Which of the Premier League's top four has the squad to win down the stretch?
The middle of February is often a time of relative calm in the Premier League. With the Champions League returning, the FA Cup kicking into full gear and the League Cup final on the horizon, lots of teams have to shift gears. The overlapping and intermingling competitions means that it's not only about figuring out how to win each game as an individual contest, but how best to balance the demands of all of the competitions against each other.
Usually those challenges are fairly similar for the teams at the top of the table. This season they aren't. The weirdly upended Premier League table has left the teams vying for the title with a widely disparate schedule ahead of them. How they manage it will play a key part in who walks away with all the hardware.
Most years teams vying for the title are balancing the Champions League and perhaps the FA Cup with their Premier League responsibilities. The chase pack, meanwhile, is loaded down with Europa League responsibilities and annual stories about the difficulty of playing on Thursday and Sunday. For Champions League outsiders looking in, the Europa League dynamic can seem like a particularly large burden. They face the possibility of the most games down the stretch while also traditionally having fewer resources to work with to build the kind of deep squads that can mitigate those challenges.
This year, league leaders Leicester City aren't burdened by any competitions beside the Premier League. That means that they've got their own mini winter break right now, two full weeks without any competitive games, no international duty, no nothing. That gave Claudio Ranieri the freedom to give his players an entire week off. Those are the kinds of management decisions that are hard to judge in a vacuum. It's always tempting to credit them after the fact if the team goes on a tear, or blame them if form falls off, even if the break itself had little to do with subsequent outcomes.
It's hard to argue with that Ranieri magic so far this season, though. And, regardless of whether it ultimately gives his team an extra boost, he's the only manager at the top of the table who has the option of giving his team time off. And they might very well need it. Leicester City have been incredibly lucky in avoiding major injuries, while relying heavily on the kind of shorter squad you'd expect a team that in preseason was preparing to battle against relegation to have.
The extra rest is nice, but it, like any other edge, isn't a guarantee. Two years ago Liverpool had a similar advantage as they made their unlikely charge toward the top of the table. Everybody remembers the Steven Gerrard slip that ended their title chances against Chelsea. Less memorable is that it came against a heavily rotated Chelsea side that was focused on their Champions League semifinal match-up against Atletico Madrid. Demba Ba finished Liverpool's title chances because all the more important strikers were resting, and Liverpool couldn't score on a Chelsea defence that prominently featured Tomas Kalas.
Second place Tottenham are in the unique position of being title contenders while also having to deal with the rigours of the Europa League, and they're also set to face Crystal Palace this weekend in the FA Cup. By the time Leiecester play their next game, Spurs will have played three matches. It's a delicate situation that will no doubt give Spurs supporters flashbacks to the 2012-13 season when Gareth Bale was injured in a Europa League contest with Basel, forcing him to miss time and hurting Tottenham's Champions League qualification bid.
Despite those memories, though, Mauricio Pochettino didn't send out the backups against Fiorentina, and should Spurs progress, you get the sense he won't against any other Europa League opponents either. In part that's because Pochetttino has managed his large, young squad to keep everybody involved rather than settling on a first-choice team with backups.
At many positions around the field, it's hard to even tell who the first choice is. Positional battles like Danny Rose and Ben Davies at left-back and Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier at right-back have resulted in all four players getting major minutes. The same is true of the attacking band behind Harry Kane -- one of the true irreplaceable parts. Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela, Son Heung-Min, Dele Alli and Nacer Chadli are all contributing pieces who have started games at various points this season.
Many teams develop a squad that has a first team complete with high-quality cover, backups who are able to fill in capably in the event of injury of fixture congestion. Conversely, lots of teams struggle to find a best XI, usually that happens when nobody is good enough to hold down a starting position. Rare is it to find a squad that's balanced like Spurs, where multiple positions have no clear-cut best option, but at the same time all of the options available are performing at a high level. It's a rare situation in which not having a best XI is a complement and not an insult.
A squad set up like that is designed to approach multiple competitions by rotating heavily but also balancing the team to keep as close to peak performance across all of them. Rather than prioritising domestic success over the Europa League, or ignoring the FA Cup or some combination, Spurs are set to play very good, though not their absolute best, lineups in all of them. For better or worse, Spurs seem committed to competing on all fronts, even if it ultimately costs them a crucial point or two at the end of the Premier League season.
Arsenal are tied with Spurs on points, and also in three competitions. The slightly less rigourous schedule of the Champions League, plus the fact that facing Barcelona means they're less likely to remain in it for the long haul, means that the homestretch will be slightly easier for the Gunners than their North London rivals.
The fact that Arsene Wenger remains in charge of the club also means they're less likely to balance the squad effectively. Arsenal under Wenger have had a habit of treating squad rotation as something that happens as a result of a torn hamstring, rather than as a way to prevent one. If they can keep everybody healthy and on the field, then they may be title favourites. Given their very real chance at a title this season, it may in fact be one year where drawing Barcelona in the first Champions League knockout round isn't without a redeeming feature. Arsenal aren't set up well to deal with a plethora of competitions, but they might be unstoppable if they end up only having to deal with one.
The most interesting case of all might be Manchester City. They're only six points out of first place, Vincent Kompany is finally back from injury and yet there's still -- somehow, 26 games into the season -- a real sense that they've yet to hit top gear. It feels like they should be right in the thick of the title race, but they aren't.
The fact that they're only six points back would be one thing if they were in second, but to make up six points and pass all three teams in front of them makes the task much more daunting. Bookmakers put their odds at around 15 percent, other statistical models put the odds below 10 percent. Even being optimistic about City's chances makes them a longshot to win the title.
In the Champions League, however, they have finally gotten a favorable draw. After having to deal with Barcelona in the round of 16 the past two years, this season they have a much more manageable task of facing off against Dynamo Kiev.
With an increasingly brittle Kompany, an aging Yaya Toure -- who often seems to not have the legs for 90 minutes of effort a week, let alone 180 -- it might make sense for City to focus their efforts on one last run at the Champions League before the end of the Manuel Pellegrini era. Trying to compete for everything seems likely to leave them not holding much of anything at the end -- except maybe the consolation piece of hardware known as the League Cup, which they'll be competing with Liverpool for in two weeks' time.
The differing demands on the top four teams in the Premier League are just another way this season has departed from the ones before it. Leicester lead the league, but that's the only thing they need to worry about. Spurs might be best equipped to deal with a fight on multiple fronts, but they also have the stiffest scheduling test. Arsenal might not have the depth to compete across the board, but they also won't have to. And then there's Manchester City, a team with lots of tough choices to make over the coming months.
Four teams with four different challenges, and a whole lot of hardware hanging in the balance.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering European soccer, the U.S. Men's National Team and more. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.