Many football fans look at the first team line-ups and naively judge them solely on what they see from the 11 names on the team sheet. However, if one does like to judge a team on paper before assessing them on the pitch, a football team’s quality and potential for success should be judged on their squad as a whole. Whether a team is chasing the Premier League title, wanting to challenge for Top 4 or even wanting to avoid the dreaded Premier League relegation, quality squad depth is essential for a successful Premier League campaign. The owners of a team may make a high quality first team for his club but if the team doesn’t have sufficient quality outside of the first XI, that team would struggle to be consistently successful through a Premier League campaign in my eyes.
11 players is nowhere near enough to withstand the physical demands of a Premier League season. A large squad with quality throughout is particularly essential for those teams who finished in the Top 6 last season (and Hull City), as they have to cope with European games on top of the domestic competitions in England i.e. Capital One Cup and the FA Cup. Even teams not in European competitions still have to play in the aforementioned domestic cup competitions, so I believe good squad depth is an indispensable part of a successful formula.
Why is it so crucial? Injuries are an inevitability. Last season Stoke suffered the least from injuries but still had to cope with 555 days worth of player injuries. In contrast Arsenal suffered the most with injuries to players which amounted to an incredible 1716 days of absence from action. When injuries are rife, the bench strength becomes incredibly important, as your second or third choice player in the position of the injured player may need to play in crunch games. Player absences may be for suspensions, bans or perhaps international competitions like the African Cup of Nations, but whatever the reason if you have confidence in the replacement of a first team player in the squad, you can be confident of doing well in a Premier League season. Likewise if you’re suspicious that the replacement may not be good enough for the Premier League, then your team in all probability will suffer in the absence of the first choice. It is clear to see from all the top European teams in World Football now, not taking transfer speculation into account or injuries, have widespread quality in their ranks which extend beyond their first team.
A prime example is Real Madrid. They have arguably the strongest line-up in the world with the additions of World Cup stars James Rodriguez and Toni Kroos. Even with the dream-team-like first XI, Real Madrid have a second team that has individuals who would walk into most teams in European football. It seems an injustice to call it a second team. If any of the first team players got injured, the replacements are of such quality that they wouldn’t weaken that much if at all with player absences. This is a model all top European teams should aspire to emulate in terms of widespread squad quality but unfortunately for most teams, they won’t be able to match up to the financial power of Los Blancos but still this should be the idealistic aim for most teams.
Let’s see how the top teams in England compare. The best squads in England often do end up winning the Premier League and the squads with mediocre reinforcements on their benches are often the ones being relegated, as simple as that.
Man for man, I think Chelsea have the strongest squad in the Premier League. With the additions of Costa, Courtois, Fabregas and F.Luis, Chelsea in my opinion have the best first team on paper with all departments looking potent. Even though the first team looks very strong, their second choice team shows that they have an incredible amount of quality squad depth. The 2 central-defenders in reserve may not be household names but Zouma and Ake are 2 of the most promising young centre backs in the country. They are are strong powerhouses, comfortable on the ball, and could walk into Chelsea’s team after the looming Terry retirement. Meanwhile the likes of Ivanovic and Cech possibly being second-string players seems an injustice as they are Chelsea veterans who have bossed the Premier League in the last few years and are still brilliant players in their own right. Ramires, Mikel and Van Ginkel are great players to have warming the bench, all 3 could slot in the team in Fabregas / Matic’s absence and wouldn’t weaken the team drastically. Drogba and Torres will provide Chelsea with strong options from the bench from a forward perspective. Schurrle has had a brilliant World Cup being an impact sub for Germany and Salah impressed late last season hence they both could have regular first-team action. However, the Chelsea squad has that much competition for places that they could be second-string / bench-warmers.
