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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.




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The Journalist

Writer: Tim Stillman Mail feedback, articles or suggestions

Date:Thursday September 24 2009

Time: 10:45AM

Your Comments

Like the last paragraph, I have often thought we should strengthen the side up in the latter rounds. Then I remember WHL 2008 when we had a much stronger side (mostly due to injuries to the youngens) and got tonked. We all want a bit of silverware but look how many of our current 1st XI have had the blooding in the CC. I'm still undecided!
navydave
to maintain a winning mentality you need to have a winning team,the easiest competition to win is the league cup, that is how mourinho gave his chelsea team the edge to go on to bigger things,unfortunately it can work the other way if the team loses finals and semi-finals it may sow the seeds of doubts that could be hard to remove
fran merida
There is definitely not enough to suggest that the youngsters that are at the club at the moment (i.e. not on loan) can win the thing. Interesting to think of Bendtner and Song handing down advice...on what exactly...who knows.
shewore
I wonder if it might be an idea to play the youngsters in the early rounds of the Carling Cup AND the F.A. Cup and cede to the seniors once we get to the latter stages. That way, the opportunity for the youngsters spreads out into January and February, rather than curtailing in December and they get the same experience. If they were to play in the 3rd, 4th and 5th Rounds of the F.A. Cup and the team went onto win it, that might give them a sense of achievement.
Little Dutch
I'm actually quite surprised that isn't the case already to be honest. We have seen it to a certain extent in the FA cup, but nowhere near the amount of exposure the younguns get in the beer cup.
shewore
Great article. I never know what the answer to this is, it's a constant debate among gooners and I can't ever decide which is the best way to go with the CC. My major concern with using first team players is of course possible injuries that make them unavailable for the more important competitions. We have such an injury-prone squad, the CC is one competition where we need not worry about that. But I've always wanted to see AW win the CC at least once, and it would be great to see at least some of the kids in the winning team. And your point about Utd and Chelsea building the trophy momentum by winning the CC is spot-on. As is your excellent point about how the CC has been revived because the big clubs started to give it more attention, even if they use their reserves.
jaelle
Really good read and interesting points. But other than as a competition for the juniors the Carling Cup is a waste of time. What encourages the youngsters to keep performing is the belief that Wenger will keep faith with them and if they reach a semi-final or final they will get a chance to appear in it. Take that incentive away and it's just another reserve game. It's as much about motivating the youngsters as it is about gaining experience. It's a mickey mouse tin pot trophy that isn't worth breaking sweat for if you're a senior player - it's a genuine challenge for confident youngsters determined to make an impression.
Amos.
Good article LD. I've been saying the exact same thing (although not as articulate) for the past week or two. Playing the kids is a great policy, and has worked very well. But constantly losing every year is not a good learning experience. This team has NO winning experience (apart from Gallas and Arshavin), and seems to choke during the big games. Winning the Carling Cup might not make the difference for this season, but surely for next season, the feeling of victory will help the players in creating a winning mentality.
prits
 

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