Arsenal's League Cup tie against Nottingham Forest presents Arsene Wenger a chance to calibrate
Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger would do well to veer from tradition and put out a strong XI against Tueday night's opponents Nottingham Forest
The English Football League Cup — known in previous iterations as the Football League Cup, the Milk Cup, the Littlewoods Challenge Cup, the Rumbelows Cup, the Coca-Cola Cup, the Worthington Cup, the Carling Cup and the Capital One Cup, before deciding to go without a main sponsor — is hardly the most prestigious competition on the English footballing calendar.
The sentiment seems to be shared by international broadcasters, particularly those bringing the matches to Indian viewers, who don't even deem it necessary to have a pre- and post-match analysis of fixtures.
But that sells short a competition that has thrown up a number of gripping games, massive upsets and goals galore. Somewhat paradoxically, the very factor that makes the competition so exciting is also one that makes it quite drab. The unpredictability of 92 teams from the top four tiers of English football (the Premier League, the Championship, and the First and Second Divisions) gives rise to a variety of strange and wonderful fixtures — with Premier League giants frequently making visits to tiny grounds across the country. Unfortunately, this unpredictability — that could result in playing on substandard turf or against rough tacklers — dissuades managers from putting out their best XIs in League Cup matches.
Note: Admittedly, over its 10 rounds, the FA Cup sees upto 650 teams compete, but the fact that most of the wheat has been separated from the chaff before the big boys enter the picture marks the League Cup as a unique proposition.
Apart from the unpredictability, it's also the fact that it is far less prestigious than the FA Cup or the league itself that puts managers off selecting their best teams.
This is where Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger would do well to veer from tradition and put out a strong XI against Tuesday night's opponents Nottingham Forest.
Arsenal have enjoyed an unbeaten run since a loss on the very first day of the season, a goal fest against Liverpool, and Wenger has more-or-less stuck to the same starting XI, except when a change was forced by injury or a new acquisition (see Shkodran Mustafi slotting in for Rob Holding).
The EFL Cup provides a good launchpad to get a few players some valuable minutes ahead of a relatively calm period for the club. A Premier League fixture against Chelsea on Saturday and a Champions League group match against FC Basel the following Wednesday are the toughest they will face in the coming month, which also sees games against Burnley, Swansea City, Middlesborough, Sunderland and two matches against Ludogorets (in the Champions League).
It is during here that Wenger will look to his players to put in the sort of match-winning performances that give him major selection headaches, while he calibrates his best starting XI.
By November, when Arsenal embarks on a schedule of matches against Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Paris St Germain, Wenger will want his team among the points, firing on all cylinders and all his players capable of putting in a quality shift. This makes the Nottingham Forest match a critical one as far as getting the hitherto underused likes of Mohamed Elneny and summer acquisitions Lucas Perez and Granit Xhaka a bit of time out in the middle.
Ninety minutes arguably is too short a period to really gauge how and where a certain player should be deployed, but it is a starting point and it's just the sort of risk-free (well almost, since a defeat could be disastrous for morale and momentum) fixture that Perez, Xhaka, Elneny and company can be given free rein.
Another consideration that will undoubtedly be in the back of Wenger's mind is the fact that Arsenal play Chelsea and Basel in the space of five days starting this Saturday. Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla, for starters, could probably use a breather ahead of those games. In other words: The time for experimentation and calibration is now.
That isn't to say that Nottingham Forest should be taken lightly. Far from it. The team may no longer be the powerhouse it was under Brian Clough, but Forest are known to be prolific goal-scorers. And with latest recruit, former Gunner Nicklas Bendtner, in their ranks, they are going to do Arsenal no favours.
And that is precisely why this is the perfect time to give some hitherto benchwarmers a run out.
The 29-year-old Son has compiled 107 goals and 64 assists in 280 appearances in all competitions since joining Tottenham from Bayer Leverkusen in August 2015.
The Norwegian, who took over from Jose Mourinho in 2018, will stay at Old Trafford until at least 2024, with the option of an extra year.
The 25-year-old Gray joins from Bayer Leverkusen, where he had been on loan from Leicester. The contract, till June 2024, includes the option for a fourth year.