When Manchester United drew 2-2 with Leicester City on Boxing Day, you’d be forgiven for being startled when you looked at their bench. Despite starting with Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes, the options off the bench were nothing short of pure quality. Summer signings, Edinson Cavani, Donny van de Beek and Alex Telles were sat beside the mercurial Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood, who scored 19 goals last season. Add Dean Henderson, who kept 14 clean sheets for newly promoted Sheffield United last season, (Sheffield United side struggling at the bottom of the table this season) Nemanja Matic, who has two Premier League titles, Jesse Lingard, who despite his poor form still possesses quality, and Axel Tuanzebe, who is highly touted and has put in some impressive performances, then you can see why many feel United have one of the strongest squads in the league.
This season we have seen some strange results and whilst you can put them down to the coronavirus preventing pre-seasons or the lack of atmosphere at stadiums, it also important to stress how much stronger mid-table teams are now. Whilst the top five may say Liverpool, Manchester United, Leicester City, Tottenham, Manchester City, five teams who along with Chelsea and Arsenal are quite used to being at the top of the table, teams such as Southampton, Everton and Aston Villa have all performed extremely well this season. Southampton are fresh from beating Liverpool, Villa beat the defending champions 7-2. Everton won their first seven games of the season and were seen as genuine title challengers, before a dip in form, which then turned back into an upturn in form.
There is a sincere view that most teams in the league can upset the so called ‘bigger teams’. That’s just not on their day. That is consistently. You felt Southampton could get something from Liverpool. You felt that Aston Villa would run Manchester United close. You felt Everton could beat Chelsea. These teams all possess great quality. However, there overall squads don’t. When posing the question, do United have the strongest squad depth, you have to rule certain teams out.
Wolves in their first two seasons back in the Premier League, finished seventh. They were in the hunt for the Champions League spots last season, but it was their lack of squad depth that let them down. By the end they looked tired, perfectly displayed by their final day defeat to Chelsea, which prevented them entering the Europa League this season. It was probably a blessing in disguise. They let Matt Doherty and on deadline day, Diego Jota go. They did bring players in, but they were more to replace squad players that had already gone. Losing Jonny, to injury back in August was also a blow. They replaced these players, but the squad was already small. To then lose Raul Jiminez was the biggest blow of all, but the only being able to call upon 18-year-old, Fabio Silva, highlights the issues with their squad. It’s just not big enough.
You can say the same for Leicester. This is perfectly highlighted by their last three results. Afer securing a draw with United on boxing day, they preceded to rest players. Perfectly understandable given the fixture congestion. However, they drew 1-1 to Crystal Palace, who had been struggling in recent weeks. The likes of Ayoze Perez, Kelechi Iheanacho, Dennis Praet and Hamza Choudhury, coming in for Jamie Vardy, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans is going to weaken you. Brendan Rodgers has built a strong side at Leicester, but the weakness is the players coming in. If they lost a key player, like when Maddison missed the majority of the second half of last season, they struggle, as they did against Palace. If they are playing poorly, or in bad form, the players to make the changes just aren’t there.
It is the same for Everton and Southampton. Both teams have star players. For Everton it is Richarlinson and Dominic Calvert-Lewin. For Southampton, it is Danny Ings. When the majority of your goals comes from one or two players, it is very hard to replace the goals. When Richarlinson was sent off vs Liverpool, the three-game ban coincided with their downturn in form. When Ings got injured earlier this season, he would only start one of the next eight games, before returning to the team. They would only pick up 12 points in that time.
Before moving on to former ‘big six’, Aston Villa make an interesting case. They managed to bring in five players this season and didn’t lose anyone from the first team squad. Holding on to main man, Jack Grealish, has paid dividends. He has been one of the best players in the league. He has the joint third number of assists in the league and is also second top scorer for Villa as well. The players who were brought in have also settled well, Ollie Watkins is Villa’s top scorer and Emiliano Martinez, who has been one of the standout goalkeepers this season (especially for your writer’s dream team). Villa have also managed to pretty much play the same side every game this season. You can’t accuse Dean Smith of not knowing his best side. It will be interesting to see whether they can maintain that form up until the end of the season, without tiring, but they are likely to go the way of Leicester last season.
