Is Arsène Wenger taking the Carling Cup more seriously? Comparing Arsenal selection policies since 2004

Arsène Wenger has a well-known reputation for using the League Cup as a stepping stone for star young players, the likes of Fabregas, Van Persie, Walcott and Alex Song are all established first teamers who have played in previous campaigns. This season Wenger’s selection policies have changed, but how much, and does this mean he is desperate for any success?


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Much debate centred over whether Wenger’s youth policy devalued the competition. The answer is yes. However, the value of a fourth competition, with an unbalanced system where the richest teams enter with only four games to the final is debatable. That debate continues elsewhere (see WSC here and here).

In light of the fact that Arsenal have won no major trophy since 2005, Wenger is under pressure to take the League Cup more seriously, and use first team players to try and pick up a trophy, creating a winning mentality.

This season a change has been noted in the approach, with much of the press picking up on the fact that Arsène Wenger has actually been taking the League Cup ‘seriously’. The question is, how different is the policy compared to previous years?

To understand the change lets look at the starting line-ups for all League Cup games since 2004-05, the last season Arsenal won a trophy (the FA Cup). By working out the players in each line-up who were first team regulars that season, or were used regularly in squad rotation we get a rough idea of how seriously Wenger prioritised each game, and each campaign over the last six seasons.

First up we look at the graph depicting numbers of first teamers in the starting XI for each game (data here). Remember this data incorporates only those who were in the starting XI, and who were regulars in the first team squad at the time.

Something instantly catches the eye – Wenger not just altered his policy, but completely smashed it to pieces it, especially in comparison with recent years.

Between 2004 and last season no more than five first team regulars started a League Cup game. This season the three matches have seen no less than nine regulars taking to the field. The statistics may not be perfect representations of a player’s team status, but this is certainly a start.

The contrast with 2004-05 is huge, there only one established squad member started each game, many of them were players forming the current generation such as Alex Song and Robin van Persie.

Another pattern is apparent in increasing numbers of more experienced players for games in the later stages, and against bigger teams. So in the run to final in 2007, although much of the line up was made up of young players, five experienced players played in the semi-final.


Courtesy of Wonker under Creative Commons Licence

However, even in that season Wenger was resolute in his policy of youth, and in the final against Chelsea refused to alter the selection from the players who had played in earlier rounds, even though Chelsea put out a very strong team.

Theo Walcott scored in that final, his first Arsenal goal, but eventually Chelsea overpowered winning 2-1. The game also involved Diaby knocking John Terry out cold, and ‘that’ brawl.

If you didn’t like the last graph then here’s a second, just to complete the picture. This is the average number of first teamers starting by Round since 2004, and then the numbers per round this season. It’s more than double each time.

Another Reason?

Even so, there is another possible explanation for the change. The key lies in the fact that many more youthful players are now regulars in the first team squad. Wilshere, Gibbs, as well as the likes of Walcott, 21, Denilson, 22 and Nicklas Bendtner, 22 are all playing regularly in the League, and Champions League.

This in some ways reflects the results of Wenger’s policy of developing a squad based around young players coming through the academy, who now form a large part of the first team squad. If this is true, then it waters down the real change in selection policy.

Arsène himself stated:

“You will be surprised if you look at the age of the Carling Cup team. People are used to seeing them in the Premier League so it doesn’t look as exclusively a Carling Cup team anymore. I have many players who are top level and I have many players who are young as well.”

This is true to an extent, but if the policy were the same then we might still see much less experienced players playing.

The recent 2-0 win over Wigan put Arsenal through to the Semi-finals for the first time since 2007, and they are now favourites to win the competition after West Ham’s Spector inspired 4-0 win over Man Utd. Arsenal have been drawn against Ipswich, whilst West Ham face Birmingham, and if Wenger ever wanted to win the tournament you would have to say that the draw is more favourable. Though being favourites means nothing yet (Read Swindon Town 1969)

The idea that to become a ‘winning side’ Arsenal must win something or anything is commonly stated. Most recently Denilson:

“I think winning it will help in the major competitions. If you win the Carling Cup, then after will come the FA Cup, then after the Premier League and the Champions League. I think this year we can be stronger. In some games we have shown that we can win trophies. If you can win trophies people will believe in Arsenal.”

