In over 20 years at the helm of one of English football’s biggest and most successful clubs, Arsene Wenger has yet to win the League Cup.
Indeed, there’s very little that Wenger hasn’t done in the game, and in that regard, lifting the least prestigious of the major English trophies would seem like something he might have done at least once: after all, Arsenal, under the Frenchman, has won the other English trophies multiple times and even managed to get to the final of the UEFA Cup and the Champions League.
But you have to go back to 1993 for the last time Arsenal won the League Cup. Wenger has been in the final of the competition twice, losing to Birmingham City in 2011 and Chelsea in 2007, but none of that is surprising: Arsenal, over the last two decades, have used the competition as fertile ground for their young talent to grow.
It’s debatable whether or not this is necessarily a bad thing. Arsenal fans have never really hankered after the trophy, and even those who are firmly in the anti-Wenger camp these days are mostly just annoyed with the club’s inability to compete with the best teams rather than their lack of interest in a second-tier competition.
And yet, the League Cup has a strange relationship with the biggest and best clubs in the country. Despite its status, in this decade, only twice has a club which is not part of what we think of as the top six these days won the trophy, and once was when Birmingham triumphed over Arsenal. The other was when Swansea were victorious. In the last ten years, Spurs, Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea have all won the competition, which makes you wonder why not Arsenal.
It’s not really about the silverware – though in 2011 the Gunners had gone six years without a trophy and would probably have enjoyed lifting one, and even now it would certainly be a novelty to lift a trophy that’s not the FA Cup – but about the momentum it can provide.
These days, football is a series of long seasons, and this year will be especially for Arsenal, having had to play Thursday – Sunday all season in the Europa League. There’s also the not-so-small matter of travel in the secondary European competition, as well as the fact that there are an extra two games to play if the Gunners progress any further than the round of 32. Winning a trophy early on builds momentum at a crucial period in the season, even if it also adds more games to the campaign just when the Europa League will be getting back underway again in the early spring.
That’s not the only kind of momentum worth talking about here, though.
It’s highly unlikely that the Gunners will compete for the Premier League title this season, and even if Manchester City weren’t already so far ahead, you’d still get the feeling that Arsenal aren’t quite good enough this time around. But in order to build a squad that can win trophies later on, you need to do more than just buy good players – you also need to instil a winning mentality into the side.
For a team who have won three of the last four FA Cups, you’d think that wouldn’t be a problem – or at least, not one that attempting to win the League Cup or Europa League could solve – but the timing is so important. When the Gunner lifted the FA Cup at Wembley in early June, it was clear that this was a team whose season wasn’t rescued by that victory. On the other hand, for Manchester United, who won the Europa League in similar circumstances, it was.
That’s not just down to the prestige of the competition or the fact that there was a Champions League place up for grabs – though that was important, too – but it was also because you could see that United were aiming for this to be a stepping stone for greater things. Arsenal, on the other hand, knew that the next season they’d be playing on Thursday night and there was a nagging feeling that they may even have had a weaker squad than the one that won the competition.
That’s why it’s worrying from an Arsenal point of view if they are treating the EFL Cup and the Europa League in the same way Wenger has always viewed the League Cup. It would be a crime, really.
In fairness, in Europe, they’ve walked their group so far, and so perhaps playing a second string was more of a calculated gamble than a sign that Arsenal don’t care at all, but if they do that in the knockout stages, they’ll find it much tougher. But it would be wrong to play the kids after Christmas: Arsenal should really want to win these trophies this season.
The Europa League, too, is a competition they might feel they have some unfinished business in 2000, Arsenal reached the final only to be beaten by Turkish side Galatasaray, depriving Wenger of the chance to win his first European trophy, and to this day he is still the only manager to have been beaten in each of the three European club competitions: the Cup Winners’ Cup, the UEFA Cup and the Champions League. More importantly, though, it’s also a route into the Champions League.
Having missed out this year thanks to last season’s league position, it wouldn’t be overly controversial to suggest that they might miss out on the top four this time, too. Manchester City, United and Spurs all seem more reliable than Arsenal so far, whilst you get the feeling that the champions Chelsea will be the most likely to pip Arsenal and Liverpool for fourth. Anything can happen between now and the end of the season, and it’s far too early to be too down on Arsenal’s chances in the league, but the situation does seem to suggest that the Gunners should be taking the Europa League seriously.
Far from just being second-tier competitions that are far below a club like Arsenal, even the other top English clubs are happy to win them. It’s not necessarily for the glory and prestige – they’d rather win the Premier League and Champions League instead – but for the fact that they’re momentum builders. And Arsenal could be doing with that right now.