Arsene Wenger – King of the Debutants

Arsenal boss Arsene WengerIn addition to its long-standing reputation as one of English football’s premier cup competitions, the League Cup’s record of showcasing the talents of football’s brightest young things has increasingly become its trademark. As we look forward to the next round of the competition, FootballFanCast pays tribute to Arsene Wenger, the man who has arguably done more than anyone to give youth a chance in the League Cup.

Arsenal will travel to Reading in the next round of this year’s Capital One Cup and it’s almost certain that, as he has done throughout his career, manager Arsene Wenger will take the opportunity to give a few of his younger players the chance to take the stage.  When you hear about the Capital One Cup as a breeding ground for stars of the future, the Frenchman is often, and rightly, put forward as the architect of the trend.

Earlier this season, Wenger used the Capital One Cup third-round tie at home to Coventry to blood three more youngsters – Argentine goalkeeper Damian Martinez, Swiss centre-back Martin Angha and German winger Serge Gnabry (as a substitute) all featured in the comfortable 6-1 victory.

Arsenal’s starting line-up in that match also included Ignasi Miquel, Nico Yennaris and Francis Coquelin, as well as senior players Johan Djourou and Andrei Arshavin. The bench featured another four players unfamiliar to most Arsenal fans, with goalkeeper James Shea, defender Hector Bellerin and midfielder Thomas Eisfield joining Gnabry. Though the nature of the League Cup may have changed in the last couple of seasons, Wenger remains unwavering in his aim to blood young players through the competition.

It’s been a particularly successful policy for the Gunners in the past decade. Wenger’s policy of turning to youth in the early 2000s, when his first great Arsenal team began to break up, required Arsenal to re-tool somewhat on the fly. The likes of Fabregas and Senderos were rushed into first team action, perhaps a little before their mentor might have liked, and the League Cup – where Arsenal play lower-league opposition early in the season – was an excellent opportunity for Wenger to give his young charges more playing time.

Many of the most prominent players to have emerged from the youth teams into Arsenal’s first team under Wenger’s tutelage have done so by making their debut in the League Cup. Ashley Cole, Johan Djourou, Philippe Senderos, Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy, and Wojciech Sczcesny.

Today, with seven trophy-less seasons weighing him down, Wenger’s determination to invest in youth appears to have taken a back seat, with the last two summers welcoming the arrivals of Mikel Arteta, Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Per Mertesacker and Andre Santos, among others. And while many have criticised his policy to the League Cup in recent years, it should be pointed out that Arsenal have reached two of the last six League Cup finals – fielding near-full strength teams on both occasions, but going down by identical 2-1 scorelines to Chelsea (2007) and Birmingham City (2011).

In last week’s club AGM, Wenger stated that qualification for the Champions League was just as important as winning a title and ending the club’s drought. Any manager, though, would be foolish to turn down the chance of lifting a trophy – especially when, as in Wenger’s case, he could use the chance to allay some fears into his leadership. One only has to look at the Frenchman’s response to the first-leg semi-final defeat to Ipswich in 2011 to see just how much he values the opportunity to secure some silverware – and if he gets a chance to swing for the Capital One Cup this year, you can guarantee Wenger will take it.