The squad which comes closest, perhaps just matching Chelsea for brilliant squad depth is reigning Premier League Champions Manchester City. City fans may disagree with the first XI and say that Kolarov should start ahead of Clichy, Dzeko / Jovetic ahead of Negredo or even Nastasic ahead of Demichelis. The fact that this sort of debate happens just shows the quality City have in their squad. The first team is obviously very strong as it is the team that made The Etihad a fortress on the way to winning Premier League title no.2. Nevertheless the signings of Malaga’s Willy Caballero, Fernando and Bacary Sagna have improved the squad depth considerably. Sagna could easily rotate with Zabeleta as he’s proven to be one of the most consistent right-backs in the league meanwhile Caballero was one of the stand out keepers outside of the top 3 in La Liga yet he’s set to be a back up to Joe Hart. Fernando, whilst not being a signing to wow masses of fans, he is a good, pragmatic back up to Yaya Toure / Fernandinho should they be injured even though their absence would be greatly missed. Dzeko, Navas and Milner saw plenty of first team action last season, Dzeko was City’s second top goalscorer of the season with 26 goals in all competitions and Jovetic has looked impressive whenever he has had game time. Hence with 4 quality strikers in their ranks and 2 wingers that would slip seamlessly into the first team in Nasri or Silva’s absence – City much like Chelsea have impressive squad depth which makes them serious title contenders again now with an even stronger squad.
Arsenal have made 4 good signings this summer, adding to a team that spent 128 days on the top of the table last season, they are the dark horses for the title this year. I think Alexis Sanchez is the signing of the summer, hence I think because of him Arsenal will be reinvigorated and mount another title challenge. The first team line up may look different in reality because of the plethora of midfielders at Arsenal’s disposal, making it difficult to guess what would consistently be a first choice XI. The Arsenal first XI does look very strong, the front 6 look like a potent combination. Quick wing-backs who are astute defensively, an ever improving goalie in Szczesny and a dependable centre-back duo make this Arsenal team look very strong on paper. If I was Arsene Wenger I’d be tempted to play Alexis Sanchez up front as a False 9 whilst playing someone like Oxlade-Chamberlain on the wing in place of Giroud – to make it one of the fastest front 3’s in the league that could be too hot for Premier League defences to handle. In terms of midfield options, I definitely believe Arsenal have the strongest squad depth in the league. Arsenal’s front 6 in their ‘second team’ can’t be classed as second-string at all, they all can interchange with the 6 in the first team as they are of such consistent quality. They have plenty of good attacking options not even on the ‘second team’ such as Joel Campbell who had a fantastic World Cup with Costa Rica, Serge Gnabry who showed great promise last summer and Yaya Sanogo who unbelievably scored 4 goals today vs Benfica. Chambers and Ospina make for strong back ups in the right-back and goalkeeping positions. However what maybe Arsenal’s downfall is because of the lack of quality in their other defensive positions. With Vermaelen seemingly heading for the exit door, Arsenal need another centre half or two to strengthen their squad to a level of the likes of Man City. Monreal doesn’t fill fans with confidence either as a potential replacement if a few of their first team defenders got injured so there is some work to do for Arsenal to be consistent force in the league and in Europe.
Looking at Manchester United’s squad exemplifies the desperate need for new additions. Man United characteristically have always had brilliant squad depth, a fundamental reason why they’ve achieved 13 Premier League titles. After the catastrophe of last season, Vidic, Ferdinand and Evra all have left the club and Giggs has hung up his playing playing boots. This of course left a hole in the squad that needs to be dealt with as soon as possible. This first team may look different at the start of the season; Fletcher likely to be first choice centre mid following Carrick’s injury alongside Herrera and Young has been very impressive in the wing back position in pre-season, hence may become the automatic starter in that position ahead of Valencia or Shaw. The first team itself does look quite impressive with RVP, Rooney and Mata making up one of the best attacking 3 in the Premier League. Herrera and Shaw will add much needed pace and exuberance to a team which was lifeless at times last season. I think Herrera will be one of the surprises of the league and will impress greatly from central midfield as his passing distribution, tackling ability and speed coupled with his goal-scoring credentials will make him a real asset to the Premier League. I think the only department United are sufficiently strong in, is the attack, especially so because Van Gaal has made wingers into forwards. An attack supply of Van Persie, Rooney, Welbeck, Hernandez, Zaha, Nani, W.Keane and J. Wilson is full of world class talent and very talented youngsters. Unfortunately though, other departments are in serious need for reinforcements. One of the most striking weaknesses is the United defence. Only 3 recognised first team centre halves is concerning, but the concern isn’t necessarily because of lack of quality as all 3 have shown at times to be very capable defenders, it’s because all 3 are seriously injury-prone. Man United’s 2 back up centre backs are young and promising but I’m not sure if they could be top flight regulars just yet – therefore one or two high quality central defensive signings with some experience and maturity are a must this window for United to be competing for the title this season. The centre of midfield is another serious concern. With Carrick injured and Fellaini seemingly heading to Napoli, United have only 3 recognised options in Herrera, Fletcher and Cleverley. Kagawa is going to be converted into a “no.6 or no.8” in the words of Van Gaal to make it 4, but United are in clear need of a strong, powerful perhaps defensive-minded central midfielder. Therefore it is clear The Red Devils are in need of some quality reinforcements to get the squad back to the level of quality it needs to challenge for the title again.
