Arsenal's Carling Cup third-round match is one of the highlights of every football autumn. The tournament and the club have a particular importance to each other, as Arsène Wenger uses it to bring through his next generation of teenage footballers. Jack Wilshere and Wojciech Szczesny were both introduced to the Arsenal first team in the League Cup; the practice has helped to smooth the transition of generations of players into the Arsenal team. Tonight it begins again, as Shrewsbury Town are welcomed to the Emirates.
The team will not be uniformly inexperienced: last season Wenger played a combination of youth and fringe players, a policy he doggedly expects to continue this season, despite the club's six years without a trophy. "We have a big squad now and we want to make use of that squad," he said yesterday. "I will give a chance for young players to shine and find the right mixture in this competition between keeping our faith in young players and, of course, winning the games. That means having the right balance between experience and youth."
That balance is likely to feature some of Arsenal's next generation of youngsters. "We'll have [Emmanuel] Frimpong, [Francis] Coquelin, [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ryo [Miyaichi], and maybe one or two more," said Wenger. "There is an also opportunity to see Park [Chu-young] for the first time. [Marouane] Chamakh will also feature. You will also see [Carl] Jenkinson start in his position. We will try to find a mixture between youth and experience."
There will be no such mixture on the bench, which is likely to feature Argentinian goalkeeper Damian "Emi" Martinez, Chuks Aneke and Nicholas Yennaris. The prospect of these lesser-known youngsters playing is particularly enticing, given Arsenal's history in the competition. For years the tournament has been a fundamental part of the Arsenal production line; a finishing school for promising reserve players, as well as a more exacting test of their first-team credentials. Of course, not every young player Wenger tries makes the next step, but enough do to justify the experiment, and to win the games at hand.
Take, for example, Wilshere, arguably the best player Arsenal have produced by themselves since Ashley Cole. His first competitive start (and goal), and only his second first-team appearance, came at the age of 16 in Arsenal's thrilling 6-0 defeat of Sheffield United in September 2008. Aaron Ramsey (then aged 17) and Alex Song (21), now his midfield partners, also started. Wilshere's next two starts for the club were in the same competition, including the 2-0 defeat at Burnley in the fifth round.
The following September, Arsenal met West Bromwich Albion in the third round. Again, Wilshere and Ramsey (combined age: 35) started together in midfield, helping to form the bonds of trust and understanding on which Wenger will hope to rely for seasons to come. That particular match is also significant as the Arsenal debut of an 18-year-old Szczesny. The Polish goalkeeper's next two first-team games were the 4-0 fourth-round victory over Newcastle United last October, and the fifth-round defeat of Wigan Athletic. In both games Szczesny kept a clean sheet and by January 2011 he was first-choice goalkeeper.
Of course, Carling Cup appearances can be delusory. Carlos Vela scored a hat-trick in the demolition of Sheffield United in 2008, and nearly half of his club goals came in the tournament, despite 64 appearances in all competitions. Denilson made his first two starts in the Carling Cup in the autumn of 2006, and scored his first two Arsenal goals at the same stages in 2007. His first, against Newcastle at the Emirates, was a beautiful strike into the top corner from 20 yards out. Denilson, like Vela, is currently on loan abroad.
Even those two managed to play regularly in the Premier League; many of whom Wenger chooses for the Carling Cup do not. Quincy Owusu-Abeyie played with an 18-year-old Alex Song against Sunderland in 2005. Matthew Connolly played alongside a young Theo Walcott against West Bromwich in 2006. The chances are that many of those seen at the Emirates this evening will not still be at Arsenal in four years' time.
But that is an inherent aspect of young footballers: not all of them do make it. Wenger spoke of a "new cycle" at Arsenal last week, but the process that he has created at the club is more to do with constant regeneration. Trusting his youngsters in the Carling Cup is a major part of that. Yes, the next Quincy will almost certainly be playing at Arsenal tonight. But so too might the next Szczesny or Wilshere.
* Wenger last night warned his underperforming Arsenal players to take a good look at themselves. He said the mistakes made to concede the goals in the 4-3 defeat by Blackburn on Saturday were down to basic errors. Asked what lay behind the leaky defence, Wenger said: “A lack of concentration, a lack of communication, a lack of co-ordination and individual urgency. When you score an own goal, you have to look at yourself. It is never completely out of your reach where you have no chance at all.”
Arsenal's next generation
Arsène Wenger said yesterday that 18-year-old Japanese winger Ryo Miyaichi "has pace, attitude, efficiency in what he is doing and complete commitment". He was sent on loan to Feyenoord last season, where he earned the nickname "Ryodinho", and received a work permit in August allowing him to represent Arsenal this season.
The teenage goalkeeper has been called into the senior Argentina squad for friendlies this season, having been part of the squad at the Under-20 World Cup this summer. Martinez, known as "Emi", started his career with Independiente, and has done so well in the reserves he is already known as "the new Szczesny".
The 18-year-old creative midfielder is from Newham and has already been at Arsenal for 10 years. He is highly rated by Wenger following strong performances for the reserve team. Tall, powerful but also technically excellent, the comparisons with Patrick Vieira are inevitable.