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Is squad depth essential for Premier League success?

The highest calibre teams of the current generation are often praised or judged for the number of top-quality players outside of the starting XI they possess. Manchester City are a prime example in the Premier League of a club that almost has a “b-team” capable of competing at the same level as the first team so that, if one player suffers from an injury, another could simply fill his boots.

This is probably one of the reasons why City had such a hugely successful league campaign last year – their strength in depth is evident purely by looking at their bench in a standard league game. You could argue that they have an even larger selection of top-tier players this season, with players like Mahrez and Sane not guaranteed a start week in week out. Yet Liverpool are the ones who have managed to pull away at the top despite not owning the same magnitude of top-class individuals, with many players also struggling for full fitness.

This leads to one question – how important is squad depth for Premier League success? Is it absolutely necessary to have as many top-quality squad members as possible in order to maintain the same form throughout the entire campaign?

The “business end” of the season

Now we have passed the midway point of the 2018/19 season and sailed into the New Year, we are certainly at the point where things begin to get a little more interesting. After a plethora of festive fixtures in almost every competition, the league table has completely transformed and is beginning to resemble a final product.

With so many games under their belt, players may start to be affected by fatigue and could see their performances take a hit. Teams will now really start to be tested and depending on the number of competitions they are still involved with, will have their squads spread thin across the coming months.

Liverpool have certainly put themselves in the most promising position – four points clear at the top and with only the Premier League and Champions League to concentrate their efforts on means that the title is still in their own hands. However, City should be able to cope with all four competitions while keeping the pressure on the leaders.

With many people writing Chelsea and Spurs out of the title race, it’s important to realise that we still have seventeen games left, while only ten points separate the top four positions. Although we may be at the business end of the season, people have started to get ahead of themselves and have not comprehended the amount of time we have left of the campaign – there’s plenty of time for Spurs or Chelsea to creep back into contention.

The good, the bad and the injured

We have undoubtedly seen a real increase in quality of the top five teams. It’s not often that a quarter of the league participants reach 40 points at this point of the season and you can’t fault the attacking ambition of any of them. This could be down to an increase in the determination and undisputable enthusiasm of the managers, who seem to be fielding a top side in every single league match. The top four consists of so many world-class players that it’s hard to be modest and deny that the Premier League is one of the most competitive competitions in the world.

It’s all very well having fifteen or more players to compete for the first team but maintaining a set of individuals who are content to miss out on the odd game is a different ball game altogether. Take Riyad Mahrez for example; the Algerian is not guaranteed a start in all of City’s matches but is still one of the most technically gifted players in the league – he would probably get into the first team of any of the other nineteen teams. Will he begin to become unsettled if the Citizens continue to trail behind Liverpool and fall short of expectations?

One of the prime reasons for having depth in a squad is to have a backup for when players get injured. Both Liverpool and Spurs have suffered injury blows to numerous members of their squads and neither side has a huge amount of backup players to alleviate the problem yet are able to compete at the top. Perhaps this is an indication that depth doesn’t count for much in the league and getting the best out of the players available instead leads to the most success.

Sacrificing cup runs to concentrate on the league

Liverpool have managed to get through the most demanding point of the season relatively unscathed, in the league at least, and Tottenham have also done well to lose just once since early December. Manchester City had a severe league blip but managed to claw themselves back to within four points by beating the challengers Liverpool earlier in January.

So, it’s difficult to decide who deserves the most praise for their efforts over the festive period. Obviously, Liverpool managed to propel themselves well into the lead in the title race against all expectations, but are out of both domestic cups, whereas City and Spurs have kept themselves in the hat for all three outside competitions.

However, many Liverpool fans I’m sure would agree that being out of the FA Cup and Carabao Cup is certainly not the end of the world. Although they don’t have the same depth that City does, Liverpool shouldn’t really need it. The Reds have put themselves in pole position to win the Premier League for the very first time and should have their full complement available for the majority of the rest of the season.

The transfer window – a turning point of the year

Many teams enter the January transfer window with slight hesitance – a lot of transfers occur during the latter part of the month. The window resembles an opportunity to patch up any issues in the squad. Chelsea, for example, were quick off the mark to sign Christian Pulisic, who will join the Blues next season but they could really do with a new striker to improve their potency in front of goal.

When you look at the top three however, it’s difficult to see any patchy areas in the squads. Perhaps City would benefit from a slight buffing in defence but for the most part, we are seeing all round consistent performances on a regular basis.

So, should Liverpool and Tottenham be concentrating on increasing their squad depth by signing a few decent young players, either on loan or as a permanent addition? I think we all know that it’s likely that Spurs will be refraining from all transfer business at least until deadline day, but Liverpool may be in search of one or two new additions to see them through until May.

So are Tottenham a contradiction or a confirmation?

Pochettino’s men are continuing to compete in all four competitions despite having limited depth and a few notable injuries to contend with. At the start of the season, a lot of people believed that Spurs would struggle for the top four, especially with so many players recovering from a late World Cup hangover.

But Tottenham seem to have proved those disparagers wrong as Pochettino continues to field first team players like Kane and Son almost every match with no visible signs of fatigue. Perhaps the team is contradicting the theory that matches every three or four days can be a little too demanding for high work-rate attacking players.

On the other hand, evidence to suggest any success from the Lilywhites is crucially missing. They compete every year no doubt, but really ought to have some trophies by now to show for it. So, is a lack of squad depth the prime factor to Spurs dropping points here and there?

Maybe depth isn’t a necessary criterion for league success, but surely it makes the task a lot easier. Perhaps youth players and prospects constitute an adequate amount of depth – if that’s the case, then none of the top five teams are lacking in that respect. With the title race hotting up, it will be interesting to see if fitness comes into play come the final stages of the season but for sure there is still a lot of football to play.

Harry Mahon

90maat's team correspondent for Tottenham Hotspur, graduate of Loughborough University and current student at the University of Surrey.

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