The Back-up Brigades: Which Club has the Best Second XI?

Dominic Chandler
Read Time:9 Minute, 50 Second

Dominic Chandler (@Frankly2Shankly)

Premier League clubs have shuffled their packs and are now left to deal their cards accordingly. With fixtures coming thicker and faster than ever, not just quality of player but sheer quantity of player will be as crucial as ever in a season like no other.

Those clubs with one eye on their continental commitments will have to be particularly shrewd when utilising their roster. With that in mind, here’s a look at the so-called Premier League ‘big six’ and the potential second XIs they could field.

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Arsenal

Cost of XI: £84.8m

International Caps: 207

Average Age: 24.9

It was seen by many as a successful window for the Gunners. The £70m capture of Gabriel and Thomas Partey has potentially addressed some long-standing weaknesses, while the Bosman signing of Willian looks a canny addition. However, retaining the services of prized asset Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang was perhaps Mikel Arteta’s most important piece of business.

Arsenal now have the luxury of alternating their attack, with quality alternatives in £72m winger Nicolas Pépé and Spanish international Dani Ceballos. The pair, together with young stars Gabriel Martinelli, Eddie Nketiah and Ainsley Maitland-Niles, mean that the North Londoners possess some exciting game-changers off the bench.

Nonetheless, the defensive area of the squad is a lingering area of concern for the FA Cup holders. The likes of Rob Holding and Shkodran Mustafi may prove valuable in Europa League rotation, but question marks remain over the side’s back line collectively. Even £27m man William Saliba has so far been left out in the cold.

One major departure in the summer was Emiliano Martínez, who won plenty of plaudits when deputising for the first choice Bernd Leno last term. It remains to be seen how his Icelandic replacement Rúnar Alex Rúnarsson fares. Meanwhile, forgotten men Sokratis, Chambers and Özil are among the names Arsenal failed to offload over the summer – a trio who cost them around £75m in transfer fees.

Verdict:

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Arsenal now have a stronger bench, with a blend of international experience and youthful exuberance. However, as with the first XI, Arteta’s options at the back may be what costs him at the top end of the table this season, especially if the Gunners want to fire on multiple fronts. This team showcases some of the side’s shortcomings of the past, but also offers fans some cause for optimism – in an attacking sense at least.

Chelsea

Cost of XI: £154.2m

International Caps: 262

Average Age: 24.6

Frank Lampard put his trust in youth last season, but after spending over £200m this summer, the 42-year-old now has an embarrassment of riches at his disposal.

The additions of German duo Timo Werner and Kai Havertz mean that England internationals Tammy Abraham and Callum Hudson-Odoi have a fight on their hands for a place in the first eleven. Meanwhile, the signing of former Ajax star Hakim Ziyech may result in Mason Mount facing a similar dual to nail down a regular starting spot.

Behind the attack, £40m Croatian midfielder Mateo Kovačić will compete with Jorginho to partner N’Golo Kanté this term, as the Blues hope promising prospect Billy Gilmour continues his development. The experienced César Azpilicueta will compete with Reece James at right-back, while the £45m signing of Ben Chilwell means that Emerson Palmieri and Marcos Alonso will struggle for first-team minutes.

The centre of defence provides a different selection headache for the manager though. It’s still unclear who Lampard’s preferred centre back partnership is, but it looks certain that out of favour Antonio Rüdiger is not part it. The goalkeeping conundrum remains too; the fact that the world’s most expensive stopper is now indefinitely benched is an emphatic reminder.

Verdict:

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At the top end of the field, Chelsea boast an intriguing mix of youth and Premier League know-how. With so many new additions though, Lampard still hasn’t fine-tuned his best formula but that may resolve itself in time. It’s the other areas of the squad that pose greater concerns. Central defence and goalkeeper remain two problem positions for the Blues, and the pressure is on the likes of Thiago Silva and Edouard Mendy to allay those fears.

Liverpool

Cost of XI: £200.2m

International Caps: 233

Average Age: 25.5

The signings of Diogo Jota and Thiago Alcântara mean the Premier League champions now have a wealth of options in attack and midfield. Such to the degree that European Cup winners James Milner and Divock Origi miss out on this XI altogether.

Along with Jota, Klopp will hope that Takumi Minamino pushes the front three harder for their places, with Xherdan Shaqiri adding a renewed string to their attacking bow. Even with Fabinho’s emergency switch to centre back, Naby Keïta and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain will be part of a fiercely contested midfield battle with Georginio Wijnaldum. Rising star Curtis Jones will also hope to further stake his claim.

The arrival of Greek left back Kostas Tsimikas means that the Reds finally have a recognised deputy to the ever-present Robertson, while Neco Williams is trusted to provide similar cover on the opposite flank.

Yet this line-up highlights two lingering weaknesses in the Liverpool squad. Firstly, the excellent Joël Matip is unreliable on the fitness front, and the summer departure of Dejan Lovren means that Fabinho has now become the fourth-choice centre back for the club. Alisson’s absence at the start of the season has highlighted the shortcomings of second choice stopper Adrián too.

