Since they lost the 2007 League Cup final to Chelsea, the list of clubs who have eliminated Arsenal from the competition, or beaten them in the final, is a curious one: Bradford City, Manchester City (twice), Birmingham City, Burnley and Tottenham Hotspur. It is not hard to spot the more embarrassing defeats.
Elimination at the hands of Bradford, then of League Two, in the quarter-finals last season was humiliating, especially given what a trophy would have meant to Arsene Wenger’s players. So too the defeat in the final to Birmingham in 2011 when Wenger played his strongest team and still lost to a club that was relegated from the Premier League that season. On other occasions there have been mitigating circumstances.
When Arsenal lost 2-0 to Burnley at Turf Moor in the quarter-finals in December 2008 they had a team with an average age of 19, including the likes of Mark Randall, now possibly the only Englishman playing in Italy, at Ascoli in the third tier, and Paul Rodgers now at Billericay Town. Aaron Ramsey and Jack Wilshere were also in the side that night.
It is the one domestic trophy that Arsene Wenger has not won and ahead of tomorrow’s fourth round tie at home to Chelsea, the Arsenal manager should not reproach himself too much. Many times he has stuck his neck out in the competition by picking young players, including the final against Chelsea in 2007 when his team included Theo Walcott (then, 17), Armand Traore (17), Denilson (18), Cesc Fabregas (19), Abou Diaby (20), Justin Hoyte (22) and Jeremie Aliadiere (23).
Chelsea only narrowly won the game at the Millennium Stadium with a full-strength side. Come tomorrow night at the Emirates with Chelsea having less time to recover after yesterday’s win over Manchester City, and Jose Mourinho’s threats to play a weaker side, Wenger should do himself a favour. This time he needs to win.
What is a weakened Chelsea side? Judging by what Mourinho said after yesterday’s game, it means no player who featured against City. That still gives him the scope to pick the likes of Juan Mata, David Luiz, Cesar Azpilicueta, Michael Essien and Demba Ba, among others.
The example that Wenger has set in years gone past, allowing younger players to compete in the competition, right up to the final, has been a far-sighted, even unselfish, tactic. Other managers would have sought to pursue the trophy and certainly that was Mourinho’s approach in his first spell at Chelsea. Wenger has seen a long-term benefit in playing youngsters.
Enough of those he has placed his trust in have flourished to make it worthwhile. Fabregas made his debut in the competition against Rotherham ten years ago this month. Wilshere scored his first goal for the club aged 16 against Sheffield United in that marvellous 6-0 win in the League Cup in 2008.
By contrast, most Chelsea managers have been reluctant to give the kids a chance in the League Cup, deferring in the past to a senior dressing room that always demanded to play every game. Andre Villas-Boas was the only exception, picking Josh McEachran, Oriol Romeu and Ryan Bertrand in 2011. Roberto Di Matteo gave the likes of Lucas Piazon a chance last season but by the time they reached the semi-final, Rafa Benitez was picking a senior team.
Would giving some young players an opportunity over the years have made a difference to Chelsea’s famously unproductive path from academy to first team? It is impossible to tell, but one thing is for sure: no-one will know whether these young men are good enough if they are never afforded the chance.
As for Arsenal, they have made that long-term investment in the past. This season, however, winning the Capital One Cup in February should be the priority. What a tonic for a team that will surely still be in the hunt for the league title come then.
In the third round win on penalties over West Bromwich Albion this season, Wenger took some familiar risks. He gave starts to Isaac Hayden, Ryo Miyaichi, Thomas Eisfeld and Serge Gnabry. Hector Bellerin, Chuba Akpom and Kristoffer Olsson came off the bench. Naturally he would rather beat Chelsea with these young guns in the side – so much the sweeter – but why take the risk?
Wenger said on Saturday that he would “rotate” his players tomorrow but give himself “a good chance to qualify”. He should go one better and give himself the best possible chance.
There is a ruthlessness about Mourinho which means he will want to win tomorrow, whatever restrictions he might place upon his side because of the scheduling of the tie. His instinct may tell him that Wenger, with his unshakeable faith in youth, could well stick with the kids and that there is a chance there to ambush him with a much more experienced Chelsea team.
Now would be a good time to see the ruthless streak in Wenger. To see him pick his strongest team for this game to beat whatever side Mourinho chooses (he has already reneged on his initial pledge to select a side from the Under-21s). Chelsea did not celebrate their triumph in 2007 any less because their first team had beaten a young Arsenal side. A trophy is always a trophy in Mourinho’s world.
Neither should Arsenal regard a victory over a weakened Chelsea team as devalued. If it does turn out to be Mikel Arteta lifting the League Cup at Wembley come February there would not be an Arsenal supporter in the stadium grumbling about having beaten a weaker Chelsea team on the way to the first trophy in what would be almost nine years.
After the seventh league win of the season on Saturday, the momentum is with Arsenal and it is the ideal time for Wenger to show that when there is a trophy at stake he is prepared to get tough and let the grown-ups finish this part of the job. There will be other chances for the young players, perhaps even later in this competition, but for now Wenger owes it to himself to win the first Mourinho clash of a new era.
The ugly truth about Ferguson and Veron
On page 94 of Sir Alex Ferguson’s autobiography he recalls the briefest details of a “fall-out” Juan Sebastian Veron had with Roy Keane after a European tie. “That became a bit ugly,” Ferguson says, and moves on.
Sadly, he seems not to remember the game but I would hazard a guess that it followed the second leg of United’s Champions League semi-final elimination to Bayer Leverkusen on away goals in 2002. The Sunday after the second leg, away, one newspaper reported that Veron had been in a row with a team-mate and had gone back to Italy.
The following week United lost at Old Trafford to Arsenal, who were crowned Premier League champions. Before that game, Ferguson was asked about the Veron story by a room of Manchester reporters (of which I was one) who had not written it.
His response was this: “Listen, you have been going on about fucking Veron. You tell me what’s wrong with Veron. It’s absolute nonsense. You know it’s nonsense. Absolute lies. He’s a fucking great player. Youse are fucking idiots.”
Even as he furiously ejected us from the training ground – “On you go, on you go” – I did suspect at the time that he protested a little too much.