Arsenal, Liverpool defences fail Spurs depth test as Man United left wondering what the fuss is about

Matt Stead
Manchester United players Bruno Fernandes and Raphael Varane, James Maddison and Cristian Romero of Tottenham and Liverpool teammates Diogo Jota and Virgil van Dijk
It's squad depth test time

Spurs have foolishly had so many players sidelined that Eric Dier is going to have to come back in from the cold. It could be worse; he could be Cedric.


“They have a similar situation to Arsenal last season in that if they lose a couple of key players to injury they’ll be in a lot of trouble,” said Jamie O’Hara, the official sensible and respected voice of Tottenham Hotspur, in October.

“If they lose James Maddison to injury, they’re finished,” he added. “Similarly, if they lose Heung-min Son or Cristian Romero, they’re finished. The good thing for Spurs is that they don’t have any European football so there is a good chance that everyone will stay fit.”

The bad thing for Spurs is that they are Spurs. And in losing 4-1 at home to their bitter rivals, managed by their beloved former manager turned betrayer-in-chief, they somehow emerged with widespread credit, a reinforced sense of identity and an enhanced feeling of pride.

But they also came out of their first defeat of the Premier League season with considerably fewer players available to Ange Postecoglou than they went in with. Perhaps that doesn’t matter all that much in light of a game that ended with your side in a 0-7-1 formation marshalled diligently by the formerly discarded Eric Dier, but it also might matter a bit.

It did, however, get us thinking not only about how they specifically will cope, but how their fellow Big Sixers – those sides with the most resources and thus surely the strongest and most durable squads – would manage in the same circumstances.

It’s Spurs test time. And where better to start than with the club who will actually face such hilarious hardship in their very next match, away at Gary O’Neil’s really quite silly Wolves?



Unavailable players: Davies, Udogie, Maddison, Perisic, Romero, Sessegnon, Solomon and Van de Ven

Positions affected: Two first-choice centre-halves, first-choice attacking midfielder, first second and third-choice left-backs, second and third-choice left wingers.

Best possible starting XI: Vicario; Porro, Dier, Phillips, Emerson; Sarr, Hojbjerg, Bissouma; Kulusevski, Son, Johnson

Bench: Forster, Skipp, Bentancur, Lo Celso, Gil, Richarlison, Veliz

Quite simply a work of defensive art, with Dier, Emerson and Hojbjerg already displaying their commitment to the Big Ange ethos during the Chelsea madness. Big ask of Ashley Phillips, the £3m centre-half signed from Blackburn this summer, but needs must.

Be honest, Postecoglou could name any side he wants as long as he postfaces his explanations with a forceful enough “mate”.

READ MOREThe media is loving Big Ange instead of evil Mikel Arteta after 4-1 Chelsea defeat



Equivalent players ruled out: Saliba, Gabriel, Odegaard, Timber, Zinchenko, Tomiyasu, Trossard, Smith Rowe

Best possible starting XI: Raya; Partey, White, Kiwior, Cedric; Havertz, Jorginho, Rice; Saka, Jesus, Martinelli

Bench: Ramsdale, Elneny, Vieira, Nelson, Nketiah

Even this should not be enough to resurrect the Partey at right-back experiment. White shifting across again would be broadly fine in a decent enough centre-half pairing and the midfield and attack is largely unaffected. But there is little point in doing anything other than contemplating the renaissance of Cedric, who Arsenal sold about three years ago.



Equivalent players ruled out: Silva, Disasi, Gallagher, Chilwell, Cucurella, Maatsen, Mudryk, Washington

Best possible starting XI: Sanchez; James, Fofana, Badiashile, Colwill; Caicedo, Fernandez; Palmer, Nkunku, Sterling; Jackson

Bench: Petrovic, Chalobah, Sarr, Gusto, Lavia, Ugochukwu, Chukwuemeka, Madueke, Broja

That is not a bad side at all, admittedly aided by the sudden recoveries of Fofana and Nkunku under the specific terms of the test. Maybe spending £1bn in a year does get you somewhere. Tenth, in fact. Just checked. Level on points with Roy Hodgson’s Crystal Palace.

The bench cannot be relied upon to change the course of any game but with Jackson on the prowl it won’t need to. There’s a player you simply cannot give six opportunities to while your entire defence is stationed on the halfway line. He will eventually probably make those chances count.



Equivalent players ruled out: Van Dijk, Konate, Elliott, Robertson, Tsimikas, Gomez, Jota, Gakpo

Best possible starting XI: Alisson; Alexander-Arnold, Matip, Quansah, Chambers; Gravenberch, Mac Allister, Szoboszlai; Salah, Nunez, Diaz

Bench: Kelleher, Bradley, Endo, Bajcetic, Jones, Thiago, Doak

A gloriously homegrown defence conducted by the slightly less Scouse Joel Matip would be a sight to behold behind a midfield which continues to offer inconsistent protection at best. There is still Alexander-Arnold and there is still Nunez so there will still be 427 shots in roughly the right direction at least.


Manchester City

Equivalent players ruled out: Dias, Akanji, De Bruyne, Gomez, Ake, Gvardiol, Grealish, Bobb

Best possible starting XI: Ederson; Walker, Rodri, Stones; Lewis, Nunes, Kovacic, Doku; Silva, Alvarez; Haaland

Bench: Ortega, Phillips, Foden

That the champions employ a far more shallow squad than their contemporaries is no surprise. And there is the unpredictable factor of just how much overthinking Pep Guardiola would indulge in if confronted by such supposed limitations. Champions League final Pep’s tactics would look tame in comparison to his reaction at having a third of his squad sidelined for some entirely pointless, content-forcing experiment.

One thing is for absolutely certain, though: Kalvin Phillips would still not play, even if he is so good, guys.


Manchester United

Equivalent players ruled out: Martinez, Varane, Fernandes, Shaw, Malacia, Reguilon, Garnacho, Sancho

Best possible starting XI: Onana; Wan-Bissaka, Maguire, Evans, Dalot; Casemiro, Mount, Eriksen; Antony, Hojlund, Rashford

Bench: Bayindir, Lindelof, Amrabat, McTominay, Hannibal, Mainoo, Diallo, Pellistri

It looks broadly okay. Maguire’s win percentage might suffer a little and it would be intriguing to see how Erik ten Hag would cope without Jadon Sancho. The attack would probably thrive. Look at that attack. It is an attack full of thrive. Absolutely jam-packed with only the most thrivey of elements. No point even contemplating a forward line including £146m worth of signings and the club’s highest earner doing anything other than thriving, is there?

Then there’s the bench. You can almost hear Gary Neville salivating at the thought of each of them coming on to maim an opponent in the dying minutes of a chastening defeat to a bitter rival close in terms of geography alone. That is a post-Ferguson heritage list of substitutes.