That’s a fair statement as both Man Utd and Chelsea, the two dominant English clubs in terms of recent trophies, have won League Cups in recent years. This shows that there’s no harm in challenging.

The Benefits

So we’ve seen a change in selection and change in ideas, but although Wenger’s policy may have changed, the Arsenal squad is a different animal now, even the captain, Cesc Fabregas is only 23.

If the selection indicates Arsenal are taking the cup more seriously then surely that is for everyone’s benefit – it doesn’t devalue the competition, and this Arsenal side have a better chance of learning the winning habit.

It does indicate that times have changed concerning Arsenal, but the side does remain competitive in Europe (though qualification to the Second Round is no means guaranteed this season). In addition Arsenal have maintained title challenges in two of the last three seasons, albeit dropping off in the Spring both times.

The League Cup would be a useful addition to Wenger’s trophy cabinet, but just being in the Semi-finals doesn’t mean Arsenal’s name is already etched into the ‘tin pot trophy’ – hard work is required to succeed in every case.

Whats that? Cup competitions you say? Have a look at some of Wenger’s European cup campaigns with AS Monaco if you like retro football. Read More analysis in our Football Data Blog

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22 thoughts on “Is Arsène Wenger taking the Carling Cup more seriously? Comparing Arsenal selection policies since 2004

  1. Ole Gunner

    The key to your analysis is defining who is a first teamer.

    If you looked at games against tougher opposition in the Carling Cup in recent seasons you’d find that the teams weren’t much different from current teams.

    I’ve looked at the lineups myself.

    For example, when we beat Liverpool 6-3 at Anfield, we had Adebayor, Flamini, Baptista, Gilberto, Cesc, Kolo Toure. When we were thrashed by the spuds we had Fabianski, Sagna, Justin Hoyte, Gallas, Eduardo, Hleb, Denilson, Fabregas, Gilberto Silva, Diaby, Walcott, Adebayor , Bendtner. Even when we played Man City last season we had Ramsey, Rosicky, Eboue, Song, Silvestre…..

    Define who you deem to be a first teamer.

    Not sure the policy has really changed.

    1. Yes indeed, the analysis is completely dependent on the methodology.

      I have actually included every single game since 04-05, including against tougher teams. If you look at the graph you can see each game.

      As I said within the article, the definition is players who are first team regulars, or those who are in regular rotation. In order to maintain consistency this only looks at the starting XI, which is why for example all of those first team players in the 5-1 defeat against Tottenham are not included.

      For those who want to check the starting teams:

      Liverpool 6-3 Report Here
      Tottenham 5-1 Report Here

      If you look you will see it’s all in the article. I would say the policy has changed, but possibly not as much as it might seem at first, as the nature of the squad is different now.

      1. Ole Gunner

        I think your analysis is incorrect then. Song, Aliadiere, Walcott, Baptista, Cesc, Toure, Gilberto were all first teamers who featured in that 6-3 win for example.

        In the Spurs game, Gilberto, Gallas, Sagna, Walcott, Diaby, Bendtner, Hleb, Denilson etc were all first teamers who featured in the Spurs game.

        What has changed is that we have now had a build-up of proven talent after several years of this policy, that even the younger players like Gibbs, Wilshere & Ramsey are now established pros

      2. Thanks for your input – the methodology was always going to be the pivotal point. However, I don’t know if your stats are quite right.

        If you look at the 6-3 in 06-07:

        Song started just 1 non-League Cup game. – Not a regular.
        Aliadiere started just 6 non-League Cup games. – Not a regular.
        Walcott started just 7 non-League Cup games (with sub appearances that season this one is debatable).

        Without those three you have the original 4 which my analysis is included. Although I do accept that Walcott is debatable.

        In terms of the 5-1 against Spurs:

        Denilson started just 8 non-League Cup games, including dead rubbers in Europe.

        However – Walcott, Gilberto, Bendtner and Diaby were in rotation that season, whilst Gallas, Hleb, Sagna were in the First XI.

        That makes 7 compared to the 5 in my original stats.

        So there are points up for debate, but I think you go too far with some of your definition of first team for each season.

        The point about the build-up of proven young talent in the first team is a good one, and I totally agree – I mentioned exactly the same in several of the concluding paragraphs, including quotes from Wenger on the subject.

  2. bops

    Good analysis. But maybe we should consider the average also ??. That might show that there isnt too much of a difference.

