League Cup taking on different, added meaning for Arsenal, Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger has never particularly cared about the League Cup, generally considering it somewhere between an inconvenience and an irrelevance.
But now, for the second time in his long Arsenal career, it has taken on a greater meaning. Arsenal's 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest on Sunday means Wenger is now more likely to name a strong side for this weekend's semi-final first leg trip to Chelsea. This competition is now one of only two chances for Arsenal to win silverware, and while the Europa League will also take on added importance, with its reward of Champions League qualification, for now the EFL Cup represents Arsenal's best chance of silverware -- and for Wenger to maintain his impressive recent record of cup glory.
Upon his arrival in 1996, Wenger initially took the competition seriously, fielding a strong side in a fourth-round defeat to Liverpool a few weeks after his appointment. But in his first full season, it became clear Wenger wasn't particularly interested. For Arsenal's opening League Cup game of 1997-98, at home to Birmingham, Wenger gave no indication he would rest players, but supporters arrived at Highbury and were left wondering who the likes of Alberto Mendez and Christopher Wreh were. They were also introduced to a young defender named Jason Crowe, who made his name by being sent off after just 33 seconds, the fastest sending-off for a debutant in English football.
Arsenal won 4-1 in extra time, but perhaps the real legacy of that display, and Wenger's attitude towards the competition, was shown later in the season. The previously unknown Wreh provided some crucial goals in the run-in. Alex Manninger, another debutant against Birmingham, proved an able deputy to David Seaman. Arsenal lost in the semi-finals of the League Cup -- to this week's opponents Chelsea (4-3 on aggregate), in their first game under Gianluca Vialli's management -- but won the Premier League and FA Cup, and Wenger suggested that introducing newcomers to English football in a minor competition had worked effectively.
That became Arsenal's default approach. The following season Wenger again rotated heavily for the competition, and the Gunners were thrashed 5-0 at home by Chelsea in the fourth round. "I knew before the game that this kind of thing might happen," Wenger said afterwards. "You only had to look at the teamsheets. If we had won I would still have gone on playing the same side because the players need the experience."
This was largely embraced by Arsenal supporters. Two years later they lost 2-1 to Ipswich in the third round, and there was no backlash. In fact, the result "was greeted by generous applause from a 26,000 crowd who had been given a 25 percent discount on their seat prices, some great entertainment and a glimpse into Arsenal's future," read the BBC report. Now Arsenal fans knew the deal, they were happy to play along.
But the setbacks were often considerable. In 2001-02 Arsenal were thrashed 4-0 by Blackburn in the fifth round. The next year, Arsenal -- as reigning Premier League champions -- were beaten 3-2 at home by Sunderland in the third round to inflict their fifth defeat in six matches in all competitions. Other managers might have been determined to claim a victory to lift morale, but not Wenger.
Besides, sometimes the reserves provided a boost in this competition anyway. In 2004-05, just after Arsenal's famous unbeaten record was ended by Manchester United at Old Trafford, the Gunners returned to Manchester and a team of kids outplayed a full-strength Manchester City side in a 2-1 victory, scoring two brilliant team goals and providing crucial experience for two youngsters named Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas.
The mid-2000s was an interesting time for Arsenal in this competition. 2005-06 saw a surprise semi-final defeat to newly-promoted Wigan, sealed by Jason Roberts' late goal in extra time. In bizarre scenes, some of the Wigan players were preparing for penalties, unaware that away goals counted after extra time and they'd already sealed their progression.
2006-07 featured a memorable 3-1 semi-final second leg victory over Tottenham, arguably the first genuine highlight at the Emirates. But, in what seems an incredible move in hindsight, Wenger maintained his rotation policy for the final despite facing reigning league champions Chelsea, and lost 2-1 thanks to two Didier Drogba strikes. It also, however, featured Theo Walcott's debut Arsenal goal -- again, the game was lost, but there was a long-term benefit for an emerging youngster.
The following season Arsenal again faced Spurs in the semis, this time suffering a 5-1 second leg loss, and there were timid exits to Burnley and Manchester City in subsequent years.
But something changed in 2010-11. Arsenal's trophy drought, stretching back to 2005, was now a major talking point as Wenger's future became seriously questioned for the first time. Therefore, when the Gunners reached the final, Wenger deployed a full-strength side in a desperate attempt to finally lift some silverware. Amazingly, Arsenal were beaten by a Birmingham City side which subsequently suffered relegation, thanks to Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczesny's mix-up, and Obafemi Martins' finish. The wait continued.
Subsequent years provided more comedy than success. 2012-13 featured a bonkers 7-5 extra-time victory at Reading, when Arsenal had been 4-0 down. Walcott scored a hat trick comprised of three goals scored in separate periods of stoppage time, and some Arsenal players had thrown their shirts into the crowd with the score 4-4 at full-time, not realising there was still extra-time to play. Arsenal progressed, only to embarrassingly lose on penalties at fourth-tier Bradford with a strong team, including the first-choice defensive quartet.
Arsenal's recent League Cup efforts have been unspectacular -- round four, round three, round four, quarterfinals -- but as they won the FA Cup in three of those four seasons, there was no longer such a demand for trophies. The League Cup was back to being an afterthought.
But after Sunday's failure at Nottingham, it seems important one again. Wenger seems likely to risk some of his big-name players at Stamford Bridge this week, and in the return leg can again name a strong side, because the FA Cup exit means Arsenal won't be in action the following weekend. The date of the final, too, would work well -- coming after a period where Arsenal will have home and away Europa League clashes against minnows Ostersunds, and a weekend off in-between.
It speaks volumes of Arsenal's predicament that this competition is now being considered in an entirely new light, but a trophy triumph at Wembley shouldn't be sniffed at. Wenger once only valued this competition for its long-term benefits upon his youngsters -- now, he needs to think about the short-term, and call upon his star men.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.