It is the tentative dawn of Spring that so often exposes the true resolve of a football team. It is the time when trophies are won and lost, January signings can be truly evaluated and squads are tested to their fullest. With the season taking its toll on players’ fitness I wouldn’t imagine that there is a manager in the Premier League right now who is able to pick his true first XI.
So with star men restricted to roles on the physio’s table, it can often be the job of the ‘squad player’ to dictate where the Premier League title ends up.
A squad player is much like a fire extinguisher; you only regret buying a cheap one when you really need to use it. So with this in mind, which top five team has been the best at building up their ranks and can claim to have the finest overall squad? Read on.
I would like to take this opportunity to rule Chelsea out of the running as quickly as I can. Few would disagree that the reason behind their monumental fall from grace has been down to their absence of squad depth, and before Christmas even club captain John Terry agreed:
“In the past we had a big squad and could rotate and put other players in, we don’t have that now”
So with this frank assessment from one of his most senior players, what did Carlo Ancelotti do in the January sales? That’s right, he let an exciting English striker go out on loan to Bolton and brought in an over-priced, out-of-form Spanish hit-man who they didn’t really need. While David Luiz appears to be a good piece of business, when it is depth that you lack, spending over £70 million on two players seems a little counter-productive.
As Chelsea showed in August and September their first XI is as good as anyone’s, but as injuries struck down key players their squad hasn’t looked up to the fight and letting Michael Ballack, Joe Cole, Deco, Juliano Belletti and Ricardo Carvalho go over the summer appears to have dramatically backfired.
Similar accusations have been made of Manchester United this season, but as they currently are top of the league and are involved in three competitions, their problems are clearly not as bad. Manchester United were famed in the last decade for their traditionally strong midfield, so almost inevitably it is now this that is the cause of most concern in regards to squad depth. Past their assumed strongest four of Ryan Giggs, Nani, Darren Fletcher and Paul Scholes, we encounter the uninspiring sounding quartet of Michael Carrick, Gabriel Obertan, Anderson and Darren Gibson – none of whom you would rely on to have a consistent, impressive run in the side.
Nowadays when the subject of strong midfields comes up, perhaps the first place to look is Arsenal. A good test of a team’s depth is to take a look and think about which of the squad players would get into the starting XI of another top half club, and while Manchester United’s midfield would fail here, Arsenal are overflowing with talented playmakers. The fact that Tomas Rosicky, Theo Walcott and Andrey Arshavin don’t always make the matchday cut speaks volumes of Arsene’s Wenger’s embarrassment of riches in this department.
But Arsenal are thin in the striking department and should Robin Van Persie fall victim to another injury (and let’s face it, it’s not unimaginable) then, as it stands, Nicklas Bendtner would be their only fit, recognized front-man. Marouane Chamakh, despite a good start of the season, is not in the form needed to succeed up front. Meanwhile, Arsenal can’t be criticized for their goalkeeping depth, but their quality is somewhat lacking.
It seems that it is the top four party-crashers, Manchester City and Tottenham, who perhaps possess the best squad strength and depth. While this may come as a bit of a surprise, it could well explain the reasons behind their improved league showings.
As any Spurs fan will be only too keen to remind you, they have suffered from a great deal of injuries this season. This has been especially true in defense when at one point they had four centre-backs injured, and while this became apparent in their lack of clean-sheets the fact that they constantly remained in the top five was testament to their quality.
If Arsenal have the best midfield, it is Tottenham who arguably have the second best. It is worth remembering that Spurs won in Italy last week with Gareth Bale out and a centre midfield pairing of Sandro and Wilson Palacios – a combination which would have been languishing around the bottom of Harry Redknapp’s midfield duo wish-list in August
Manchester City’s improvement hasn’t been so much about Roberto Mancini’s wheeling and dealing as it has been about their unfathomable riches, and with the cash at their disposable it certainly isn’t surprising that they’ve amassed undoubtedly the strongest squad in the Premier League – they’ve even got a substitute goalkeeper that would walk into most Premier League sides.
The Citizens’ squad is so good that if you ask ten people what City’s best starting XI was, you would get ten different answers. While Carlos Tevez and Joe Hart have been their stand-out performers each member of the squad, from Joleon Lescott to James Milner, has made a telling contribution at one point this season and it is this that has seen them emerge as genuine challengers for the Premier League title this season.
If an injury epidemic occurred at Eastlands you would fancy City to emerge unscathed by merely shuffling their ranks a little. Chelsea have proved that they have been unable to handle ill-timed injuries this season, and I seriously question how well Manchester United would cope if they lost four or five of their first team for a prolonged spell.
It is a large, varied, strong squad that separates the top sides form the rest so it’s is fair to conclude that the top five teams have the best five squads, even if some of them are looking a little suspect. However, the quality and depth of each squad will be truly uncovered as fixtures become more congested and the importance of each game grows exponentially as we draw closer to May.