  3. James McKean

    Without having studied the teams (and the grpahs aren’t showing up on my browser), my inclination is that the policy has shifted a touch, albeit not much.

    We’ve always played a mix of youngsters, squad players and first teamers who needed game time.

    I think the main difference is our benches seem stronger. This year in the 3rd round we brought on Arshavin and Chamakh. Nasri and Arshavin were on the bench this week.

    Last year when we went to City (and in other games certainly prior to semi finals) I don’t think we had ‘1st 11’attacking options on the bench. Maybe my memory is playing tricks?

    1. Hello James.

      Yes these inclination were exactly what I was trying to prove or disprove by properly going through the line-ups methodically. Have a look at the graphs if you can.

      Cheers

  4. Bootoomee

    Wait a minute! Do you expect Arsene to be perpetually building? He was building a team and the Carling cup was his best avenue to give his youngsters games. Now all the youngsters are in the squad, so what should he do next? Abandon the best squad in the league (at least in terms of depth) and start building all over again?

    Arsene has always taken the CC seriously – as a serious avenue to develop his team but even then, it has always been a mix of the following:

    (1) Youth players – the squad is now so big we really don’t need much of these anymore.

    (2) Squad players – These are now the ones who make up the bulk of current CC squads

    (3) 1st teaners in need of games – e.g. van Persie against Wigan

    (4) 1st teamers (Rare) – These are for insurance on the bench and starters against tough premiership oppositions.

    The only change is that the youth players are now in the squad and some squad players are now 1st teamers. I think we should be hailing Arsene and congratulating him for a successful programme rather than insulting him with the “he is so desperate for a trophy, he has changed his policy” nonsense.

    1. No I don’t expect him to be perpetually build a team, or only play youth players in the cup – if you look at my conclusion I make a lot of exactly the same points you are. Indeed, I end up by stating that it is a positive that Wenger is able to play more first teamers in the Cup, and some silverware.

      I never insult Wenger whatsoever, please be careful when making these sort of claims. Please read the conclusion – it all makes sense.

  5. Bootoomee

    Sorry James, it wasn’t my intention to be rude. I have just heard this too much from the media and some of our fans and it driving me crazy.

    I think though, that you should have started your article with what you ended it with. i.e. The reason why it seems there is a change in policy is because……….. Then show how many of the CC veterans in the last few years are now first teamer/squad members. This will show that rather than changing his policy, Arsene is now reaping the rewards of his patience and faith in his youngsters.

    Your graph showing the HUGE number of first teamers does not include names like Gibbs, Denilson, Djourou, Walcott, Bendtner etc. I believe that if we put these names side by side, it will be easy to see that there is no shift really.

    Something tells me, however, that if we had lost to Spurs, Arsene would have been accused of fielding a weak team by the media and some gooners. Then it would have been pointed out how many youngsters he played.

    1. There’s nothing wrong at all with fielding a stronger side, and I suspect that it is to do with the fact that more players are coming through into the first team – so the names you cite, such as Gibbs or Walcott – are now first teamers, but very young.

      Then again Wenger is obviously taking the competition more seriously otherwise even younger players would be starting such as Jay Emmanuel Thomas, and Benik Afobe, or what about Coquelin.

      I have no problem with him taking it more seriously, and would be as happy as anyone if Arsenal managed to win it this season.

      The article layout was meant to be a storyline, posing questions at the beginning, attempting to answer them, and then to explain what is going on rationally.

  6. matt

    by 1st teamers do you mean our starting 11? if thats the case i dont know how you could consider denilson and gibbs as 1st teamers as arsene will play clichy and song/wilshere over the two respectfully bar injuries suspensions or weak opposition

  7. thanks matt. i’ve defined first team as established players starting reguarly or those in regular rotation in the team. its all in the article if you look. denilson and gibbs do count.

  8. cameo

    This year, wenger uses CC as a way to give play time to “coming back from injury” players or rarely used players. And frankly, he has to. A player cannot maintain his lvl by sitting on the bench and just training. Look at Silvestre. He became rusty. So does Vela, Eboue etc … When you see some improvements from this lads (like Vela at the beginning of the season), if you don’t give them some continuity they just go back to square one.

  9. desigunner

    I think defining the policy itself is important. And it shouldn’t be wrt age.

