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Man City's squad depth is the difference

Sky Sports logo Sky Sports 30/12/2021 skysports.com
Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are in charge of the Premier League title race after Chelsea and Liverpool's slips Pep Guardiola's Manchester City are in charge of the Premier League title race after Chelsea and Liverpool's slips

"Everything is fine until you reach that Christmas time," said Jurgen Klopp at the start of December. No doubt his Chelsea counterpart Thomas Tuchel now agrees. This period seems to have decided the title race in Manchester City's favour.

Liverpool have been able to accumulate only one point from their two games either side of Christmas. Chelsea have now won two of their last six in the Premier League. When second meets third on January 2, City are likely to be 11 points clear at the top.

That is because Pep Guardiola's side have made serene progress even amid the chaos. Ten wins in a row in the competition have seen them pull away, just as they did last season. It has been relentless. The three-way title race that was promised is no more.

There will be those who point to Manchester City's superior squad depth as the decisive factor. Nobody can deny the wealth of talent that Guardiola can call upon. But one wonders whether there might be more to it than that. Chelsea have depth too.

At the start of the season, many marvelled at the fact that Tuchel appeared to have two players for every position. It seemed that he could name a second eleven just as strong as the first. That was cited as one of the key reasons why they could win the title.

By the start of December, Tuchel had already made 50 changes to his Premier League starting line-up, 15 more than any other manager, including Guardiola. The problems have come for him when the Covid-19 crisis hit and rotation was no longer an option.

"It is not fair," said Tuchel. "They make us play all the time, even if we have Covid. We have new injuries and it won't stop. We are struggling, we're pressing our players. We do changes because of injuries. We do not change for tactical reasons any more."

The front three of Mason Mount, Christian Pulisic and Hakim Ziyech were asked to start the draw at home to Everton. Chelsea were unconvincing that evening but the trio were expected to go again just three days later - creating even less in a stalemate at Wolves.

For Liverpool, the lack of rotation in the forward position has been a constant since the start of the season. Mohamed Salah is yet to miss a Premier League game. This continuity has been their strength, a team capable of winning consistently when everyone is fit.

The difficulties have arisen when the machine has been messed with, the drop-off proving too great. Against Leicester, Andrew Robertson's absence was felt, but perhaps the bigger issue was that Salah, Sadio Mane and Diogo Jota squandered a series of chances.

It was their seventh start as a trio in five-and-a-half weeks.

In comparison, Guardiola's rotation has looked like a luxury. It is true that he has been without Kyle Walker and more recently Rodri, causing some issues in dealing with counter-attacks, but the ability to switch between his attacking options has been crucial.

For all the changes of personnel and positioning, City's fluency has endured. The system works. The ideas are clear. And when the international breaks are over and the rhythm of regular games arrives, it can seem as if the whole squad is on a roll.

Rotation doesn't hinder them, it helps.

Jack Grealish started in the 7-0 win over Leeds on December 14, dropped out for the next two games and returned to the team for the victory away to Brentford. Phil Foden did the same and looked fresh in scoring the winner on Wednesday evening.

Raheem Sterling started against Wolves on December 11, was dropped, returned to the team for the next two wins either side of Christmas, and was out again at Brentford. Riyad Mahrez was out against Wolves, played three on the bounce, and got his rest.

As for Gabriel Jesus, consider his December. He started at Aston Villa, was back on the bench at Watford, came in against Wolves, was rested against Leeds, reintroduced for the trip to Newcastle, was back out against Leicester, then recalled for Brentford.

He was rotated more times in 18 days than Salah and Mane have been between them so far this Premier League season. Jota has started eight of the last nine games too. Being expected to deliver time and time again is a test both physically and mentally.

Could Klopp or Tuchel have done anything differently?

Maybe they will regret those moments when they eschewed opportunities to rest key men. Perhaps there were chances to turn to the players on the periphery that bit earlier and that would have left those individuals better prepared when needed.

Just days after Klopp's comments about the forthcoming fixture concerns, he surprised many by starting both Salah and Mane away to AC Milan in Liverpool's final Champions League group game even though his team were long since guaranteed the top spot.

Roberto Firmino has not started a Premier League game since October, having been used as a substitute in each of the last three Premier League games. Divock Origi scored the stoppage-time winner at Wolves, but has not been trusted with a start.

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With Ben Chilwell out for the season, did Tuchel have to play Marcos Alonso for 90 minutes in the Carabao Cup game at Brentford? Mount and N'Golo Kante came on in that game too.

Romelu Lukaku might wonder himself why his five previous Premier League appearances came from the bench before being asked to play 90 minutes against Brighton.

Pulisic, meanwhile, had not played a full Premier League game all season until the start of December, but has done so five times this month - four times inside a fortnight.

All three coaches are undoubtedly world-class, Champions League winners one and all. They will have had their reasons and the urge to judge too harshly should be resisted in these unusual times when outside factors are clearly having a greater influence.

For Tuchel, enduring his first Christmas in England, it has been hectic. He has sometimes appeared aghast at his situation, a coach being denied the chance to coach. Klopp has long since accepted that he finds himself in a fight in which the odds are against him.

Guardiola has had resources and fortune but also the skill to negotiate a path through tricky times. It has played into his hands and there are no hands more capable. Everything is fine until you reach that Christmas time? His City have just powered through.

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