Danny Welbeck, Theo Walcott highlight Arsenal's increased bench options
There was a stretch this season when Arsenal's bench normally consisted of three defenders, two teenage midfielders and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain.
In other words, not much in terms of attacking threat for manager Arsene Wenger to throw on if his side needed a goal. Contrast that to Arsenal's 2-1 win against Leicester on Sunday, and it's obvious what a difference the Gunners' improved health situation can make in the crucial final third of the season.
With his team trailing 1-0 and in danger of going eight points behind leaders Leicester, Wenger first brought on Theo Walcott, who added pace to the onslaught against a tiring defence and eventually scored the equaliser. Then, in one of the most memorable moments at the Emirates in years, Danny Welbeck made his first appearance in nearly 10 months to grab the dramatic last-minute winner.
If the win isn't enough reason in itself for Wenger to feel more confident about his team's title chances, a glance at his current options on the bench should be. At a time when Manchester City is ravaged by injuries, having two England forwards to bring on as substitutes is a luxury that none of the other title rivals can match. In what promises to be a tight, four-way fight for the title, it could be the edge that tilts the race in Arsenal's favour.
"That shows you, at that level, the bench plays a big part," Wenger said. "When you dominate the games, you can bring on strikers like Walcott or Welbeck, it changes completely your opportunities. That is what happens. As long as we rotate well, and everybody comes on with that spirit, it makes a difference."
To see how big a difference, one only needs to look back at Arsenal's 1-1 draw at home against Tottenham in November. That game perhaps best illustrates the problem that Wenger had just a few months ago, as the outfield players on Arsenal's bench were three defenders, two defensive midfielders in Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini, and 19-year-old Alex Iwobi. Down 1-0 and desperately needing a goal, Wenger's attacking move consisted of bringing on left-back Kieran Gibbs to play on the wing. While Gibbs scored the equaliser, he's hardly the kind of super sub needed to win a Premier League title.
With Arsenal still competing on three fronts -- even though their Champions League adventure may not last much longer than their upcoming meeting with Barcelona -- the extra personnel will also help Wenger rest key players like Mesut Ozil, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez at times during the run-in.
With Championship club Hull awaiting in the FA Cup this weekend, Wenger can probably afford to continue making wholesale changes in that competition while still fielding a team full of Premier League experience. That should give players like Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Petr Cech some extra rest ahead of the Barcelona game while providing the likes of Welbeck and new signing Mohamed Elneny with much-needed playing time.
Wenger had originally not planned to include Welbeck in the squad against Leicester but changed his mind after seeing the forward's energy levels in training on Saturday. It turned out to be a pretty good decision.
"You see every player can make a difference in this squad, and we are happy to have him back," centre-back Per Mertesacker said about Welbeck. "You could see his impact."
It may not be the last time that Arsenal's bench has an impact on the title race this season.
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him @MattiasKaren.