Once upon a time, back when good Premier League footballers cost seven figures, when youth development mattered, and when Manchester City were still the noisy neighbors rather than the runaway, soon-to-be champions, the English League Cup doubled as a youth showcase event.
It didn’t so much matter as a piece of silverware, just as it doesn’t really matter now. But it mattered for the teenagers who finally had the spotlight to themselves, and to the clubs who used it as an opportunity to assess those kids. Countless current top-flight regulars cut their teeth in what used to be the Carling Cup. It wasn’t the Premier League, or even the FA Cup, but it had its own niche charm.
It’s now called the Carabao Cup, its third title in three years and fourth in seven, and on Tuesday, Manchester City and Arsenal advanced to its semifinals with wins over Leicester City and West Ham, respectively. But both City and Arsenal scraped through with reserve teams, just like the good ol’ days.
Except these aren’t the good ol’ days, and today, “reserve” has a different meaning. City’s starting lineup on Tuesday cost roughly £200 million. Its goal, only cancelled out by a stoppage-time Jamie Vardy penalty, was created by a bursting run from Bundesliga winner, Champions League finalist and accomplished German international Ilkay Gundogan. It was scored by £43 million summer signing Bernardo Silva.
⚽️ Carabao Cup: Leicester City vs Manchester City | Bernardo Silva (GOAL) 26' pic.twitter.com/JXQ7dXorm1
— CY Enterprise (@CY_Enterprise) December 19, 2017
City then scraped through thanks to penalty-shootout legend Claudio Bravo. The Chilean was brought in last year for £17 million to be the No. 1, but underwhelmed. City’s response was to pay twice as much the following summer for Ederson, thus relegating Bravo to second-string duties, and to the role of League Cup hero.
Leicester had 12 men all night against @ManCity team with 5 of the kids playing & Pep’s boys still won.
It’s not sour grapes to say Bob Madley – spelt W⚓️ – really shouldn’t officiate another City game EVER!
FOXTROT OSCAR FOXES pic.twitter.com/7d4Xt35Czj
— David Walker (@djwskyblu) December 19, 2017
Over at the Emirates, the average age of the Arsenal 11 was 25.8 years. The lone goal was scored by Danny Welbeck, whose professional debut came in the League Cup nine years ago. Alongside Welbeck in attack was Theo Walcott, who scored his first competitive Arsenal goal as 17-year-old in the League Cup final almost 11 years ago.
For the Premier League’s big boys, for whom the League Cup is fourth on priority lists, the tournament has naturally transformed from a teenage proving ground to a ground for inadvertently flaunting wealth. Nowadays, their squads are overflowing with overpaid veterans whose salaries are restricted. They can’t be offloaded. But to have any value at all, they have to play somewhere, sometimes. The League Cup is that place, and that time.
That’s not to say all of the 22 players in Arsenal’s and City’s starting lineups were outcasts. There were four teenagers, three of them homegrown. And there were players like Danny Welbeck, Olivier Giroud, Silva and Gabriel Jesus, who have found themselves out of Arsene Wenger’s and Pep Guardiola’s first-choice 11s. They need minutes, and match fitness. The League Cup offers opportunities.
But these second-string units, while not dominant, still often outclass the first units lower down the league. Leicester’s was a B-plus/A-minus side, with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Damarai Gray brought on as second-half substitutes. West Ham’s was similar. Both were second-best, though Leicester only barely. The Foxes came back into the match when their regular attacking trio entered the fray.
Nonetheless, Arsenal and City are through. They’ll likely be joined by Manchester United (vs. Bristol City) and Chelsea (vs. Bournemouth) on Wednesday, completing an intra-elite semifinal round.
That the League Cup has turned into this new type of showcase, in which prosperous superpowers unintentionally show off their excess, is not by design. It’s simply a function of the Premier League’s hierarchy, one that continues to become more and more top-heavy. Wealth begets success, and thus more wealth. One of the side effects is dead weight and massive squads. But in the League Cup, the dead weight comes alive, and even the “reserve” teams are bossing the competition.
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