By Richard Clarke
Arsenal will take a little extra baggage on the bus to Ipswich Town on Wednesday night – pressure.
For years, Arsène Wenger has used the Carling Cup as a finishing school for his younger players. Roughly half of the first-team squad made their debuts in the competition, another handful have used it to cut their footballing teeth.
As an education, the policy has clearly worked. But in terms of trophies, Arsenal have been the ‘nearly men’ of the event. The last eight seasons have brought four Semi-Final appearances, three Quarter-Finals and one Final - but no silverware.
To many it did not really matter because these were the only Arsenal games where you arrived in hope rather than expectation. You did not need to reach your destination, it was all about the journey.
However Wenger’s been mapping a different course this season. A bigger squad has allowed him to play a stronger side throughout the Carling Cup this term. As a result, they have beaten Tottenham and Newcastle on their own grounds then Wigan at Emirates Stadium – scoring ten goals in the process. Arsenal were playground kids last year. Not anymore.
It leaves them facing a Semi-Final against a struggling Ipswich team that jettisoned their manager last week and were hammered 7-0 on Sunday. Arsenal even have the luxury of the second leg at home in a fortnight. Wenger’s men are odds-on to win the trophy let alone see off the Suffolk side. Therefore, at Portman Road, they will have a familiar burden to bear.
“The pressure is on Arsenal and [Ipswich] have nothing to lose,” the Frenchman admitted to Arsenal TV Online. “It is part of being at Arsenal to deal with that and I accept that completely.
“We have qualified for the Semi-Final, we are two games away from Wembley and we do not want now to go out or to give up. We will play our game to win it.
“They have some key players who cannot play but overall you know what you face against teams who are in the Championship. We saw that against Leeds. You face more a team than any outstanding individual. In the Premier League there are one or two players standing out where the club has spent a lot of money. In the Championship, you face the team as a compact unit who is ready to fight against you, and I think that is what we will face against Ipswich.”
Wenger was not forthcoming over his selection plans. “I invite you to come to the game tomorrow and you will see,” he teased. The only ‘definites’ are that Sebastien Squillaci (hamstring) is out, Bacary Sagna is still suspended and Wojciech Szczesny will continue in goal. The manager also revealed he was considering playing Nicklas Bendtner as a central striker.
“We will continue to rotate from game to game, taking care of our interests and, of course, our targets,” said the 61-year-old. “We will have a strong team at Ipswich.”
The Suffolk side are 19th in the Championship, three points above the relegation places. It is their lowest position of the season and they got there via a paltry run of ten defeats in their last 14 games.
The situation prompted Roy Keane’s dismissal last week. On Monday, Paul Jewell was appointed as his replacement. In the intervening time they shipped seven goals against Chelsea in an FA Cup Third Round tie at Stamford Bridge.
“For a while it was actually very tight,” said Wenger. “In the first half-an-hour they played very well. When a tie like the FA Cup is lost [early] 2-0 or 3-0, it can only get worse for the team. But overall in the first half they played very well. I believe as well that somewhere Ipswich are focused on the Carling Cup more than on the FA Cup.”
Then there is the effect a new appointment can have – even though coach Ian McParland will take the team-talk on Wednesday night.
“Yes of course,” said Wenger. “It happens many times when you play teams that they have a new manager [appointed just] before but, there again, I think he is not in charge against us. However he will be in charge afterwards and we will face him in the second leg.”
Of course, Jewell was manager of Wigan when they knocked out Arsenal in the Carling Cup Semi-Final of 2006. Another occasion in which Wenger’s men were hot favourites.
Connor Wickham is probably the most interesting name on the Ipswich team-sheet right now. Aged just 17, the 6ft 3ins forward has already been capped at Under-21 level and, though mostly a substitute this season, he has started the last two games. The media have suggested Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal have all scouted him at some time or other. Just ahead of a direct confrontation, Wenger was reluctant to pick out an individual but, put it this way, he is well aware of his abilities.
“Wickham is one of their star strikers,” said the Arsenal manager. “We know him well, we have seen him many times. He is one of the players who can make a difference.
“But I feel when you play against a team like Ipswich, the danger is more the whole unit that you face, the extra-special level of motivation. Therefore, more than focusing on one individual, I think it's important that you're up to it mentally and ready from the start on. We saw that when Leicester played against Manchester City on Sunday. They won the first set-piece and scored. So it's more that you have to be mentally ready from the first minute on.”
If, as Wenger contests, Leeds was a wake-up call for his side then he’ll demand the requisite respect for Ipswich.
The manager’s change of emphasis, and the kindness of the draw, make this tie a must-win. For once, the Carling Cup will not dismissed when the final assessment is made of Arsenal’s campaign come May. It may carry a weight comparable, or perhaps even greater than, the FA Cup.
Wenger has made this competition important this season and so, having got themselves in such a strong position, it is now important his side win it.
Copyright 2023 The Arsenal Football Club Limited. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source.