So now we come on to Arsenal. Right now, they get grouped with the sides above. They’ve had a tough season but have shown tentative signs of turning things around with three successive league wins. If Alexander Lacazette can continue his recent scoring and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang remembers that he is a world class player, then they are going to be hard to stop. The defence looks more solid with Rob Holding and Pablo Mari providing the foundations at the back. With Gabriel to come back in after his period of self-isolation, things are looking better for the Gunners. Gabriel Martinelli seems to have got the Arsenal fans excited again, however it is Emile Smith Rowe who has come back in and looked a class apart. Arsenal fans were screaming out for Mesut Ozil to brough back out from the wilderness, but it is the 20-year-old who is providing that link between the holding midfielders and the attacking players. Add in Bukayo Saka showing a semblance of the form he showed last season and Arsenal are looking good again. Options off the bench show the lack of true squad depth though. Willian has been poor since he joined, and Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe have also struggled this season. If the main five falter you are not going to be too worried about those players coming on. The midfield is also a weakness, as it has been for a while. Can Thomas Partey come back in and sort that out? Only time will tell.
Tottenham are next. You could see that Jose Mourinho wanted more players this summer. When does he not? Sergio Reguilon and Matt Doherty were signed to boost both full back positions. Joe Rodon was signed to add cover at the back. Carlos Vinicius (loan) the same upfront. He hasn’t played much in the league but by taking some of the burden off Harry Kane in the cup competitions, has reaped rewards in the league. Gareth Bale was the big signing, but he has struggled to force himself into the first team, however, remains handy off the bench. Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg has made the holding midfield position and it has given Mourinho more options in front of him, but as always with Mourinho, you sense he isn’t happy with his squad. He has criticised Dele Alli, Tanguy Ndombele and has also admitted to Gareth Bale lacking confidence in public. With Gareth Bale missing, the strike options upfront are scarce if Kane and Son Heung-min fluff their lines. So far this season there haven’t been many games where they have, but it is unlikely they can do it all season. If they don’t, do Spurs have players who can? On the evidence so far, no.
Before I talk about the best three squads, I will mention Chelsea next. I’m sure many people will disagree just based on the league table so far. Yes, Chelsea are in ninth place. However, three points off fourth place, albeit having played a game more than most, isn’t far away. Chelsea have just shy of £250 million this summer, which is where the criticism will come from. That spending spree has created considerable depth in the squad, though. Regardless of whether or not they are playing well, to be able to call upon Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Hakim Ziyech, Mason Mount (who all started against Man City in their recent defeat) and then be able to turn around and have the likes of Kai Havertz, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Olivier Giroud (who always scores goals) and also Tammy Abraham isn’t too shabby. Throw in the signings of Ben Chilwell, who is arguably one of the best left backs in the league and the free signing of Thiago Silva, who is a born leader, then the squad has seen definite improvements. Edouard Mendy had shown signs that he was the keeper to solidify the defence, but there have been some leaky moments in recent games and the midfield also lacked improving. N’golo Kante is still excellent, but his performances aren’t at the quality as they were in Antonio Conte’s title winning season or Leicester’s title winning season. The likes of Jorginho and Matteo Kovacic aren’t at the same quality and let the squad down overall.
The remaining three teams are Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, but I’m sure you’ve worked that out.
I’ll start with Manchester United. On deadline day this season, United signed Cavani and Telles. At the time it was perceived as panic buying. Fast forward a few months and it is looking like very shrewd bits of business. United’s spending was curtailed a little by the Covid panic, albeit if they could have got Sancho for the £80/90m they wanted, they would have spent it. Instead, they ended up with Cavani, Telles and also Donny van de Beek. Van de Beek has yet to see many starts, especially in the league but that was my point earlier. Look at the players that can come off the bench and change the game for United. Perhaps van de Beek wasn’t brought into start straight away. If United are playing two holding midfielders, then Fernandes starts. If they play Pogba and Fernandes, there is no room for van de Beek (unless they play four central midfielders). However, he makes the bench stronger. A strong bench is good for the side. It makes other players play better. Luke Shaw has played his best football in a long time. It can’t be a coincidence that it coincides with the arrival of another left back.
