For the first time in Arsenal’s history, we are playing in the EFL Trophy (aka the Checkatrade Trophy).
In a controversial decision 3 years ago, the competition was expanded to include 16 Premier League and Championship “B Teams” with Category One academy status as part of a trial. Arsenal rejected the invitation for the first 2 years, but this season decided to enter a youth team into the competition.
Personally I am not a fan of top tier clubs entering the competition – even with youth teams.
The EFL competition was for lower league clubs – League One and below. Not only did it give sides in League One and League Two a realistic shot at a trophy; it also provided their fans with a big day out at Wembley.
Last season Lincoln City and Shrewsbury took a combined 41,261 to Wembley for the final. The year before 74,434 were at Coventry City v Oxford United – the second time in 3 years the attendance was over 70,000.
By playing Premier League “B teams” you devalue the competition, and could end up with a scenario where you have Arsenal “B” playing Manchester City “B”. When only 35,721 turned up for Manchester City v Fulham in the League Cup, how many would the Premier League champions bring down?
The final this year is scheduled on 31st March. That weekend Arsenal play Newcastle at home. If that gets shifted to the Sunday, how many will realistically go to the Checkatrade final over a league tie in the Premier League?
It does not surprise me that lower league fans have boycotted games when they are pitted up against a top tier B team.
Regardless of my personal view, Arsenal do have a chance in the EFL Trophy.
We have qualified out of our group with 2 wins and a loss. A 3-0 opening game victory away to Coventry was followed by a 6-2 defeat at Cheltenham.
The defeat to Cheltenham was not a fair reflection on the ability of our youngsters.
Down to 10-men after 8 minutes, the side was also without many of its key players who were called up to the League Cup squad for the fixture against Blackpool.
Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Julio Pleguezuelo were all part of the first team plans that day, meaning Arsenal played a “B team” of the youth team.
The group stages concluded with a 3-1 victory away to Forest Green Rovers; a game in which Joe Willock was impressive in scoring a brace.
That has put Arsenal through to the knock out stages.
The second round of games will take place the week commencing December 3rd. The scheduling of this is key as it is neither a Europa League or League Cup week – we play Manchester United away.
That will mean the likes of Emile Smith Rowe, Eddie Nketiah, Joe Willock and Julio Pleguezuelo will all be free to play in the EFL Trophy injury permitting).
As we move into 2019, the clubs chances could depend on who go’s out on loan in January.
Arsenal might be tempted to send all 4 of the above mentioned on loan for the second half of the season. 6 months first team experience before they become full time first team members for 2019/20.
This would result in a weakened team for the EFL Trophy. However if the club decides not to loan them out, then we would have a very strong squad for the later stages of the EFL trophy.
With the FA Youth Cup and Arsenal in the race for both the Premier League 2 & U18 titles, 2018/19 could be a very successful season for Per Mertesacker, Freddie Ljungberg and the rest of the academy set up.