    Most people make it sound as if earlier Arsenal had a first team, and reserves (second string) and we still played youth players (third string) in the CC. And now we are playing our second string in the CC. Also by using words like first team regulars some people (many in the media) also try to imply that we are almost playing our first team. In that context the jump seems drastic i.e from third string kids to first team regulars.

    This is not the case. Earlier our second string consisted of many youngsters who have now grown up and matured. So it seems that we are not playing youth but that’s not the point. We are still playing our second string. In that sense the policy has not changed.

    Also because the second string has grown up and matured we can rotate more often and their non-CC numbers are higher as a result. But that also doesn’t have any connection to a change in policy.

    I’d say the policy was always to give fringe players a game in this competition. In the years gone by when the club was developing the youngsters (and we had 2-3 seniors out with serious injuries) our fringe players were kids and we lacked depth. Now the fringe players are more grown up and we have phenomenal depth.

    1. Bootoomee

      Thanks Desi, you are the best. But please don’t tell Sir Tony (of Untold)!

      That is the point I have been trying to make. All the media want to do is say ‘I told you so’ and then claim that the last 5 years would not have been barren if Arsene had listened to them. Bollocks! We were in the final in 2007 and lost to Chelsea. If Spurs had beaten us, the media would have been quick to point out how many youngsters we had in the team.

      No change in policy and while Arsene has many qualities, desperation is not one of them.

    2. glemselenselv

      DG,

      We would love an article specifically dispelling this particular fallacy that is moving around the media and blogosphere.

  10. Shashi

    James,

    I appreciate the work you put in, this is being spoken a lot about in the media/amongst fans and it’s important to to separate the facts from the noise and see if it corroborates the claims. Like most others though, I must scrutinize the the methodology, which is not really comparing the figures in a consistent manner in my opinion. I want to offer possible improvements to the research along with some thoughts.

    Firstly, the methodology- ‘First team regulars’ is such an ill-defined concept and is almost too debatable. We have always made 9-10 changes in the starting line-ups in all the CC games. If these players are also ‘first team regulars’ it would mean we give starts to 20+ players regularly. By this definition, pretty much our entire 25 man squad is ‘first team regulars’. If such was the case, the term ‘regular’ and ‘first team’ tend to completely be devoid of meaning [in the common sense of the word anyway]. By definition, it seems absurd to say 20-22 first team regulars, the concept of ‘squad player’ suddenly diminishes to a mere handful. Do you see my point? Maybe…maybe not? It was only my opinion anyway but as you can see eliminating this problem of opinions with something concrete is essential.

    Perhaps a slightly a less controversial and surely more scientific methodology of determining ‘first team regulars’ might be doing something like the following:

    For consistency, one must decide upon a number which we consider first team. I would choose thirteen players, usually the number of players involved in a game and about half the size of the squad. Someone may like using just XI players and someone, as questionable as it sounds, may decide upon twenty-two players. One must pick what a reasonable definition of regulars and move forward.

    The beauty of this methodology is that it turns out it’s not important whether people can agree about the same number at all. It does not matter because as long as the same number is used consistently to evaluate the previous seasons, the results would get scaled accordingly. The outcome for any choice should reveal the same outcome since it’s a comparison. The relative lengths of the bars in the bar chart shouldn’t change. Next, make a table of the squad sorted according to number of minutes played or the number of starts they have this season. I prefer minutes played to starts because it doesn’t tell the whole story, as someone maybe subbed off in the first 10 minutes. On the downside, a player may start and get a red card early but these occurrences are minimal. I suppose one can use statistics from the season before to determine the numbers for the current season but I would think this could be potentially misleading/less accurate because some players might have progressed gone down the pecking order while some may have risen up the ranks based on their form in the ongoing season.

    Okay, so now we will have the definitive ‘first team regulars’ whatever the number, let’s say thirteen, for each of the last six seasons. Now one can do what you did and compare the starting eleven and check how many starts the regulars got. A tedious but surely more accurate comparison than the one you made is comparing the total percentage of minutes played by the first team through the years. This may take a lot of effort but will surely be closer to mapping the true trend, if any.

