Arsenal, as we all know, exited the League Cup yesterday in whatever the opposite of "heroic fashion" is. They don't even get the "crashed out" descriptor, because the side Arsene Wenger put out there was, to be charitable, not the best. Arsene said so himself after the match:
Wenger, who had backed fringe players Joel Campbell and Calum Chambers to impress ahead of the match, said he now recognises that the side he selected had "no chance" to secure a result.
Arsenal also fielded Alex Iwobi, Glen Kamara, Ismael Bennacer and Krystian Bielik over the course of the night and Wenger said: "The level was too high for the young players. They are not ready to play at this level.
As much as we all like watching the kids develop, last night was painful; Wenger's assessment was absolutely right. Most of the players he put out there were out of their depth, and the senior players, after watching both Ox and Theo go down in the first 20 minutes of the game, basically played on autopilot for the last 70, to ensure both that they didn't get hurt and also that they didn't get overly tired as they kept one eye on Saturday's trip to bogey team Swansea.
Throughout the leadup to the match, and the match itself, there was an interesting set of reactions: one came, inevitably, from the We'll Never Be Happy Brigade, bemoaning the quality of play, the lack of cohesion, and the creativity deficit, without ever acknowledging that every single regular creating player had the night off. The other came from the This Cup Is Pointless Brigade, bemoaning the fact that Arsenal are playing in a competition that means little, pays little, and mostly just gets in the way.
I want to talk about that second brigade a bit, because I'm one of them. But first, let's talk a little about the history of the League Cup, because that helps explain what I'm going to propose later on.
The League Cup was always basically an afterthought - it was created initially to serve as a competition for teams who crashed out of the FA Cup early, but that didn't happen, and was then designed to be a revenue replacement engine once the Football League was reorganized in the 1970's. This reorganization (league officials wanted four promoted/relegated teams and smaller divisions) didn't really happen, but the League Cup was introduced regardless. The Cup's initial season, 1960-61, was one of the first in which all English grounds were floodlit to allow night games, so the League Cup was repurposed, again, to show off the ability to play games at night.
Do any of those sound like real solid reasons to have a League Cup? Yeah, they don't to me either. Nor did they to the bigger clubs, who viewed the League Cup as an inconvenience, particularly since the European Cup (now Champions League) was introduced five years earlier, and clubs wanted to prioritize their involvement in that more prestigious competition. Stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
So the League Cup bumbled along aimlessly for years, not doing anybody any good or any harm (well, except Steve Morrow I guess), until the Premier League really took off in the late 1990's and early 00's. Once that cash cow started getting milked, teams had to prioritize - teams lower in the league prioritized staying in the Premier League, and teams higher in the league prioritized European competition.
What has ended up happening over the last 10 or so years, then, is what we saw yesterday - bigger teams use the League Cup as a way to get their young players some experience in actual games, which sometimes works and sometimes results in performances like last night.
My question is, why bother?
I have thought for years that Premier League teams should be excluded from the League Cup entirely, and last night was further evidence for me as to why. There is absolutely no need for a Premier League team to play in a second domestic cup competition; it clogs up the fixture list, it's an unnecessary injury risk, and the financial rewards for a team who makes £90 million a season from TV rights alone are so trivial as to be insulting. Last year the winning team pocketed £100,000 in prize money, and the runner-up took home £50,000. Not per player, the whole team.
There's obviously broadcast money and game day stadium revenue thrown in there as well, but that can't be all that much - I don't know if they still do, but Arsenal and most big teams typically in past years have reduced ticket prices for League Cup matches to £5 or £10, in order to attract fans to games who normally don't have access to or can't afford to get tickets. Arsenal's last home League Cup game, against Tottenham, drew just over 35,000 spectators; that low number plus reduced ticket prices means Arsenal probably, after staff and facility costs are paid, host these games either for free or at very little profit.
There is an argument to be made that lower level teams could use that money, and that is an argument I am definitely sympathetic to - that £100,000 is nothing to Arsenal, but to a second- or third-division side, that money could be the difference between buying a new player and sliding further down the divisions. There is also an argument that lower-half Premier League teams who never really have a shot at the FA Cup or Europe should take the League Cup more seriously, which they may do; the fact remains, though, that the League Cup is sort of an anachronism - most major European leagues have abandoned their second domestic competition, but England, charmingly, has not.
There is another argument to be made that the League Cup serves as great experience for youth players and reserves who never normally get games. But on the back of last night, which admittedly is only one data point, was that a "good experience" for anyone involved?
Given that England insists on having two domestic competitions, I have a thought. Why not exclude all Premier League teams from the League Cup? The Premier League doesn't really need it, most PL teams don't really value it, and as discussed it just gets in the way a lot of the time. So why not leave it to the teams who would get something out of winning it?
Let the Championship teams and below contest the League Cup, and the competition gets a lot more fun - there will be fewer "giant killings", sure, but what there will be in exchange for that is a more level competition, played by teams who all want to be in it and want to win it, and will commit full resources to doing so.
In exchange for excluding Premier League teams, the prize structure of the Cup should also be overhauled in order to make it worth teams' while to be in it. There's a few ways this could go:
1. Big fat check. As mentioned above, the current prize for winning the League Cup is £100,000. This is not nothing, particularly to a lower league team, but to compensate for the lack of the big payday made available by a visit to a Premier League ground, the prize for winning the League Cup should be at least £500,000. The league can afford it, it would be a massive incentive for every team in the Cup to take it seriously, and that would inject a lot of interest into the competition that isn't currently there.
2. European place. This is less of an incentive for, say, a League Two team who might not be able to succeed at the European level, but it'd be kind of cool to give a Europa League place to the winner of the League Cup.
3. Automatic promotion playoff place. Whatever league the winning team is in, if they win the League Cup, they get an automatic playoff place for promotion one level up. This would probably involve a restructuring of playoffs, but it could be fun if it works out right.
So, there are definitely ways to make the League Cup better, more interesting, and more relevant, should the league choose to go that way. Excluding Premier League teams would be a fantastic start.