Arsenal’s cup theory explained: Why Arsene Wenger has had a change of heart
The quadruple is still on, and the Frenchman isn’t complaining
So Arsenal continue to march forwards on all four fronts.
For another five days at least a quadruple is still a factually possible - if highly unlikely - scenario come May for Arsene Wenger’s side who, lest we forget, have won precisely nothing for the past five seasons.
Last night at Elland Road Arsenal fans once again got what they wanted, which was the club’s best players making the trip north to steer the Gunners stylishly through to the fourth round of the FA Cup.
In last season’s domestic cup competitions, Wenger sent out a reserve team at Manchester City in the Carling Cup quarter-finals who were thrashed 3-0, and then did the same in the FA Cup fourth round at Stoke, and saw an exposed side beaten 3-1.
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Clearly, Wenger’s mentality has changed this season. In October he told the club’s shareholders that he would be trying to win all the competitions this time, and that he would be faithful to that end. As ever, the Frenchman has been true to this word.
But what has brought about this sea change in ambition? The Carling Cup has always been used as a training ground for his younger players, even if the latter stages have often been reached, including the final as recently as 2007.
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Teams fielded in the FA Cup have also seen large-scale squad rotation ever since, after reaching four finals in five years between 2001 and 2005 and winning the cup three times, Wenger sacrificed the tournament in 2006 and reaped the rewards in Europe as his side reached the Champions League final. They also recovered a large Premier League deficit on rivals Spurs to clinch fourth place on the final day of the season. Wenger felt vindicated in his prioritizing.
In the second half of the season, FA Cup fixtures can be a major inconvenience. Just look at this year’s rounds. Arsenal will now meet Huddersfield in round four just 48 hours before a Premier League match against Everton. If they progress, the fifth round of the FA Cup is the weekend before Barcelona come to the Emirates in the Champions League.
Those are the kind of rational arguments that have dominated Wenger’s thoughts in seasons past, but no longer. A two-legged Carling Cup semi-final in January after a hectic Christmas looked like something to avoid, this season it has been relished.
It is now confirmed Arsenal will play nine games in January, and a total of 12 matches in just 36 days. When Wenger said his side are playing “every three days” for once he was not exaggerating.
But what is the Gunners’ gargantuan squad and legions of backroom and medical staff for, if not to play lots of football matches? And surely the point of every game is to win, with the ultimate endgame being cups in the trophy cabinet come season’s end?
That kind of logic seems to have become scrambled at Arsenal in recent seasons, perhaps ever since they came so close to winning the Champions League five years ago.
Wenger decided that to chase the big prizes, Europe and the Premier League, the domestic cups would have to step aside as collateral damage. And initially nobody was complaining.
But once Chelsea started spending billions and winning league titles, and then Cristiano Ronaldo and Wayne Rooney made Manchester United invincible and Lionel Messi did the same for Barcelona, winning either of those two top targets has become a whole lot harder for Wenger, and the rest of England and Europe too.
United and Barcelona have ended the Gunners’ European dreams for the past two seasons, while even in the domestic cups, Arsenal have lost out to Chelsea in the latter stages of both.
Arsenal’s supporters, and also the board of directors, have had enough. The club has not won a trophy since 2005, and nothing since moving to the Emirates Stadium, at vast expense, in 2006.
Wenger’s remit has changed this season. Yes, the Premier League and Europe are still the priorities, and finishing inside the top four is still the ‘minimum requirement’ despite the added competition for those coveted slots from the likes of Manchester City and Tottenham.
But the domestic cups are not to be treated lightly, a fact Wenger made emphatically by sending out a strong side in the first cup tie of the season, against Tottenham, when Spurs were trounced 4-1 on their own turf in the third round of the Carling Cup.
That set the tone, and last night at Elland Road, Wenger again sent out a side that was probably 70 per cent of the strongest he could field. The rest, namely Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere, were all on the bench.
The club’s player of the season so far, Samir Nasri (wearing the captain’s armband for the first time) calmly slotted his 14th goal of the season and when Bacary Sagna lashed home a second, Arsenal looked in complete control.
But Bradley Johnson’s left-footed exocet whistled past Wojciech Szczesny to reduce the arrears immediately, and Arsenal were left to sweat at 2-1 for the next 30 minutes.
When the Leeds substitute Davide Somma almost equalised with his first touch, Wenger had seen enough and sent on Fabregas and Van Persie to see the game off. The Dutchman’s fine headed third, his fourth goal in three games, duly did so.
If those players had not been on the bench, extra-time and elimination could have been a very real possibility for Arsenal.
As it is, a home tie with League One Huddersfield in round four is assured, and further progress looks eminently possible.
And will those players be so much worse off for having played, and won, another game, with lowly Wigan due at the Emirates on Saturday and then Ipswich coming to defend a 1-0 lead in the Carling Cup three days later?
Possibly, but this season that is a gamble Wenger is prepared to take. This year he is keeping his options open for as long as he possibly can.
And if Manchester United remain unbeaten and stretch their lead at the top of the Premier League, while Barcelona remain as impressive as they currently look and defeat Wenger’s side in Europe for the second successive year, routes to silverware will still be possible.
Consolation prizes they may seem, but surely better than no prizes at all for a sixth successive year. Finally, it seems, that penny has dropped in the mind of Wenger and his players as Fabregas, a World Cup winner just six months ago remember, was keen to point out.
Arsenal could still end the season empty-handed, or could win the title and even the Champions League. But if they fail in all four again, at least this time it won’t be for the want of trying.