Since Arsene Wenger’s arrival, it seems Arsenal have had a love-hate relationship with the League Cup or as it is now known the English Football League (EFL) Cup. Most clubs in the football league see the competition as a distraction, a lesser trophy compared with the grand history of the FA Cup and the importance of the regular league structure in each division.
As for Wenger, his team selections in the competition seem to make his opinions on the competition clear. He regularly gives debuts to young talents along with players returning from injury whilst it’s rare to see an important first team player feature in the competition before we complete our yearly early exit to under par opposition.
It’s not to say the Cup hasn’t brought some joy over the years for Arsenal fans. The recent 7-5 victory over Reading was a thrilling contest which demonstrated the reason all fans love football, its unpredictable and thrilling nature, with the Gunners coming from four goals down to win in extra time on the night. It was arguably one of Marouane Chamakh’s finest nights which also featured starring roles from Andrey Arshavin and pantomime villain Emiliano Martinez. A result like this should have fuelled and motivated the squad to drive on towards the final, but it just did the opposite after crashing out in the next round to Bradford in the lottery of a penalty shootout.
That one night against Spurs..
The 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur last season was also a classic League Cup night, where defensive midfielder Mathieu Flamini emulated Zinadine Zidane in his prime for the evening as he fired a stunning volley past Michel Vorm, whilst also scoring the other goal to take home the match ball. Both sides were fielding strong outfits and the resounding success in the first North London Derby of the season prompted delight from the Arsenal fans. However, this led to the further frustration as the club limped out away to Sheffield Wednesday in the next round, a recurring theme it seemed.
Despite the success in certain games and providing youngsters with a fantastic opportunity to break through to the first team, it seems Wenger’s chopping and changing of the squad holds back the team at times in this competition. For a tough away game to top Championship opposition (Sheffield Wednesday), the youth should not be thrown in and expected to adapt to the brutal and tough nature of the game at this level. It seems to show disrespect not only to the competition organisers but also to the opposition who are playing against amateurs on the pitch that have barely played a minute of action in the Premiership before being thrown in against seasoned pros.
Wenger has also faced his fair share of bad luck in the competition. The Bradford loss on penalties led to fury from the fans despite Arsene’s players letting him down. Wenger played a strong side featuring the likes of Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and club captain Thomas Vermaelan on a pitch that was almost not suitable to play football on. This was arguably Wenger’s strongest side and he could do nothing to change the horrendous pitch the game was being played on, as well as the horrific miss from Gervinho in extra time (which still haunts me to this day). After eventually going out on penalties the blame was placed solely on Wenger, when his attacking Premier League quality squad didn’t perform on the night for him. He still refused to call out any of his players and stood by them like all managers should.
An evening to forget for Arsenal fans
Another psychological blow was the 5-1 loss in the second leg of the semi-finals to Tottenham Hotspur our bitter North London rivals. After drawing in the first leg, Wenger named a much stronger side but still insisted on playing youngsters with experience. Questionably, many of the youth players chosen for this team were not good enough. This perhaps gets to the route of the problem for Wenger, wanting to give his youth players an opportunity to prove themselves and move into the first team, despite the quality of player being produced through the Arsenal academy not being sufficient enough to perform in his systems. On the night Arsenal conceded after three minutes to Jermaine Jenas, leading to a 5-1 capitulation for the Gunners.
That isn’t to say the League Cup has been a total failure under the guidance of Wenger, it led to a key debut for Alex Iwobi last year, perhaps the breakthrough player of the year who now features regularly for Wenger’s men in the Premier League. Alex’s talent was never questioned at youth level but people were unsure what he could bring to an already heavily winger packed squad. Iwobi’s intelligence and creation quickly shone through as the season wore on showing the importance of competitive top level matches to prove how players perform under pressure.
In conclusion, the real question lies over what Arsene Wenger values more in his coaching philosophy, if he wants to continue taking risks over playing young players he may produce more talents like Alex Iwobi. However he risks losing the fans backing and also missing out on a chance to bring more silverware to a Emirates Stadium Trophy Cabinet that hasn’t seen enough over the last decade.