The League Cup saved Manchester United in a way, surprisingly, after we’d dismissively referred to it as the Mickey Mouse Cup or Worthless Cup for the years preceding that win a few years back. Truth be told, it will be always be the fourth priority, behind the League title, Champions League and FA Cup, for the teams at the top, yet back in 2006, after finishing 3rd in the previous season and winning nothing, it certainly didn’t feel worthless any more.
With the size of our squad these days, it makes sense for United to use this competition as a way to keep our fringe players sweet, as well as introduce our youth players to see if they’ve got what it takes. As United took on QPR on Tuesday night, five of our youth team players got a game, with Rafael Da Silva, Jonny Evans, Darron Gibson, Rodrigo Possebon and Danny Welbeck all featuring. Then we saw the likes of Tomasz Kuszczak, John O’Shea, Nani, Park Ji-Sung and Carlos Tevez, who’ve spent plenty of time out of the rotation so far this season, given some first team football to keep them match fit and onside.
Arsenal’s squad isn’t as big but even if it was, I imagine Arsene Wenger’s policy with the League Cup would remain the same. This competition is used as a showcase for his young players, teenage talent from all over the globe playing football the ‘Arsenal way’. But is this right?
Chelsea coach, Ray Wilkins, has laid in to Arsenal for ‘disrespecting’ the competition.
“It’s all about winning trophies when you’re a big club,” said Wilkins. “The fact we’ve won the Carling Cup twice in the last four years and Arsenal have won none justifies our policy. You enter a competition to win the competition. Why go into it if you’re not concerned whether you win it? Playing a young or weakened team undermines the value of the competition. And we have not and will not do that. We want to win it, big time.”
Wigan played their first string team against Arsenal’s youngsters, yet still got thrashed 3-0. That is probably Wigan’s only chance of silverware down the pan, whilst Arsenal are amongst the rare few clubs whose first team might be able to win one or more of the remaining three trophies on offer. Is it fair that Wigan lose out on the chance of any glory this season, just so Arsenal can further develop their youth players?
To be quite honest, yes. It is totally fair. If Wigan don’t have a team good enough to beat a bunch of kids, then poor them, but that isn’t Arsenal’s problem. If Wigan can’t beat Arsenal’s kids, then what hope would they have against Arsenal’s first team? Whilst it is humiliating for them, it will certainly give Steve Bruce a few things to think about.
The fact that Arsenal’s youth team is good enough to beat a Premiership side suggests they are more than entitled to play in the competition.
“If they are good enough, they are old enough,” Sir Matt Busby said, a philosophy that has run deep in United’s set up for decades. This is an approach Wenger has adopted for Arsenal, and why not? It shouldn’t matter whether the players who won 3-0 on Tuesday night are 18 or 38, it shouldn’t matter how many first team appearances they’ve had… all that matters is whether they are good enough to compete or not. Are they good enough to give other teams a proper game and provide real competition? They answered that question this week when they booked their place in the quarter-finals.
However, if I was Arsenal’s manager, I would be reaching out with both hands to grab any trophy I could, following three years of an empty trophy cabinet, and four years since the last League title. Whilst impressive to see the talent of Arsenal’s youth, I can’t quite get my head around the mentality that would allow a club which competes in the Champions League every season to allow an opportunity for silverware to pass them by.
Wenger has more or less been offered a job for life, a position Jose Mourinho coveted when he was Chelsea manager, which possibly explains why the Arsenal manager feels less pressure to play the first team and really go out to win the competition.
“Arsenal are a unique team,” said Mourinho. “Their coach hasn’t won anything for years, but he’s an idol. There are no pressures at Arsenal. But do not say he’s growing young players into talents. What he does is take jewels to the club and polishes them. It’s different. He has time to work in a serene atmosphere and get results.”
Where does this get Arsenal though? Mathieu Flamini joined Arsenal a few months after his 20th birthday, playing for the London club in their League Cup wins over Premiership sides Manchester City and Everton, before being knocked out by United’s weakened team in the quarter-finals (David Bellion the scorer of the only goal). He was developed in to a quality player, averaging over 40 games a season in his last three years at the club. However, the moment he was given chance to jump ship, after winning nowt for three years, he was off.
Players like their egos to be flattered and an easy way to do this is put them up on a podium with a winner’s medal around their neck and a trophy in their hand. Whatever the trophy, it is better than no trophy, as United learnt in 2006. If Arsenal don’t win anything this year, it could bring about the costly departures of Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Adebayor. They want to win things and there are plenty of clubs that win things who would be more than willing to have these two players on their team sheet.
Whilst providing the ego boost, a trophy win gives hope for the future. If we win this trophy now, imagine what we could win next season… For United, with just the addition of Michael Carrick, we went on to win the Premiership the season after our League Cup win. The taste for trophies was there and has set us up on a run of even more silverware. I’m not directly attributing our consecutive titles and European Cup win to us claiming the Carling Cup in 2006, but I believe it certainly helped!
Essentially, I don’t think Arsenal are wrong to play their kiddies in the League Cup, and for Wilkins to suggest otherwise seems like playground talk, however I do believe Wenger is wrong to opt for such a tactic. Wenger’s job may be safe if they go another year without winning anything, but the security of the loyalty that some of their best players have shown so far dwindles with every trophyless season, and it is for this reason I think Arsenal should start to take this competition more seriously.
Congratulations to Arsenal’s youth academy, they certainly have the bragging rights where that is concerned, but to win the silverware and keep the top players, it might be time to rethink their approach to the Carling Cup.