Just Enough Education to Perform
The relative demise of the English League Cup has been spoken about incessantly for the last ten years or so. Since the number of sides participating in Europe, aiming for participation in Europe (these are usually the sides that complain about what a burden it all is once they get there and play a reserve side) or trying desperately to stay wedged in the Premiership honey trap has increased, so the League Cup has increasingly become a voodoo doll for the exorcisms of the "greed is good" league. One might point to a renaissance for the competition since 2004, when Bolton and Middlesbrough contested the showpiece final. Mourinho and Chelsea came along and took the competition seriously, which in turn made United take it seriously. That together with Arsenal`s flowering youth policy has reignited interest from the big boys- previously blamed for the competition`s demise.
Since 2004, one or more of the super duper, Sky sponsored and media hailed "Big Four" have contested a League Cup Final. This does not necessarily mean United, Liverpool and Arsenal have stopped using the competition as a stable to rear their latest young bucks, but points to the increasing gap between the chosen quartet and the rest. The aforementioned field reserve sides that fans still feel are worth watching- as exemplified by their respective attendances this week. The problem is that, as a result, clubs further down the food chain have lost interest and given up competing- their reserve sides showing their apathy and the paucity of quality available to them compared to the mega rich Champions League fed fat cats. Though the measures and balances have altered in the last few seasons, it`s still hard to deny the competition is showing signs of vital signs fading. The top four were lampooned for their lack of interest some years ago, now the fact that they can cruise through to Wembley on half a tank has shifted the rot downwards. I think Thatcher called that "trickle down" economics.
The jist of the article however is not how the League Cup can be saved or reinvigorated, but rather how should Arsenal`s attitude towards it look? I recall in Wenger`s early years in charge, before his overhaul of Arsenal`s youth system had borne fruit, the League Cup was an irritation. First round knockouts at home to the likes of Ipswich Town and a Sunderland team who were eventually relegated by March in front of sub 25,000 crowds. (Even in the 2001-02 Double season, Blackburn Rovers trounced our youngsters 4-0). Questions abound as to whether we should even bother taking part anymore. But as Arsenal`s Youth Policy has passed into the stuff of legends, the competition has enjoyed a new lease of life, with the Grove near full to its 60,000 capacity to watch the reserves take on a Championship side. The Gunners have become the competition`s mainstays, reaching three semi finals and a final in their last six attempts. The tournament has become a laboratory for Dr. Wenger`s latest mutations, the natural bridge between reserves and the first team. Most of Arsenal`s starting eleven in any one game nowadays, sucked on the teet of the Beer Cup. (Most of Arsenal`s youth products from the late eighties did likewise, but in a different sense you understand). Watching the likes of Wilshere, Ramsey and Gibbs generates genuine excitement amongst supporters and Arsenal fans have fostered a hard earned love of the tournament.
However, the over riding question must be whether that policy should alter ever so slightly, in the short term at least. Too much is made of Arsenal`s trophy draught of sorts of the last four years, however, the fact remains that few of the current Arsenal squad have experience of winning significant silverware. Manchester United endured a two year trophyless jaunt between 2004-2006- a lifetime by Ferguson`s standards. Ferguson used the League Cup that year to give the likes of Rooney, Ronaldo, Fletcher and O`Shea an appetite for more celebrated honours. Interestingly, Wenger spoke in the build up to the West Brom match of his current first team and beamed that they had been reared in the League Cup. A paradigm I instantly made was that the players he mentioned; Song, Denilson, Bendtner, had all gained valuable experience through this avenue. That also means they were well versed in losing semi finals and finals- an experience that translated into the bigger tournaments last year. Whether a direct or indirect correlation is to be drawn is open to conjecture, but it`s hard to entirely dismiss the notion that Arsenal`s Young Guns were inadvertently being bred as bridesmaids, some might say losers even. The question has to be whether Arsenal should take the competition more seriously if they progress to the latter stages this year.
Wenger has of course introduced a peppering of senior players as we have progressed through to the semi finals, though this has seldom worked. The younger players have shrunk in the shadow of their senior colleagues and played with less freedom as a result. You could argue that Arsenal should go gun ho and play an entirely senior side for a Semi Final or Final should we get there with a sprinkling of youngsters on the bench to soak up the occasion. But by removing the youngsters from the equation entirely, we are not really contributing to their education at all and we still do not solve the problem of turning them into winners once they come of age. You might argue that winning the League Cup would reinvigorate the entire club and would actually be a valuable education for our first team, who are by no means even middle aged in footballing parlance. The phrase "trickle down" appears again, would training with decorated professionals be a more valuable learning curve for our youngsters? With a few medals behind them, the likes of Denilson, Bendtner and Song could be a valuable ear to hold court with for our youngsters and we would be able to fully readopt our policy again with the club basking in silverware again. It is interesting that goal scorer Sanchez Watt spoke warmly of advice given to him by Thierry Henry on the training ground- despite the fact Henry left the club over two years ago. He did not expand on advice given to him by van Persie or Bendtner or Eduardo. The Carling Cup is a valuable learning curve for our younger players and it would be a travesty to take the opportunity of playing in the latter rounds away from the very young players that earned it. However, the manager might have to find a balancing act, as the first team could probably use the education the competition affords just as much.LD.