With Liverpool, it’s quite a strange one analysing the quality of their squad depth because they’ve made several signings aimed at improving their squad and they have definitely improved the squad but the team still doesn’t look like it’s become much stronger at all. Liverpool’s team was left with a whirlpool of hole when Suarez departed that I feel hasn’t been filled adequately. The CB partner for Lovren isn’t set in stone and could be Agger, Skrtel or Sakho as none are stand out candidates, perhaps highlighting their weakness in that area. Lovren is an addition who will definitely shore up the defence and make it more solid which will be music to Liverpool fans’ ears as it was their defensive frailties which was a prime reason why they fell short of the title last year. Nevertheless I still don’t think the first team is as strong as the team that looked like genuine title-contenders throughout last season. Lallana is a quality signing, I rate him highly and believe he is the best signing Liverpool have made thus far and he will dazzle interchanging with Liverpool’s skilful attacking midfielders. The bottom line is though Lallana replaces Suarez in the first team and that in my eyes means the flood of goals scored last season will dry up massively. In Liverpool’s second string of players, I struggle to see masses of goals in the front 4. If I were a Liverpool fan, I’d be very worried that my team has Sturridge, Lambert and Borini as my strikers going into the Premier League season. The expectation on Sturridge’s shoulders to score goals will be massive and considering he is injury prone, and to have Lambert as the sole back-up would make most Liverpool fans anxious. Therefore it is clear, the position Liverpool need reinforcing most importantly is up front. They need to find a strike partner for Sturridge capable of scoring 20+ goals in the league every season because Suarez’s absence will hit Liverpool hard. I think Can and Allen are decent enough back ups to Gerrard and Henderson but I feel Liverpool are missing a Matic-like figure, an out-and-out ball-winner to give the midfield some steel. A better quality left back to compete with Enrique wouldn’t go amiss either, so all in all I think Liverpool still have some way go to compete at the very top of the league consistently again with a 4th place battle more likely.
Last season Manchester City by far had the strongest squad in the league and won the title for a second time. Chelsea’s squad lacked quality depth in the striker department leaving them to finish short of the top spot at times struggling to score in the crunch moments of the season i.e Sunderland at home and Palace away, 2 fixtures which cost Mourinho Premier League success again. This season however, Chelsea in my opinion have the strongest squad in the league with most departments covered. Whether they convert the squad depth into a title winning formula depends on how fast the new players gel and get accustomed to the Premier League. City and Arsenal are two teams that could certainly win it with the strength in depth they have too. United, I think are one or two signings away from a title-challenging team, but in saying that, if no further signings are made and United can keep the injury list small, Van Gaal’s teams can never be ruled out. His winning mentality driving a rejuvenated team means that cynics ruling out a United title win completely would be foolish. Liverpool are slightly short of a title-challenge team thus far, the team looks like it could be short of goals after Suarez’s departure, making signings a must in order to emulate last season’s push for success.
All in all, it is clear though, that a team which has widespread quality in it’s ranks beyond the first team can be confident of Premier League success.
By Hesham Bilal-Hafiz (@hesham786)