I remember the days when Boxing Day was almost as sacrosanct as the day before. When the sales were still twenty-four hours away and football was just about the only thing working. None of the games was live on TV so only Police instructions changed kick-off to unmentionable o’clock. There was no rail service. It prepared us for the arrival of the Southern Railway franchise; we just didn’t know it at the time.
Unai Emery answered the burning question of the day: Lucas Torreira plays. It’s a loaded answer; one booking and he is out of the trip to Anfield on Saturday.
The Spaniard is having none of it:
In my career, I never made these decisions. We are going to play the next match in Brighton and we are going to play full – not with considered options or playing with more caution.
The same three points are in Brighton that are in Liverpool and we are going to play first in Brighton. It’s a tough match and we will need every player with 100% focus to do everything on the pitch to win.
I don’t know whether Torreira would even be able to play cautiously but I don’t want him to think about the possibility of a suspension for one yellow card.
It’s hard to disagree with his logic but I’d certainly take the opposite decision. Ramsey and Guendouzi alongside Xhaka is a midfield trio capable of winning this match; it isn’t one I’d feel confident of taking to Anfield. Less so if we’ve got a makeshift defence.
But that it is to get too far ahead of myself. Brighton is the three points at stake and Emery has to look at them without considering the remainder of the festive programme. It’s a marginal call and he’s made it.
Not Tonight, Josephine
Laurent Koscielny declared “not today” when Emery asked him about playing against Burnley which is understandable after two matches in a week. Better, in any case, for him to be fit for two away games than what proved to be a comfortable home win.
Christmas Eve wasn’t full of good cheer with injury news pointing to other risks having to be taken. Mustafi is potentially fit which may give us a back three comprising three centre-backs for the first time since Noah began his boatbuilding apprenticeship.
The midfield battle will be key to winning. Torreira is likely to feature alongside Mateo Guendouzi, who came in for praise from Emery:
I am very happy with Matteo and he is improving a lot. He is helping us and he gives a lot of moments with the combinations, the quality and the possibility to play with our style. He needs to improve more and needs to continue his progress with us, but I think he’s very young.
Youthful exuberance is Guendouzi’s trademark; the energy which defines his game is as important as Torreira’s tenacity. The trio has a nice balance; Xhaka’s range of passing, Torreira’s defensive mindset and Guendouzi falling between the two. His motivation on receiving the ball is finding the best pass to use as a springboard to increase pressure on opponents.
The decision to release Aaron Ramsey is founded on many factors, not least of which is money. However, Guendouzi is one of those as is the prospect of Emile Smith Rowe delivering on his promise.
There are others for whom this is a big afternoon. Mesut Özil returned to the fold last weekend, rightly receiving the plaudits; we need the same as we return to the scene of one of last season’s numerous horror shows.
XI at the Ready
There is a sense, however, that Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s injury saved Özil’s bacon. Away from home, it’s hard to envisage Emery playing both Lacazette and Aubameyang; more likely was Iwobi and the Aremenian on the flanks. Now, it’s Özil and Iwobi with Lacazette a second-half substitute.
It leaves the XI as:
Leno; Sokratis, Koscielny, Mustafi/Monreal/Xhaka; Lichtsteiner, Torreira, Xhaka/Guendouzi, Kolasinac; Iwobi, Aubameyang, Özil
If I’m honest, I’d almost prefer Emery to go with a 4-2-3-1 if Monreal or Mustafi isn’t fit but the Spaniard likes to conjure a back-three out of nowhere. He’s still looking for the key element that stops our silk purse becoming a pig’s ear.
Nonetheless, three points is most definitely on the cards this afternoon but we need to up our game from the performance at Southampton. It’s these games which will define whether we challenge for a top four place or make an incremental improvement to fifth.
Enjoy the match wherever you are watching it.