    There are other bits and details that I could suggest but it may become too academic. Anyway, my aim was to critique your excellent idea and offer some potential alternatives/improvements. I am just intrigued; my hunch is that probably there isn’t much of a trend but maybe a cyclic high-low involvement through the years [right now possibly being the highest]

    Secondly, regardless of the dispute over your stats, I am in agreement with those that think that we we are fielding stronger than usual sides. This is not really that surprising for several reasons. Most of our youth players from the earlier era who played in CC for one reason or the other, could not make the cut. A lot of these kids ended up being sold and making careers elsewhere (Bentley, Sidwell, Larrson, Thomas, Volz, Upson, Bothroyd etc.) This meant that for many years we couldn’t really promote a lot from within, which meant that we could continue to give other youth players a chance. Once we started building the Emirates, Wenger had clearly set up a plan of giving complete attention to developing youth players. It was a long process and he was patient with some like Aliadiere, Owusu-Abeyie, Justin Hoyte who did not make eventually. However, the first successful batch was the 2007 one. It should not come as any surprise that the following season we were challenging for the title. It is no coincidence that the quality of the Carling Cup side usually reflects where the squad is in it’s cycle, quality-wise and health-wise and not surprisingly number-wise. In the past we sold a lot of first team players every season, if we got a few fresh faces promoted, they were thrown into the deep end, since we lacked quality and numbers due to departures. Another factor is injuries, with our thin squad, we surely could not risk playing our real experienced players because we didn’t have many.

    Wenger’s has finally been able to create a clutch of players that have the necessary qualities to play in the full Arsenal squad who having experience in abundance. Which brings me to the final point. Unlike the past, we have actually created and held on to our players. Most of them are experienced internationals, talented and demanding. Their egos cannot allow them to be sitting on the bench always. The manager has pressure to keep most of his players happy. In addition, our injuries this season dictate that players use these occasions to be match-fit, this can partly explain the appearance of a lot of the ‘first team’ regulars. Also, if the number of games/minutes the squad members are getting are much more evenly spread out compared to the past, then that’s just a sign that our squad’s quality/talent is more equal than ever.

    Yes, our Carling Cup side appears stronger than some of our sides from the past. but so does our entire squad. In my view the Carling Cup is still being used for the same purpose as it was before, an avenue to utilize, in the preparation for the real goals of winning the league and Champions League. We have used it fully in the previous years to develop the technical and footballing side of our squad, particularly the young players. The squad has reached a relative plateau in terms of technical/footballing improvement and now it has become of question of taking the final step from being potential winners to champions. I personally think that Wenger has subscribed to the notion that the Carling Cup maybe the final piece in the puzzle. The galvanizing effect that a winning a trophy will have, perhaps breeding a winning mentality, the euphoria of collective victory may give rise to a hunger for more. Above all, it is the self-belief and realization that the team is capable of anything and vaporization of the creeping doubts will change things forever. Besides, I think Wenger just want the media to get off his back about not winning a trophy.

    My final thoughts are that even if your findings really do reflect the actual trend, and however tempting it maybe to draw the simplistic conclusion, it is just not sufficient. I would actually argue that it’s fallacious to claim that Wenger is anymore serious or more ‘desperate’ [as the pundits/papers say] to win the Carling Cup than he has ever been based on on our team selections. I don’t believe for a second that Arsene did not care to win in the past. From what I have been able to make of the man – Wenger is a winner. Winning, however, is not always exclusively about trophies. Indeed, winning a trophy might even actually come at a cost losing something much bigger. Wenger has alluded to in the past that he is trying to do what he understands is best for Arsenal Football club. Nothing has changed about this or him surely. He is still attempting to do his best for Arsenal except that the natural consequences of this concerted effort are now very apparent in things like team selection. The years of discipline, patience, persistence, perseverance, poise, passion and most importantly intelligence is finally bearing fruit.

    1. Brilliant comment. Fancy writing a piece for the site?

      Thanks for the thoughts, you are spot on with your critique. Yes the method seems a little vague. I didn’t explain clearly enough, it is based on players who played more than say 8 games for the first team outside the cc.

      Obvious problems in that some players make many sub appearabces, but I was only looking to the starting lineups in any case.

      I like your idea for defining a clearer system. In the end this was meant to be a start in order to provoke some thought on the matter using approximate data.

      Another thing that came to mind when reading your comment is possibly working our how many changes were made between the x I starting the previous league game, and the cc xi. Though this wouldn’t distinguish first team players coming back from injury.

      In the end, wenger does have a more experienced team plying in the Cup for whatever reason, probably due to a maturing squad. If Arsenal have the chance to win it, I’m not complaining.

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