Verdict:

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Liverpool started this campaign with arguably the strongest squad they have had in the Premier League era. They addressed the need for full back cover, added quality back-up up top and injected some star quality into the midfield. Nevertheless, the humiliating defeat to Aston Villa and the long-term injury to Virgil van Dijk has exposed perhaps the two remaining chinks in Liverpool’s armour. Such vulnerabilities let down what is otherwise an excellent reserve XI.

Manchester City

Cost of XI: £299.9m

International Caps: 313

Average Age: 25.3

After finishing 18 points behind champions Liverpool last season, City went on to add over £120m’s worth of talent to what was already the most expensively assembled squad in world football.

Replacing Leroy Sané was Valencia’s Ferran Torres, who along with Gabriel Jesus and Bernardo Silva, make up a second-string attack which would be the envy of a host of top clubs around Europe. Pep Guardiola once again shook up his defensive options by breaking the club’s transfer record to sign Rúben Dias after signing Nathan Aké from relegated Bournemouth.

These additions mean that the manager has now spent over £400m on defensive reinforcements since he arrived at the club four years ago. The Citizens potentially have a second choice back line that cost over £150m to put together. Goalkeeper Zack Steffen also comes into the fold for this campaign to replace the departed Claudio Bravo, with the USA international having joined City last summer.

Despite Guardiola’s latest splurge in the market, City still find themselves light in one area of the pitch. The departure of club legend David Silva leaves a huge void in midfield, and the onus will be on the young Phil Foden to fill it. German international İlkay Gündoğan has had his struggles with injury and Fernandinho is now 35, so the League Cup holders will no doubt be looking to reassess their options in the coming months.

Verdict:

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Their pricey backline still lacks the leadership and experience of Vincent Kompany, while midfield options are diminishing. The likes of Jesus and Torres will also need to play a more influential role this campaign, with the world-class Agüero now approaching the final chapters of his career. But this is the strongest second XI on paper, but you’d expect that from a team which cost more to assemble than twelve of the other nineteen Premier League squads as a whole.

Manchester United

Cost of XI: £216.1m

International Caps: 284

Average Age: 25.7

After exhibiting some fantastic post-lockdown displays, there were suggestions from some quarters that United were just a few top additions away from mounting a serious title challenge. However, Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s transfer plans didn’t come to fruition.

A summer-long pursuit on Jadon Sancho ended in stalemate, leaving the Red Devils scrambling for attacking reinforcements. That search led to veteran striker Edinson Cavani, whom the club will hope imprints an Ibrahimović-esque effect on the squad. Subsequently, the likes of Juan Mata and Daniel James remain the preferred attacking alternatives out wide.

The £35m signing of Donny van de Beek is potentially a high-level addition, but his new manager is yet to find a system to accommodate him alongside Paul Pogba and Bruno Fernandes. Whether it be Matić, Fred or McTominay, United are still missing that forceful presence to glue the midfield together.

Defensively, the club’s second-string back four’s form and reliability does little to reflect the near £80m they cost in transfer fees. Forgotten man Phil Jones (who is ruled out until 2021) and the frequently injured Eric Bailly have played just 26 league games between over the past two seasons. However, new signing Alex Telles ensures that the club look stronger at full back, with Luke Shaw now set to fight for his place along with youngster Brandon Williams.

Verdict:

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This XI underlines glaring gaps which mirror Solskjær’s first choice team – namely in defence. Cavani may be a short-term fix as a focal point, but that doesn’t compensate for United’s failure to add some right-sided balance to their attack. On the other hand, the return of Dean Henderson ensures that United have the best back-up stopper in the division. Such impressive strength in depth is absent in other areas of the squad though.

Tottenham Hotspur

Cost of XI: £138.5m

International Caps: 458

Average Age: 26.9

A productive and busy transfer window has left José Mourinho with a much more balanced and competitive squad than the one he inherited last year.

The return of Gareth Bale has catalysed a tussle for places in attack, with one of Érik Lamela, Steven Bergwijn or Lucas Moura missing out on this XI altogether. Carlos Vinícius, who scored 24 goals for Benfica last term, arrives on loan to be the recognised centre forward back-up Spurs had been lacking.

The midfield three which started in the 2019 Champions League final now face a struggle for inclusion, with Dele Alli now firmly out of favour.

Meanwhile, former England number one Joe Hart comes in as cover for Hugo Lloris.

The late signing of Joe Rodon from Swansea means that the club now have four senior centre half options with Eric Dier moving back from midfield. Furthermore, two new full-backs coming in ensures that Tottenham can once again refresh things on the flanks.

Verdict:

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Doubts remain over whether Tottenham’s quality in midfield and defence is enough to help their formidable front-line challenge for the title. Nonetheless, Mourinho now has at least two ‘good’ options in every area on the pitch. Such resources will stand them in good stead ahead of a hectic season in the Europa League and domestic cups, especially as the club seek to end their thirteen-year wait for silverware. Overall, it’s a well-balanced XI which exemplifies Tottenham’s new-found strength in depth – on paper at least.

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