There’s rarely a moment’s rest for the Premier League over the festive period and this week heading into 2019 is no different. There’s a potential title-decider at the Etihad, a resurgent Man United and questions galore for Maurizio Sarri. We preview what you need to watch for over the New Year fixtures. Happy 2019!
Lukaku could be next to benefit from Solskjaer’s magic
Who knows how far Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s maverick approach of being positive and not treating his players like wastes of space will go? All that matter is that it’s working for the moment and a few players who were stymied under Jose Mourinho now look revitalised, free and, most importantly, playing better football. But now he’s faced with an interesting choice.
Romelu Lukaku wasn’t available for his first two games but came off the bench and scored against Bournemouth. In theory, Lukaku should stay as a substitute because of Marcus Rashford’s fine form but it must be tempting for Solskjaer to turn his redemptive powers towards the Belgian.
After the Bournemouth victory, Solksjaer gave a small nod to how he’s already working on Lukaku’s game. “He’s a good target man but if you tell him to be a target man, he’ll never face the goal,” he said. “Today he was side on and then he can go in behind or go towards the ball. He’s got the attributes of a top, top striker.”
Lukaku wasn’t the most significant victim of Mourinho’s reign but he did struggle significantly in the autumn. Having pepped up Rashford, Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and plenty of others already, it might be handy for the long-term if Lukaku gets a run in the side as well.
Is this Liverpool’s biggest game under Klopp?
Thursday night’s game at the Etihad, the biggest of the season and the fixture that could effectively decide the Premier League title three days into 2019, is clearly bigger for Manchester City than Liverpool. Lose, and Pep Guardiola’s side will have virtually no chance of winning the league. A draw wouldn’t be a huge amount of help either, leaving them seven points back from a Liverpool side who look absolutely relentless. But while most of the pressure is on City, it’s going to be particularly interesting to see how Liverpool approach this game.
One of Liverpool’s strengths this term has been the adaptability of their approach; Jurgen Klopp has been able to pick which games require a more conservative (relatively speaking) set-up and when to go for the jugular. He chose the latter against Arsenal but that was a vulnerable team with a shaky defence.
If, for example, he picks a three-man midfield of Jordan Henderson, Fabinho and Georginio Wijdnaldum against City, that shouldn’t be seen as the selection of a manager afraid but rather one who has built a team comfortable with a few different approaches and able to operate at more than one speed.
Even more than the tactical set-up, their mental approach will be fascinating. They haven’t shown much sign of wilting in the face of favouritism over the last couple of games but then again, they haven’t played Manchester City in their last couple of games.
Theoretically the Champions League final last season was their biggest game under Klopp but given that was Liverpool’s third in 13 years and they haven’t won the league since 1990, you could argue that, for the club, getting it right on Thursday will be even bigger.
How will Chelsea’s creaking squad cope?
“We are in trouble,” said Maurizio Sarri after Chelsea’s win over Crystal Palace on Sunday, reporting the latest additions to a daunting list of injuries. Olivier Giroud left Selhurst Park on crutches, joining Cesc Fabregas, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Pedro and Callum Hudson-Odoi in the treatment room.
That list might not look full of particularly vital players — indeed, probably none of them would be in Sarri’s first-choice team — but the point is that he will have no option but to work that first-choice team even harder at the busiest time of the year. Chelsea won’t just be playing games with tired players, but they’ll be risking further injury to the likes of Eden Hazard, Willian and N’Golo Kante with plenty still to play for.
Chelsea face Southampton on Wednesday, Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup three days later, Tottenham in the Carabao Cup semifinal three days after that and then a whopping four days off before playing Newcastle in the league. Three of those four shouldn’t be overly testing in isolation but after 10 games in the previous 32 days, the strain might start to show.
Is it worth giving Son a rest?
The temptation for Mauricio Pochettino right must be to wring every last drop from Son Heung-min given that he’s only available for another three games before disappearing on international duty for a month or so with South Korea, and the Asian Cup.
Son has arguably been Tottenham’s best player over the last month, with seven goals and a string of brilliant performances in December. But over-using Son now might be counter-productive: after all, while he won’t be available to Tottenham, he’ll still be playing and under more intense conditions, international tournaments often being more tiring emotionally than they are physically.
Son will be tired upon his return from the United Arab Emirates and with the remainder of the domestic season ahead; in the longer-term, there is an argument for giving him as much rest as possible even if it might seem harmful in the short-term.
Arsenal are failing Aubameyang
There were plenty of elements to Arsenal’s performance against Liverpool to scoff at, one of which was Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. The striker took only 13 touches at Anfield, six of which were kick-offs, and the more scathing could argue that Arsenal’s top-scorer didn’t do his job on a day when they needed him.
But that misses the point: Aubameyang is a deadly goalscorer when given the right service, which he wasn’t against Liverpool. He was left alone and stranded at the top of the pitch, so isolated that you could almost see the dust gathering on him. To get the best from one of the Premier League’s top finishers, Arsenal must feed him.