Liverpool’s depth displayed in their FA Cup win is why they are Premier League favorites

LONDON — Liverpool’s 2-0 win at Arsenal to advance deeper into the FA Cup was impressive enough, but if you consider the rollcall of players who weren’t involved at the Emirates, it gives an indication of just why the Reds are serious contenders in four competitions this season.

The irreplaceable Mohamed Salah had already departed for Africa Cup of Nations duty with Egypt prior to this third-round FA Cup tie, and midfielder Wataru Endo has also signed off for at least a month to join Japan’s attempt to win the Asian Cup. But Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp was also without Virgil van Dijk, Joël Matip, Andy Robertson, Kostas Tsimikas, Thiago Alcantara, Dominik Szoboszlai and Stefan Bajcetic due to injury or illness.

Yet, despite that list of absentees, Liverpool were still able to book their place into the fourth round because of the sheer depth of Klopp’s squad.

– Stream FA Cup on ESPN+: Wigan AFC vs. Man United (Monday, 3 p.m. ET)
– Read on ESPN+: Investigating what’s behind Arsenal’s sudden slump

Managers only tend to talk about injuries and the impact they have on a team when their sides lose — it’s a useful excuse to suggest that prospects of winning are diminished when key players aren’t available. But that kind of deflection tactic doesn’t really work when a side like Liverpool can travel to Arsenal — the FA Cup’s most successful-ever club — and win without so many crucial players.

This was a big test for Klopp and his players, with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta making only limited changes to his first-choice team, but they came through it.

And with a growing fixture list ahead — which includes the FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Europa League, as well as the challenge of fending off the threat of champions Manchester City at the top of the Premier League — Liverpool showed that they can ride out the storm of injury, illness and international tournaments to keep their foot on the pedal in all four competitions.

Liverpool sit atop the Premier League table at the moment, but being able to overcome such personnel shortages as they did at Arsenal on Sunday is a sign of a winning team and potential champions.

Manchester United and Newcastle have failed to show the same qualities under managers Erik ten Hag and Eddie Howe respectively this season. Tottenham have shown spirit and tenacity under Ange Postecoglou in an attempt to deal with their lengthy injury list, while Man City and Liverpool have just carried on regardless.

The respective squads for Liverpool and Arsenal haven’t been built on the cheap, so perhaps they are both simply performing as they should do considering the huge financial outlay, but football often doesn’t work like that. Just ask Ten Hag at Man United.

In Liverpool’s case, Klopp has been able to find a way to patch up and rely on players doing jobs that wouldn’t ordinarily be asked of them.

In Sunday’s fixture, Joe Gomez — a right-footed centre-half — played at left-back due to both Robertson and Tsimikas being out with injury. Gomez was comfortable all day long. Jarell Quansah, the 20-year-old defender, was cool and measured alongside the increasingly-impressive Ibrahima Konaté, while Trent Alexander-Arnold produced a dominant performance in his hybrid right-back/central midfield role.

Alexander-Arnold will never be the world’s greatest defender, but experience is enabling him to evolve his game and when he has the time and space in the defensive third, he can be equally effective in those positions, especially with such devastating ability to create with his delivery into attacking positions. Liverpool’s opening goal, on 80 minutes, came when Gunners defender Jakub Kiwior headed Alexander-Arnold’s free-kick into his own net.

In midfield, Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott proved themselves to be more than adequate deputies for Szoboszlai and Endo, while Luis Díaz, who scored Liverpool’s second in stoppage time, Darwin Núñez and Cody Gakpo carried a combined attacking threat in the absence of leading scorer Salah.

With Ryan Gravenberch and Diogo Jota having an impact from the substitutes’ bench, the weakness of Liverpool’s team as a result of their absentees ultimately didn’t seem like a weakness at all. Rather, it was an opportunity to project their strength.

“It was obvious there would be changes,” Klopp said. “Today the boys bought into it and we could make them. Not too many, but in the end we came through. I’m really happy and proud we could win this game. Arsenal could have won it without a doubt. We finished it off and it spoke for the character of the boys — Joe Gomez, come on. It was really tough. So many good things happened today.”

Liverpool’s resilience will clearly be tested in the weeks to come. Winning without key players in one game, even against a team as strong as Arsenal, is one thing, but being able to do so over a prolonged period of time is another challenge altogether.

But Liverpool are the real deal and, by winning this match, they spared themselves the draining effects of a tiebreaking replay, so they will be able to freshen up and recover with a mini break between Wednesday’s Carabao Cup semifinal first-leg against Fulham (stream live on ESPN+) and the Premier League trip to Bournemouth on Jan. 21.

In 2021-21, Klopp’s side played 63 games — the maximum possible — by reaching the finals of the Carabao Cup, FA Cup and Champions League. They could so the same again this time around if they make it to the two domestic finals and Europa League final.

This win over Arsenal was game 30 of their season, so if they repeat the workload of two years ago, they aren’t even at the halfway stage of their campaign. But they have the depth to do it and once they get their unavailable players back, Liverpool will be even stronger.

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