Cavani has proven his quality with late goals against Southampton and Everton. Whether or not he can play every game, with his age and injury issues last season, he’s proven he is sharp enough to come on and be a threat. It must be incredibly hard for an opposition team to continue to defend and defend when you see Rashford come off for Greenwood. Or Cavani comes on for Martial. Or they are all on at the same time. Again, it can’t be a coincidence that United’s return to winning games late and coming from behind, coincides with a much-improved looking bench. Where United are let down is the depth in holding midfield and central defence. Fred and Scott McTominay have performed very well for Manchester United and if they were the players on the bench, you’d be happy. However, you’d still prefer to see a top defensive midfielder playing in that position, that allows United to not be shackled down by playing two defensive midfielders. Nemanja Matic has done well for United over the last few years, but his time does seem to be coming to an end. Defence is the same. Will you win multiple trophies with Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof? It seems unlikely. Eric Bailly and Axel Tuanzebe have played well in the last few games, but both have had their injury issues in the past. If they signed a couple of top centre backs as well, then the squad would look even stronger.
When you talk about the defending champions who ran away with the title last season, you’d expect all parts of their squad to be stacked with high quality players. However, it’s not really like that. When you inspect the squad, Liverpool’s first 11 is second to very few teams. The second 11 however, that’s another story. It’s been well documented that they have suffered an injury crisis this season. Losing Virgil van Dijk was a big blow for them. Joe Gomez was also a blow once they lost van Dijk. Fabinho has slotted in there and looked a natural, often playing with Joel Matip or the youngster Rhys Williams. In their recent defeat to Southampton, he had Jordan Henderson next to him. He didn’t look comfortable there, but if you looked at the midfield ahead of him, despite both Henderson and Fabinho playing in defence, and any fan would be lying if they said they weren’t envious.
Thiago, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gio Wijnaldum made the midfield. They also had James Milner and Curtis Jones on the bench. That is seven very good midfielders. Midfielders who would make most sides in the league. They are well covered there. Defence has shown that a couple of injuries would leave them susceptible. If they lost the full-backs Andy Robortson and Trent Alexander-Arnold, they’d be relying on youngsters or James Milner to fill in. Continue up the flanks and more issues arise. Sadio Mane and Mo Salah are modern marvels. They never seem to not play. Jota was a great signing, and he was already taking off the pressure of that front three. Roberto Firmino was taking a lot of criticism for not scoring and they were able to hold him back. However, Jota’s injury has hurt. Last night they struggled for a goal. Who came on? Xherdan Shaqiri. Divock Origi wasn’t even called upon. That is very telling about how Jurgen Klopp sees his attacking options.
Which brings us to Manchester City.
They look to getting back to their very best. Which is scary for every other team in the league. They should scaring every other team with the players at their disposal. A couple of weeks ago they beat Arsenal 4-1. They started with Gabriel Jesus, Phil Foden, Bernado Silva and Riyad Mahrez. On the bench they had Ferran Torres, Sergio Aguero, Raheem Sterling and Ilkay Gundongan. They didn’t even bring Kevin De Bruyne, last season’s player of the year. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
Like most teams in the league, you would look at their defence and say that it is probably their weakest positions. Kyle Walker has made right back his own over the years but have never really settled on a left back. Joao Cancelo, Benjamin Mendy and Oleksandr Zinchenko have all been used. Nathan Ake as well. He was signed in to try and shore up a defence that had conceded 36 goals last season. The most since Pep Guardiola’s first season. However, it is the other defensive recruit, Ruben Dias and John Stones that have impressed the most. In terms of defensive depth, City probably have the best. This is proven by the lack of goals that they have conceded. Just 13 this season. It is the central midfield area that would be most concerning should they suffer an injury crisis. Rodri and Fernandinho are the only out and out holding midfielders and you feel Fernandinho is probably on his last legs as a world class player. Gundogan and De Bruyne definitely have the quality to play that role, but it would be at the detriment to the overall side.
So how do you pick between the sides? For me United’s average holding midfield options and suspect back line places them in third. Despite having game-changing talent in the final third and even having three goalkeepers who could get into most first teams, that weakens them and in this race for the title that I believe will be between these three teams, then that might be their issue.
Liverpool are next. If Salah and Mane were to get injured for the rest of the season, they would struggle. Origi and Shaqiri aren’t players who would come in and fire you to a title and it would be hard to ask the youngsters they have (Jones, Harvey Elliot) to lead that charge. Despite Werner’s struggles for Chelsea, you feel that if Liverpool had signed him and Jota, that front line would be looking very strong.
So, for me, Manchester City have the strongest squad depth. The forwards can interchange every game and not weaken the side. The defence is far more assured than it has been and again one defender in for another doesn’t weaken them. Rodri, Gundogan and De Bruyne provide an excellent spine and with their upturn in form, will prove hard to beat.
Written by Huw Rawlings