only occupy a few frames. But bypassing this part of the team with direct deliveries to the attackers is another fruitless exercise.
The main outlet in attack is currently Brenden Aaronson. He appears to work hard and tries to carry the ball into enemy territory, but it isn’t enough. He looks rather frail compared to the opponents who challenge him and, for someone who tumbles over as much as he does, should be winning more than 2.2 fouls per 90 minutes this season. Wilfried Gnonto, Crysencio Summerville, and Joe Gelhardt have all earned more free-kicks per match for Leeds. And Aaronson obviously doesn’t have much end product when he spends so much time on the turf: the American has scored only once, and Jack Harrison has provided twice as many assists (six to Aaronson’s three).
Why Gnonto, clearly Leeds’ best player, isn’t tested in Aaronson’s position – or any position, for that matter – is puzzling. Since injury forced him out of the team’s trip to Arsenal at the start of April, Gnonto has been an unused substitute once and replaced an underperforming starter three times. And on two of the occasions he was introduced off the bench, Leeds were losing by two goals and four goals. Out of all of the changes head coach Javi Gracia has implemented since he was hired in February, Gnonto being under-utilized in a bit-part role is the most perplexing.
Gracia inherited a messy squad with no clear playing identity. Injuries to key figures have hamstrung Leeds for around two seasons now. But there has to be a better combination of players ahead of Gracia’s exposed defense. If the midfield is still missing and the attack remains ineffectual in the upcoming matches against Leicester City and Bournemouth, it’s difficult to imagine Leeds being a Premier League club in the 2023-24 campaign.
Rejuvenated TAA pivotal for streaking Reds
The decision to shift Trent Alexander-Arnold into a slightly advanced role continued to pay off after another inspiring performance Saturday helped Liverpool edge closer to the top four. With criticism mounting following a sustained period of poor performances earlier this campaign, the 24-year-old has successfully turned his season around after being unleashed into a more advanced role in the middle of the pitch.
Along with a boost in confidence that’s come a result of his own improved performances in recent weeks, the 24-year-old has been instrumental in helping enhance the play of teammates around him. He continued to do so Saturday, as Liverpool extended their unbeaten run to four games after a narrow 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest.
After setting up two goals in Liverpool’s lopsided win over Leeds last week, Alexander-Arnold’s pinpoint passing was on display again at Anfield. His delivery in the lead-up to Diogo Jota’s goal caused just enough havoc in the penalty area before the Portuguese star ended a sequence of headers and scored from two yards out. Shortly after the goal was canceled out by a Forest equalizer, Alexander-Arnold brilliantly delivered a free-kick into the box to find Mohamed Salah for the go-ahead tally – Liverpool’s third goal off a set-piece on the afternoon.
His versatility has helped bring back a creative dynamic to Jurgen Klopp’s midfield that was sorely missing during early spells of Liverpool’s disappointing 2022-23 campaign. While it’s too late for Liverpool to add to their trophy cabinet, Alexander-Arnold’s revival offers hope for the future while helping to dispel the notion that his career was in an uncontrollable downward spiral.
Leicester much more than Maddison
Dean Smith starting the match with Jamie Vardy, Kelechi Iheanacho, Patson Daka, and Tete in his lineup was perhaps too brave, but it underlined just how important it was for Leicester City to chase three points against Wolverhampton Wanderers. Goals needed to be found while talisman James Maddison missed out due to illness. But the 2-1 victory wasn’t really the result of Smith’s bold scheme; instead, it was the rare sight of the Foxes digging deep to get a result. Caglar Soyuncu was uncompromising at the back with the kind of showing that won him a large legion of admirers three seasons ago. Boubakary Soumare overcame a shaky start to arguably become the match’s standout player, contributing four dribbles and three tackles in an all-action display. Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall had a scrappy yet positive impact off the bench. Leicester didn’t flop, they fought. The team’s second-half performance at Manchester City and win over Wolves are encouraging for its chances of survival.
Villa’s European credentials face true test
For the first time in weeks, Aston Villa looked out of sorts and out of ideas. Then came the hammer blow: Emiliano Martinez, Villa’s standout ‘keeper and World Cup winner, exited Saturday’s game against Brentford with an unspecified issue. A response was necessary. While it took a bit of time for Villa to regain their footing – Brentford scored in the 65th minute after a run of nine shots to none – respond they did. Unai Emery’s side controlled 70% of the possession in the final 15 minutes, and Douglas Luiz stabbed home the equalizer after a spell of sustained pressure in Brentford’s half. That goal ensured Villa remained ahead of Liverpool in sixth place and extended their unbeaten run to nine matches. The game also reminded the Premier League’s hottest team that European qualification won’t come easy, especially with season-ending matches to come against direct rivals Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.
Stat of the day
It hasn’t taken long for Salah to put his name among some Liverpool greats.
Tweet of the day
Leeds fans are finding it hard to move on from Marcelo Bielsa’s entertaining spell in charge, but it’s understandable given their current predicament.