Once it would have been unimaginable to say Luke Shaw looks like Manchester United’s fittest player. But the latest evidence of the way that the left-back has turned around his career at United came on Sunday at Villa Park, where he was his team’s most energetic and effective performer before the rest of them roused themselves sufficiently to mount another comeback. Still, Ole Gunnar Solskjær will have to find a way of giving Shaw and all his other players a rest during United’s ridiculous schedule this week. Bruno Fernandes, in particular, looks like he could do with a couple of games during a schedule in which United play five matches in 15 days, finishing with the Europa League final in Gdansk on 26 May.
This was only Manchester City’s fifth league defeat but as with the reverse to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final Pep Guardiola’s selection was a puzzle. A back three of Rúben Dias, Aymeric Laporte and Nathan Aké, sandwiched by the wing-halves, João Cancelo and Benjamin Mendy, with Rodri the holding player behind a front four of Raheem Sterling, Ferran Torres, Gabriel Jesus and Sergio Agüero, stuttered in a display that found an apt personification in the latter’s unconvincing Panenka.
Guardiola will field his strongest XI for City’s Champions League final showdown with Chelsea but Thomas Tuchel’s team has two good memories of wins to call upon during difficult moments in Istanbul. Of the losses, Guardiola said: “It can happen. When you say we are not used to losing too many games, that’s a big compliment.” A third reverse to Chelsea in the big one will not leave the Catalan as sanguine.
As Emile Smith Rowe slotted Arsenal’s first, Sam Allardyce slumped into the cushioned seats of the Emirates dugout and began muttering. That record of never having been relegated from the Premier League was being consigned to history. West Brom has been a job too far even for the self-styled Red Adair of English football. Arsenal are an opponent he enjoyed getting one over when both he and the North Londoners were enjoying better days. But even the Arsenal of May 2021, an opponent with low self-esteem after their midweek Europa League exit, managed to hold off this West Brom. Half-time, where Allardyce has earned much of his survival bonuses down the years, brought brief improvement and a superb solo goal from Matheus Pereira, and a trademark Cheshire Cat smile from his manager. But Willian’s free-kick brought more muttering and what has been inevitable for months.
There were no clouds on Jürgen Klopp’s horizon following Liverpool’s first win at Anfield by two clear goals in 2021 plus the clean sheet that brought rare comfort to the finale. Four more wins from a team that, despite the prevailing downbeat mood, has taken 14 points from six unbeaten Premier League matches are possible for Champions League qualification, he insisted. The fight for fourth, however, could well be shaped by Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s team selections against Leicester on Tuesday and Liverpool 50 hours later as the Manchester United manager deals with the fall-out from the Old Trafford protests. If there is one game where Solskjær fields a weakened team, it is unlikely to be Liverpool. “We would have played the strongest United team possible on the original date and that’s what we expect again,” Klopp said. “Manchester United only have good players. They might be young but they are all good. What they do in other games we have no influence on.”
Tottenham’s top-four challenge felt over after a 3-1 defeat to a promoted club in Yorkshire. For Sheffield United, read Leeds; for 2020, read 2021. But if some of the similarities are superficial, they nonetheless underline the way this has been a wasted year for Tottenham. They can still be overrun and out-thought by better coached teams with more coherent gameplans. There are ways of illustrating Spurs’ underachievement, but one is to look at their achievers. Harry Kane has 21 league goals and 13 assists, Son Heung-min 17 and 10. Any team with two such potent players ought to be rather higher than seventh. It indicates the way others have been unproductive, that talents have been squandered or overlooked and that a defence with just six clean sheets in their last 24 league games have meant their goals have counted for too little. And, of course, it reflects on José Mourinho. Roma, take note.
Graham Potter will be furious at his players for passing up the chance to secure their safety but the result here should not detract from the quality on show during the first half. Brighton passed the ball crisply and opened up Wolves on a number of occasions, with a lack of cutting edge up front the one thing preventing them from being out of sight by half-time. Brighton’s inability to finish has been exhaustively documented this season and in that sense it felt strangely fitting that the one goal they did score was a towering header from a centre-back. But that familiar failing it is not something that can be laid at the door of a coach who has made his team into more than the sum of its parts. There are plenty of other managers, some far higher up the table, who have spent the season doing the opposite. They should be worried for their jobs.
Brendan Rodgers blamed Leicester’s shocking defeat by Newcastle on Friday to a series of concentration lapses. That analysis was fair enough, as far as it went. But to what should we attribute those lapses in concentration? One possible explanation is that Leicester are losing their nerve just as Champions League qualification is within their grasp. It is up to them to prove that theory wrong.
That could entail winning all of their remaining matches. Jonny Evans’ fitness could be critical: losing him to injury just before kick-off against Newcastle did nothing for Leicester’s composure. Rodgers’ team have generally done well against other top teams this season: they must continue that trend when the pressure is at its most intense, or suffer another late-season shortfall.
Dominic Calvert-Lewin summed up Everton’s victory at West Ham. “It was about determination, hard work, sticking together,” said the goalscorer, who alongside Richarlison up front had helped squeeze the life out of David Moyes’ team. He scored on a counterattack from Ben Godfrey’s excellent pass. “We are not a possession team because we have different qualities,” said Carlo Ancelotti. West Ham, desperately chasing down Leicester and fourth place, played into Everton’s hands. With a game in hand on Tottenham, seventh place can be claimed. Both Calvert-Lewin and Ancelotti’s words also hinted why Everton have not challenged for the top four as determinedly as either West Ham or Leicester, and had won just one of their last eight league matches before visiting the London Stadium. That reliance on the counter makes them rather one-dimensional. West Ham, riven by injuries and fatigue, just did not have the manpower to prevent it.
Had Sergio Agüero not produced one of the worst penalties in Premier League history, Billy Gilmour’s performance might have been remembered for bundling over Gabriel Jesus in the box. Instead the midfielder can be proud of a performance which saw him grow in confidence, admittedly against a confusing City side. The Scotland international became more involved the longer the game went, earning greater freedom when Jorginho came off the bench, allowing Gilmour to make more advanced runs. Some feared he would not get much of a chance under Thomas Tuchel but he quickly shown he suits the style of his new manager and has completed the past two matches, proving his adaptability in the process. The all-action midfielder looks like a top Premier League player in the making and a fine end to the campaign could make him a key man for Tuchel next season, not to mention for Scotland at the upcoming Euros.
Crystal Palace achieved safety and 40 points in beating Sheffield United. An eighth successive season in the Premier League beckons. Not bad for a club relegated at the end of each of their previous four Premier League seasons going back to 1992-93. When Roy Hodgson was hired in the early weeks of the 2017-18 season, it was to repeat the stability he had previously brought at Fulham and West Brom. He has delivered. The summer ahead, though, is make or break. Hodgson has been tetchy when questioned on whether he will continue next season when he will be 74. Eddie Howe, Frank Lampard and Sean Dyche are linked with replacing him should he retire. He chose on Saturday to pay tribute to “a group of players who have been very faithful to the club, very loyal” though 15 players’ deals are set to expire in June. Next season may see a very different Crystal Palace.