Danny Welbeck’s goal gave Wenger’s second string a 1-0 victory over West Ham at the Emirates and even though the Premier League match against Jurgen Klopp and Co could be seen as more significant in their season, an opportunity is there to create a little bit of history.
Wenger named an entirely different side from the one which narrowly beat Newcastle United at the weekend, no doubt taking into account the fact his team must also play three days later in a crowded fixture list; however few people were surprised – and in the end his gamble proved justified.
Unlike Jose Mourinho, who is ruthless at the very slightest glint of silverware, Wenger has always treated the League Cup, in its many guises, as little more than a run-out for his second string and a chance to blood young players.
As a result Mourinho has won it four times in England with two different clubs, including lifting it last year when Zlatan Ibrahimovic inspired Manchester United in the final against Southampton – and Wenger has never done so despite Arsenal being consistently amongst the four best teams in England.
How you view that statistic depends on how heavily you buy into Wenger’s underlying philosophy of the way his team plays football, the way the club is built and his vision for the future. But given so few of the young players handed League Cup action over the years have actually made a serious impact in the Premier League, you do start to wonder if Arsenal would be better off just trying to win it for a change. So, maybe this could be their chance.
Arsenal fans seem, as ever, divided on the issue. Many enjoy the thrill of seeing the next generation and the dream of having ‘one of their own’ in the first team in future; on the other hand the fact that almost the entire top tier of the Emirates was empty for a quarter-final against a London rival tells its own story.
When you consider that Wenger is the most successful manager ever in The FA Cup – he has won it seven times – then you have to wonder how many League Cup trophies he could have picked up along the way with a different approach.
This time, in his 14th League Cup quarter-final, his mix of young talent, such as Joe Willock and Rob Holding, and perennial bench-warmers such as Olivier Giroud, Danny Welbeck, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin, looked pretty strong – captained by the 10-year Arsenal enigma that is Theo Walcott. How long some of those will be around is a big question because rumour has it a major clear-out is planned this summer and certainly the likes of Walcott, Mathieu Debuchy and David Ospina are unikely to be in Arsenal red next season.
The incentive to perform, then, was pretty strong; and they should have gone ahead when Walcott sent a diving header woefully wide when left completely unmarked in the middle of the area from a Sead Kolasinac cross.
Arsenal did have all the possession, however, and they eventually made it count when Welbeck bundled home from a Dubuchy cross after 42 minutes, with West Ham defenders Winston Reid and James Collins both culpable – and goalkeeper Joe Hart, making a rare start, failing miserably to deal with it too.
West Ham’s last throw of the dice was to bring on Andy Carroll and Diafra Sakho with 25 minutes to go but in truth David Moyes’ side were virtually anonymous all match, allowing Arsenal the ball for long periods and rarely looking dangerous on the break.
Their tactics played into Wenger’s hands and allowed him a double bonus – victory here and a chance to face Liverpool on Friday with 11 fresh players, even if Giroud and Coquelin hobbled off to give a little scare at the end.
Looking further forward, the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup take place over two legs in January with the final at Wembley on February 25, providing an even better opportunity to the win the first trophy of the season. The question is how much does Arsene Wenger want it?
Ospina 6, Debuchy 7, Chambers 6, Holding 7, Kolasinac 7, Coquelin 7 (Dasilva 90), Elneny 8, Willock 6 (Sheaf 84; 6), Walcott 6, Welbeck 8, Giroud 6 (Nelson 78; 6).
Macey, Reine-Adelaide, Akpom, Nketiah.
Hart 6, Masuaku 6, Ogbonna 6, Reid 5, Collins 6, Cresswell 6 (Carroll 65; 6), Rice 6, Obiang 5, Quina 5 (Arnautovic 83; 5), Ayew 5, Hernandez 5 (Sakho 65; 5).
Zabaleta, Adrian, Haksabanovic, Makasi.