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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.