Lack of squad depth leaves Arsenal treading a tightrope in quest for title | Arsenal

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Arsenal did not manage to win the transfer window this time, so they will have to content themselves with a tilt at the Premier League. It is too early to speak of must-win assignments but most around the Emirates would concur that Liverpool’s visit on Sunday is a match the home side cannot afford to lose. Bridging an eight-point gap to the leaders, with Manchester City a more than interested party in between, would look a challenge too far.

If Mikel Arteta’s players bring the level of performance that, for at least half their FA Cup third-round tie last month, repeatedly exposed the Liverpool defence, then they should be fancied to reap greater reward this time. That would ease concerns, shared by their manager, that they would be treading a tightrope between now and May. Arteta may have been laying it on thick when he claimed Arsenal have “one of the thinnest squads in the league” but there are question marks over their ability to withstand injuries in certain key positions.

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Last season Arsenal were unable to find an answer when William Saliba’s back injury ruled him out from mid-March. The gulf in quality beneath him was just too great, although that had plenty to do with the fact Saliba established himself so quickly as one of Europe’s top centre-backs. Should a similar problem occur this spring it is equally hard to see Arsenal having the personnel to compensate, although Declan Rice provides an added defensive shield from midfield and was given half an hour’s test run at the back during the Champions League dead rubber at PSV Eindhoven.

Similar concerns would arise if Rice, Bukayo Saka, Martin Ødegaard or Gabriel Jesus were laid low, while Jurriën Timber’s cruel injury on his Premier League debut means Oleksandr Zinchenko must discover the durability to play out the season at left-back. Thomas Partey’s latest mooted comeback proved a mirage, so central midfield depth continues to be suboptimal. Long-term mishaps in any of those areas would leave Arteta, who has never shown much indication to rotate his star names, having to place trust in a markedly less suitable replacement.

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There is, however, little point bemoaning problems that may never occur. Arsenal rightly feel good about themselves after casting aside past misfortunes to deservedly win at the City Ground; last time out at the Emirates they swatted Crystal Palace aside in a low-key but clinical 5-0 victory. In a more agreeable market, and with more financial fair play headroom, Arteta would have liked to augment his attacking options in particular. Instead he will go with what he has.

Emile Smith Rowe impressed on a rare start against Nottingham Forest. Photograph: Matt West/Shutterstock

“I love my players,” he said in the buildup to Sunday’s game; the bottom line is that a diligent and supremely drilled group has, regardless of any flaws, earned his devotion. After all, Emile Smith Rowe posed a persuasive argument that the correct answers lie within when he performed admirably on his recall to the side at Forest. Two starts in a week may be an unrealistic prospect but if Smith Rowe, seemingly outcast, can approach old heights he will make “like a new signing” feel less of a cliche.

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Arsenal’s togetherness could carry them through against Liverpool, who will miss the influence of Mohamed Salah but have shown signs of being able to cast that problem aside. Jürgen Klopp’s options have been enhanced by the emergence of Conor Bradley and Jarell Quansah, the former brilliant and beaming in the demolition of Chelsea, alongside other youngsters such as Harvey Elliott and Bobby Clark. Under Arteta, Arsenal have yet to perfect a pathway between academy and first team. Doing so in future might lesson the frustration of any further dry Januarys.

Incisive and secure at home, Arsenal may find the fate of their title quest lies on the road. The Emirates can be relied upon to generate an atmosphere and tempo that force the issue; it has become a venue for the big occasion, as Liverpool found out in being toppled there last season and City discovered in October.

“I know what we’re going to get on Sunday,” Arteta said. “I just want our fans to play every single ball with us and that we create a really, really vibrant, positive atmosphere. In that way, we’re going to make it really, really difficult for Liverpool. I am convinced that’s going to be the case.”

But trips to the Etihad, Spurs and even Old Trafford in the final nine games will present serious tests; few champions earn that accolade without winning at one of the division’s more testing citadels and that will be the biggest challenge for Arteta’s streamlined group. Those are the occasions when injury, suspension and assorted misfortune, should they happen, bite the hardest.

Arteta was asked whether Liverpool’s success story is a model for the modern-day Arsenal. “It is not something we have tried to emulate,” he said. “We have to do it our own way.” Sunday will provide the latest indication of just how far Arteta’s methods can carry his squad.

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