Long, Winding Road to Another League Cup Final

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It is perhaps an understatement to say that Arsène Wenger does not rate the League Cup. The competition, which has gone through various iterations over the years – Wenger’s tenure alone has seen it known as The Coca-Cola Cup, The Worthington Cup, The Carling Cup, The Capital One Cup, The League Cup (no sponsor in 2016-2017), and now the Carabao Cup – has always played a distant second fiddle to the FA Cup, the Premier League Championship, and various European competitions. Arsenal have never won it during Wenger’s reign, losing finals in 2007 to Chelsea and 2011 to Birmingham City. Yet somehow, against the odds, Arsène finds himself in a League Cup final again. In a season that could perhaps most generously be described as “mediocre,” Arsenal will once again be going to Wembley, where they have a sterling recent record.

Long Road to Another League Cup Final

Since 2010, the competition has been treated as a chance to showcase younger and fringe Arsenal talent. Match reports from previous years are littered by phrases such as “youthful side” and “10 changes from the weekend’s Premier League team” while recounting another disappointing exit to very beatable competition.

Consider the team’s results in the competition since 2009-2010:

2009-2010: 3-0 loss to Manchester City in the quarterfinals. The match report noted Wenger fielded a “youthful side”

2010-2011: Lost in the League Cup Final to Birmingham City due to a catastrophic miscommunication between Laurent Koscielny and Wojciech Szczęsny. As it was a final, Wenger did field a full side, making the loss that much more brutal and heartbreaking.

2011-2012: Lost 1-0 to Manchester City in the quarterfinals. The match report noted ten changes from the team’s weekend match.

2012-2013: Lost 3-2 on penalties to League Two side Bradford City in the quarterfinals. In the team’s defence, Bradford went on to the final, where Swansea destroyed them 5-0. By all rights, the team should have lost in the previous round but for an absolutely madcap comeback against Reading. Again, Wenger made eight changes from the weekend’s action, but that is hardly an excuse for such a disastrous defeat.

2013-2014: Lost to Chelsea 2-0 in the fourth round. The match report noted that both teams were substantially changed from their previous weekend’s action.

2014-2015: Lost to Southampton 2-1 in the third round. Wenger made ten changes from the weekend’s game, but Alexis Sanchez did play and score on the evening. The game also marked the debut of David Ospina.

2015-2016: Lost 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday in one of the most embarrassing defeats of Wenger’s career. The boss had made nine changes form the weekend’s game, and then lost Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott within the first 20 minutes due to injury.

2016-2017: Lost 2-0 to Southampton in the quarterfinals with a squad changed ten times over from their previous game.

Same Strategy, Different Results

This season has seen more of the same. Games against Doncaster, Norwich City, and West Ham have seen the team field nearly the same sides as in the Europa League. The Cup has given younger players such as Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, and Josh da Silva some of their first minutes of senior football for the club. And who can forget Eddie Nketiah’s heroics in the fourth round against Norwich when, by all rights, the competition should have ended for the Gunners?

The only concession Wenger has made during this march to the League Cup Final has been to field full-strength sides for the semi-final tie against Chelsea, which paid off. The team did the job against Antonio Conte’s men 2-1 on Wednesday night, and Arsenal have a chance to end their League Cup drought. Making the final this season is not a result of Wenger changing his mind about the competition. Up until the Chelsea tie, he has deployed the same strategy as ever.  Fans might be left wondering, however, if this final might mean a little bit more to the manager, since it is the club’s only chance for domestic glory this season.

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