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Six talking points ahead of the Premier League weekend

Each week we preview the Premier League action and discuss some of the division’s major talking points.

Arsenal feeling impact of Saliba absence

Arsenal’s title credentials have been called into question following consecutive dropped points, with draws against Liverpool and West Ham having seen the Gunners squander two-goal leads. The league leaders have struggled in the absence of William Saliba, who remains sidelined with a back issue.

Saliba has not featured since being substituted in the club’s Europa League defeat to Sporting Lisbon on March 16 and Arsenal have not kept a clean sheet since. Gabriel in particular has looked less convincing in Saliba’s absence, with the Brazilian rash to concede a penalty for West Ham’s first goal last week, before losing Jarrod Bowen’s run for the second.

Rob Holding has replaced Saliba in the side in recent weeks, but the 27-year-old is significantly less mobile than the Frenchman. Saliba’s comfortability on the ball and recovery pace allow Arsenal to thrive in both their build-up and in enforcing a high line, with their defensive structure less sound in his absence.

The 22-year-old appears unlikely to return for the club’s crucial clash against title rivals Manchester City next week, which follows Friday night’s fixture with Southampton at the Emirates.

“He is not progressing as quick as we hoped,” Arteta said of Saliba at his pre-match press conference on Thursday.

“It’s a bit delicate and we want to be very certain when we push him that he is ready to absorb the load and the risk that we will take and at the moment that’s not possible to do.”

Wilson finding form?

Aleksandar Mitrovic’s record-breaking feats dominated the headlines during Fulham’s promotion season last term, as the Serbian obliterated the Championship goal record.

Mitrovic’s goals deserved their acclaim, but the performances of Harry Wilson were another important factor in Fulham’s second-tier success. Wilson was named in the Championship’s Team of the Season after a brilliant campaign that saw the winger score 10 goals and provide a league-leading 19 assists, but has endured a frustrating time since the Cottagers’ Premier League return.

A knee issue forced Wilson to miss the opening months of the campaign and he has struggled to regain favour and form in Marco Silva’s side. However, the 26-year-old showed positive signs on just his fifth league start of the campaign last weekend, as Wilson gave Vitalii Mykolenko a torrid time in Fulham’s 3-1 win at Everton.

He scored once and could have had a hat-trick had it not been for the post and Jordan Pickford, in a performance that will offer huge encouragement. Wilson’s creativity and combination play with Kenny Tete down the right could play a big role in the run-in.

Form favours Palace ahead of Everton visit

Everton are outside the Premier League’s relegation places by the narrowest of margins with only a superior goal difference keeping the Toffees above the drop zone.

It’s four without a win for Sean Dyche’s side, who lost 3-1 at home to Fulham last weekend in a fixture most will have pencilled in for precious points. Everton travel to face Crystal Palace on Saturday, with the Eagles in resurgent form under Roy Hodgson.

Hodgson has led the side to three consecutive wins since returning to the dugout, leaving Palace on top of the nine-team mini-table battling to beat the drop. Palace have scored nine goals in three Premier League matches under Hodgson, as many as the club had scored in their previous 16 league games.

The form book favours the Eagles, against an Everton side without a win on the road since beating Southampton on October 1. Only Nottingham Forest (6) have taken fewer points in away games than Everton this season (9), who have gone 11 games without a win away from Goodison Park.

However, the Toffees will take confidence from an impressive head-to-head record with Palace that reads one defeat in the last 16 league meetings, including a 3-0 win over the South Londoners earlier in the season.

Aston Villa entering ‘unchartered territory’

Not since the turn of the century have Aston Villa enjoyed such a winning run in the Premier League. If there were questions over the strength of their opponents during Villa’s run of wins before last weekend, the doubts were removed following a 3-0 thumping of Newcastle.

Newcastle have been one of the toughest teams in the league to beat this season and boast the Premier League’s best defensive record, but were blown apart in a ruthless performance from in-form Villa.

Unai Emery deserves huge credit for his work to date, having brought the best from underperforming players to lead a charge for Europe. Tyrone Mings and John McGinn have been reborn under the Spaniard, while Ollie Watkins and Jacob Ramsey are in scintillating mood.

The result is a place in the top six and momentum is on Villa’s side in the race for Europe. Emery’s side travel to face an out-of-form Brentford this weekend, and with Brighton and Manchester United in FA Cup action – and Newcastle taking on Spurs – they can strengthen their grip in the European places.

Speaking ahead of last week’s win over Newcastle, midfielder McGinn called on Villa to remain focused as this squad enter unchartered territory near the top of the division.

“Momentum is a big thing in football and in this league getting four wins in a row is incredible,” McGinn said.

“If we can show that kind of form until the end of the season, there is no reason why we can’t talk about it and be in those positions. As Tyrone (Mings) said, it’s uncharted territory for a lot of us so we need to stay humble, work hard and treat everyone with the respect they deserve.”

Klopp takes leaf from Guardiola book

Trent Alexander-Arnold’s change in role at Liverpool has been a talking point in recent games, with the defender having flourished in a new hybrid-role between full-back and central midfield.

Alexander-Arnold’s defensive game has been criticised and Klopp has sought a change in role to both bring the best from the 24-year-old and provide better balance to Liverpool’s defence. Alexander-Arnold was outstanding during Liverpool’s 6-1 win at Leeds on Monday, as he roamed into a midfield role alongside Fabinho and orchestrated an emphatic win for the Reds.

Such was his influence, Alexander-Arnold became just the fourth player on record to have assisted 2+ goals, completed 100+ passes and maintained a pass accuracy over 90% in a Premier League match (data since 2003/04).

The positional change has seen Klopp follow a blueprint popularised by Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola and since used by Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, in using full-backs to invert into midfield in search of greater control. It is a tactic that in its limited testing has worked so far, as increased involvement for Alexander-Arnold has led to greater chance creation, while his movement inside supports Fabinho’s defensive role centrally.

Alexander-Arnold’s is Liverpool’s best passer and his attributes are ideally suited to the demands of the flexible position. Klopp’s tactical tweak could lead to the talk soon surrounding Alexander-Arnold’s strengths once again and not the weaknesses too often discussed so far this season.

Newcastle can cement Champions League place

Eddie Howe admitted that Newcastle’s 3-0 defeat at Aston Villa last weekend was his side’s ‘worst performance’ of the season, with the Magpies well beaten on a disappointing day in the Midlands.

“I think it was probably our worst performance,” Howe reflected.

“We weren’t great today, and that’s hugely disappointing in such a big fixture. The lads have been so consistent throughout the season. These things can happen. We now just need to focus on our response to today.”

There was some solace for the Champions League chasers, as Tottenham missed the chance to capitalise with a shock loss at home to Bournemouth. It means Newcastle remain in pole position for the top four, ahead of a huge showdown with their nearest rivals this weekend. It’s fourth vs fifth in the Premier League table, with Newcastle currently three points ahead of Spurs having played a game less than the north Londoners.

A win would put Newcastle firmly in control of their top-four fate, as those on Tyneside begin to dream of the Champions League anthem sounding out at St James’ Park. Against a Spurs team struggling under interim boss Cristian Stellini and who have lost the lead in three of their past four Premier League games, this feels like an opportunity Newcastle can not afford to miss.

Read – Five in-form players pushing for an England place

Read Also – Ranking the players with the most left-footed goals in Premier League history

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