Thursday 26 April 2018

Next generation lose benefits of League Cup run

Overloaded squads means no place for youth

Reiss Nelson of Arsenal. Photo: Getty Images
Reiss Nelson of Arsenal. Photo: Getty Images

Jack Pitt-Brooke

It was not very long ago when the League Cup, under previous branding, was where we would see the next generation of talented teenage players, thrown into men's football for the first time.

Like many things that then became commonplace, this started with Arsene Wenger before catching on elsewhere.

But this is a different age now and the top teams will not feature as many teenagers as they might have done before in the third round of the competition this week.

This is the era of stockpiling players and that means that the big clubs have more players than they need. They have to play them sometimes, which means that on nights like this, they get the nod.

The result is that some of this week's line-ups will look more like reserve sides than teams who are giving the best chance to their best youngsters.


Not because the youngsters are any worse, but because they simply have too many unwanted senior players in their way.

Arsenal is an instructive example. They gave Jack Wilshere his debut nine years ago in what was then the Carling Cup.

The 16-year-old started against Sheffield United, Wigan Athletic and Burnley that season, playing alongside 17-year-old Aaron Ramsey, 18-year-old Kieran Gibbs, 19-year-old Carlos Vela, 20-year-old Nicklas Bendtner and 21-year-old Alex Song and Johan Djourou.

Arsenal did not go all the way - they were knocked out in the quarter-finals - but they did at least try to blood a whole generation of youngsters in one go.

Two years before, in 2006-'07, Wenger had tried to do the same with the previous generation of players, including a 17-year-old Theo Walcott and 19-year-old midfield pair Cesc Fabregas and Denilson. Abou Diaby was 20 and Philippe Senderos 21.

They got all the way to the final which they lost to a far more experienced Chelsea side.

But more than 10 years on from that, Arsenal will not be able to do quite the same at home against Doncaster Rovers tonight.

While Wenger would love to play his youngsters, he has plenty of senior players who are not part of his plans but who need games too.

Wilshere, once a beneficiary of Wenger's policy, will surely play, because he needs games for his own fitness and also to keep himself in the shop window for future suitors.

Olivier Giroud, for whom Arsenal listened to offers this summer, will likely start up front, while Walcott, who has drifted out of favour, should get another chance to try to put himself back into Wenger's thoughts.

On the bench, they will have Chuba Akpom, who could not find a new club in the transfer window despite looking all the way down to the German second division for one.

But the youngster Arsenal fans most want to see is Reiss Nelson, who will be hoping that he is given a chance.

This is the reality in modern football where big clubs accumulate players before they know what to do with them.

They can register as many over-23 players as they wish and, with the players so well paid, they can be hard to move on even when they are not wanted.

And it is by no means an issue unique to Arsenal. Manchester United will likely bring Luke Shaw in to face Burton Albion tomorrow.

The left-back fell out of favour with Jose Mourinho last season but could not find a new club in the summer.

Last week he was squeezed out of a place at left-back by Ashley Young.

Manchester City have some of their own senior players who are not necessarily in Pep Guardiola's plans.

They could not find a new home for Eliaquim Mangala which means he will likely start at West Bromwich Albion tomorrow evening. There will be much attention on whether Phil Foden and Brahim Diaz will be trusted by Guardiola to start.

Tottenham Hotspur's squad is tighter than most, in part because their wage structure means they do not have too many players who are surplus to requirements.

That means they do not have as many players they have to pick tomorrow, for shop window reasons, so Mauricio Pochettino can pick who he wants.

As a result, 17-year-old Tashan Oakley-Boothe will be in the squad, although Marcus Edwards, the brilliantly talented attacking midfielder will not feature.

Chelsea's squad is tighter than most but, with most of their best youngsters now out on loan, there will be little youth representation against Nottingham Forest tomorrow.

The League Cup is still an exciting competition in itself, but in the era of the mega-squad, and of the loan army, it is no longer the place for blooding teenagers it used to be.

Not en masse, for the big clubs. Development has to be done differently. (© Independent News Service)

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