Arsenal count cost to morale of Wenger's cup final gamble

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The Independent Online

Tomas Rosicky called it "the big mistake" while Marouane Chamakh said it was "stupid". The Arsenal players were referring to the calamitous mix-up between their goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny that handed the Carling Cup to Birmingham City in a dramatic conclusion to Sunday's Wembley final.

The question is whether that same withering verdict can be applied to manager Arsène Wenger's decision to make the Carling Cup a much higher priority this season. It is a gamble that ultimately backfired, when the final turned on one unforced error between Koscielny and Szczesny, two young players who only 10 days earlier had been so excellent in the club's turbulent but ultimately thrilling victory over Barcelona in the Champions League.

It was so close for Arsenal, who had been the dominant side, particularly in the second half, but that only goes to make the manner of the defeat all the more galling.

On one simple level Wenger's gamble can be said to have failed, as it was Birmingham who ended their long drought without silverware and not Arsenal. It is also likely that the defeat, to a side Arsenal were expected to beat comfortably, will have caused some psychological damage to the team's morale, although to what extent remains in the realm of pure speculation for the moment.

Wenger had hoped that by ending the club's six-year run without a trophy he might get disgruntled supporters off his back and at the same time inspire his developing team to go on to greater things.

What Arsenal's Carling Cup run has achieved, however, is to add significantly to the workload of the players. Arsenal made the final in 2007, but that was using, by and large, the youth team and academy players who would otherwise not get a chance at playing in the first team, a policy Wenger adopted for several seasons – until this one.

From the opening game against Tottenham in September, it was clear that Wenger had changed his mind this season about the competition, picking a stronger side than he might have done in years gone by. Arsenal's run to the final constituted six games for his first-team players and although the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri did not play in all rounds, it clearly placed a heavier workload on the squad collectively.

The injuries last week to Fabregas and Theo Walcott, which ruled them out of Sunday's final at Wembley, cannot be attributed directly to Arsenal's run in the Carling Cup, but it is generally considered to be true that the more matches a team has, the more susceptible its players are to stresses and strains.

Now Robin van Persie must be added to the injury list after he hurt his knee in scoring at Wembley, and he has become a doubt for next week's trip to Barcelona for the return leg of the Champions League contest.

Wenger's failed quest for the Carling Cup has certainly cost Arsenal, both physically and mentally. The positives to the cup run, on the other hand, have been few and far between. At least they have now played in a Wembley final. This is a side that had not contested a final since losing the Carling Cup to Chelsea at the Millennium Stadium in 2007 and players confessed to suffering from nerves at Wembley on Sunday, so they will be better for the experience.

Chamakh admitted it would be hard for the players to lift themselves ahead of tomorrow's FA Cup fifth-round replay with Leyton Orient.

"We are all responsible for the defeat. That's football," he said "You have highs and lows. We lost a final and it's hard to take. The way we conceded the second goal doesn't matter. If we had conceded a top-class goal, the result would have been the same, we would have still lost."

Arsenal's midfielder Jack Wilshere yesterday criticised Birmingham's Barry Ferguson for ruffling Koscielny's hair following his gaffe, which allowed Obafemi Martins to score the 89th-minute winner.

Wilshere posted on Twitter: "Well done to the Birmingham City player who slapped Koscielny on the head when they scored, very big of you!"

Arsenal yesterday announced a loss after tax of £2.5m in the six months from May to November 2010. The deficit is in stark contrast to the £29.2m profit recorded over the same six-month period in 2009.

A drop in transfer sales was the main cause, with £34m earned by selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Touré to Manchester City in the summer of 2009 but only £4m raised in the corresponding period in 2010. There was also a fall in income from the club's property development on their former home at Highbury.

The club's chief executive Ivan Gazidis said: "We have a sustainable business model. It gives us the strength to say we don't need to sell Cesc Fabregas to raise money."

History says it's all downhill for Gunners

Recent history suggests Arsenal will now end the season empty-handed after Sunday's defeat at Wembley. In the last 10 seasons, five Carling Cup finalists were still involved in all four major competitions at the time of the final.



* Two sides lost – Arsenal in 2007 and Chelsea in 2008 – and then went on to win nothing at the end of the season. However, the three teams still in four competitions who won the Carling Cup final – Liverpool in 2001, Chelsea in 2007 and Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in 2009 – ended up with at least one more trophy by the season's end.



* Ten years ago Gérard Houllier's Liverpool used the springboard of the Carling Cup to complete a cup treble when they went on to win the FA Cup and the Uefa Cup. Chelsea, under Jose Mourinho, added the FA Cup in 2007. Two years ago, United won their 18th League title after beating Tottenham Hotspur on penalties in the final.



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