By Richard Clarke
It is kind of ironic that Arsène Wenger chooses to test his young players in a competition sponsored by a beer company. A third of the squad he has selected for tonight’s Carling Cup tie against Sheffield United are not legally allowed to drink alcohol in Britain.
The manager has named six Under-18s for the Third Round game, including Jack Wilshere and Emmanuel Frimpong, who are just 16. No outfield player is older than 21, the veteran of the side is keeper Lukasz Fabianski at 23.
The average age of the squad is 18 years, six months. Almost certainly it will be the youngest group ever sent out by an Arsenal manager.
Wenger has played ‘kids’ in this competition for almost a decade but has hardly harmed their achievements. In the last five years Arsenal’s record reads: Semi-Final, Quarter-Final, Semi-Final, Final, Semi-Final. But more importantly, during that time first-teamers like Nicklas Bendtner, Gael Clichy, Eduardo, Alex Song, Emmanuel Eboue, Cesc Fabregas and Theo Walcott have used this competition as a stepping-stone.
These days the players are younger and the policy more hard-line. Speaking to Arsenal.com ahead of the game, Wenger refused to use last season’s Semi-Final drubbing at White Hart Lane as a reason to strengthen his team in the latter rounds. He will name a squad this young throughout the competition this year.
“No, I shouldn’t have played more experienced players at White Hart Lane,” said Wenger. In fact the manager felt he should have played less.
“We have to keep our policy because we lost players in this competition that harmed our chances in the Champions League and the Premier League.
“So [we won’t change], never, no matter how far we go.
“We will keep our policy. Even in a stricter way than before.”
There is a spine of relative experience in Wenger’s team tonight. Centre back Johan Djourou, midfielder Alex Song and striker Nicklas Bendtner are internationals with Premier League starts under their belts this season. Keeper Fabianski and debutant striker Carlos Vela have also represented Poland and Mexico respectively. However packed around them will be a whole heap of youngsters.
One of the youngest and the most exciting is Wilshere. He came off the bench at Blackburn 10 days ago to become Arsenal’s youngest ever League player.
The midfielder only made his Reserve team debut in February, scoring naturally. He went to the team’s pre-season training camp in Austria and then Wenger handed a first-team squad number. There will be a buzz whenever he gets the ball this evening.
Last season, Arsenal beat the same opponents 3-0 at Bramall Lane in the Fourth Round of this competition. Sheffield United manager Kevin Blackwell has said he wants to make up for what he calls an “embarrassment” however, tellingly, he also argues that Saturday’s Championship game with Watford is his priority. The Blades were controversially relegated from the Premier League two seasons ago and their main challenge is to return.
“Sheffield United is always a very difficult game,” said Wenger. “We’ve had a few battles with them over the last 10 years.
“Always when you play a Championship team you know you are going to get high pace and commitment.”
That, of course, is precisely what Wenger wants for his side.
Despite their youth, Arsenal are nailed-on favourites with the bookmakers tonight. Indeed they are only behind Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool in the odds to win the entire tournament.
On paper you sense that could be beyond Wenger’s teenagers but then so was any number of results they have pulled off in the last few years.
In reality these are the games that Arsenal cannot lose. Every minute on the pitch is experience for the Club’s rising talent. Even if they do not win the games themselves the exposure will help them in the bigger matches during the years to come.
In fact Wenger’s only problem may occur if Arsenal do go on to win the competition.
Who could deprive his Under-18s of that celebratory champagne?