Arsenal youth beats Wigan, Burnley and Tottenham win over Chelsea and Liverpool respectively and suddenly the Carling Cup is the talk of the town. The first story there is about Chelsea coach Ray Wilkins getting a bit of comeuppance for his asinine comments that Arsenal “disrespect” the cup by playing their youth team. While the second story is related in that we’re seeing a Tottenham team playing with the same wild abandon that their younger counterparts down the Seven Sisters Road put on display on Tuesday, with similar results. And the third story, the one that’s dominating the press cycles right now is the Arsenal academy and the implications for the future of the English national team.
Rather than disrespect the competition, the Arsenal youth policy has breathed new life into a stale and pointless competition. The only reason teams enter the Carling Cup is the promise of European football: winning the Cup provides a team with an automatic berth in the UEFA Cup. For top four clubs, who are seeded into the Champions League (the big brother to the UEFA Cup) winning the League Cup has been largely meaningless. To a club like Arsenal, who have been berthed in the Champions League for 11 years straight, the Carling Cup is more of a distraction from the main competitions (The FA Cup, The Champions League, and The Premiership) and more of an opportunity to rest their starters. To put it bluntly, if Chelsea win the cup with their starters it’s completely meaningless apart from the fact that it gives Jose Mourinho the chance to hold up another finger. If Tottenham win the cup, it’s probably the only way that they are going to get into Europe and the money that entails. For top four clubs it’s pointless, for the rest of football it’s an important tournament — or at least that’s what it was until a few years ago.
2003 was the year that Arsene Wenger introduced a young man to the world in a Carling Cup tie against Rotherham United: Cesc Fabregas. From that point on, the youth policy was developed more fully, adding more and more young men to the Carling Cup roster, and promising prospects the chance to really shine on a national stage in that competition. Last year, the Carling Cup squad leaned heavily on youth but when the chips were down, Arsene put in some senior squad members, and Arsenal were famously dumped out of the cup 5-1 by a full senior squad from Tottenham. This year, Arsene promises not to make that mistake again. This year, there will be no senior team players, even if they go to the finals and face Chelsea (oh, wait, I mean Burnley) Arsene is going to keep his faith with this young team. I am personally hoping that Arsenal face Tottenham in the final and Arsene keeps his promise to play this exact team, because that would easily be the most exciting Carling Cup final ever: two teams with heart and desire who want to prove to the world how good they are playing open, attacking, unbridled football. What football fan wouldn’t want to watch that?
But more than just throwing some kids up there, the Arsenal Academy deserves credit here too. Players like Jay Simpson have been in the academy now since he was 13 years old. Hoyte the Younger and others since they were 9. 9 years old! That means that Arsene Wenger has had most of these kids for more than 6 years. 6 years of teaching them the Arsenal way, of course, but also teaching them the Arsenal way during their most formative years. When the average kid in England is learning to lump the ball forward, Hoyte the Younger was learning to pass, ball control, movement, touch, and hard work.
The last, and most crucial piece, is that by putting them in a tournament where they only have to win 5 matches, a tournament where they will receive international recognition, these players will come out and play their hearts out.
They are well rested since they don’t play in the EPL, they are hungry because young men always want to prove themselves, and they are arguably the best trained footballers on the planet. Add in the fact that Arsenal slash ticket prices and make it more affordable for kids to come to the games and the fact that this team is putting on jaw dropping displays and far from disrespecting the tournament, Wenger is making it relevant again.
For the average club, the tournament is a chance to win a place in Europe, so they play with wild abandon. For a club like Liverpool, this tournament is a distraction from their 10 year quest to win the Premier League. And for a club like Arsenal, the tournament is an opportunity to bring in new fans, showcase new talent, and give England a glimpse of their future World Cup team.