Indulge me for a moment.
Ordinarily, an Arsenal vs Chelsea draw in the League Cup would be a clash of two teams who tend to go about their business in very different manners. Arsene Wenger has typically used the competition to blood generation after generation of well-hyped teenager, whilst Blues managers of the last decade have more often than not fielded stronger teams and, well, actually won it.
It’s a clash of philosophies and one which hasn’t gone without its fair share of debates along the way. Many a Chelsea fan has cast an occasionally envious eye towards the coffee-friendly area of London and have allowed the minds to wander into the possibilities of a youthful team of their own in the competition. They’ve ended up as little more than an afterthought though, as John Terry and Frank Lampard have lifted England’s third trophy twice whilst finishing runners-up and semi finalists a number of times.
Yet when Jose Mourinho took a routine pre-match press conference at the tail end of September, he reignited those youthful indulgences of yours truly and other youth-minded observers. When asked about the scheduling of the Fourth Round tie at the Emirates Stadium, the Special One opined:
“My thought is that I have to make a decision, and my answer is the under-21 team will have a very good experience in the Capital One Cup. We play Sunday against Manchester City, and Tuesday against Arsenal when the people decide the fixtures.
“The players have … two days. It’s something I have to accept because I have no other option, but I have to prioritise, yes. The league is more important. After that we go to Newcastle, too, and probably it will be a good chance for the kids to play a good match.”
In all actuality, we’re unlikely to see what he has proposed. A deep first-team squad has a number of ‘fringe’ players who need to feature, and a similar selection to that which swept aside the advances of Swindon Town in the previous round is set to be the order of the day.
But what if? What if Mourinho were to be true to his word and go head to head with Wenger, who fielded a squad of traditional junior flavour away to West Bromwich Albion to set up this tie? The possibilities are quite interesting.
Whatever his reputation, Wenger has favoured an experienced core to his ‘young’ sides, and did so at The Hawthorns last time out. Lukasz Fabianski kept goal behind a back four of Carl Jenkinson, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker and Natxo Monreal. Going like-for-like at the back would be no problem for Chelsea, so slot Mark Schwarzer, Cesar Azpilicueta, Gary Cahill and Ryan Betrand into place, with the additional spot perhaps suited to Tomas Kalas or Kenneth Omeruo; young defenders who have come along well in Dutch football but have had their starts to their English careers curtailed by injury.
Isaac Hayden and Thomas Eisfeld made up two-thirds of the Gunners’ midfield against the Baggies, with the kids backed up by the guiding hand of Mikel Arteta. A similar look for Chelsea could see Michael Essien joined by England Under-19 duo Lewis Baker and Ruben Loftus-Cheek. The pair have been on the fringes of the first team picture for most of 2013 and are the obvious names to consider for this exercise.
Ryo Miyaichi and Serge Gnabry flanked Nicklas Bendtner in attack; two developing wingers playing either side of a rotational forward. Let’s suppose Demba Ba gets the nod in the middle – Kevin De Bruyne would be a candidate for one side, with Isaiah Brown on the other.
Schwarzer, Azpilicueta, Kalas, Cahill, Bertrand, Essien, Baker, Loftus-Cheek, De Bruyne, Brown, Ba
That doesn’t look half bad, does it? It would certainly stand every chance of winning the tie whilst allowing the regular faces an opportunity to rest between big matches. A very young substitutes bench might include Jamal Blackman, Andreas Christensen or Islam Feruz, with one or two big guns should their fire fighting skills be required.
Most of us know that it’ll be the likes of Willian, Lampard, Mikel and Terry who line up next Tuesday and not Brown, Baker, Loftus-Cheek and Kalas, and that’s not a problem at all; winning is the only thing that matters at the end of the day and ensuring a balanced squad gets sufficient playing time is hugely important, but just for now, what if?