West Brom 0 Arsenal 6
A six-nil defeat is never fun, but this one was at least understandable given the relative quality and experience of the two teams. However, the fact that the teams were so poorly matched is a symptom of the current state of the game where dreams of glory have been replaced with the need to compete on a purely financial level.
It’s not a new issue, of course. Managers in the top two divisions have been sacrificing cup runs in favour of the league for the last 20 years because club owners see the relative financial value and it becomes a no brainer. For Albion this season, the financial rewards for promotion are so huge that risking league results for a cup run that will bring next to no new income is deemed unpalatable.
The risk of injury is particularly acute for Valérien Ismaël given the size of the squad leading to a remarkable team selection whereby none of the players who started the game at Blackburn were named in the matchday squad. When combined with an Arsenal manager under pressure and, therefore, feeling the need to play a very strong side, you get what we saw last night.
In my match preview, I suggested that Big Val might not make too many changes based on what he did in the FA Cup with Barnsley last season. Evidently, I was wrong, and I suspect his decision was made based on priorities set by his employers. Deep down, I probably knew he would rest most players although I didn’t expect such wholesale changes, but the fan in me wanted to see a strong side as I feel we could have troubled an Arsenal side lacking confidence.
And therein lies the conflict. Most fans do care about glory. Most fans love a cup run and rarely does it interfere with league progress. In fact, two of Albion’s most recent cup runs have coincided with promotion and could be said to have aided it. The run to the FA Cup quarter final in 2002 and the semi final in 2008 helped breed confidence and are still talked about today.
Moreover, for a club like Albion, the cups represent the only chance of winning a major trophy although even that is now very remote. Since “the Crazy Gang beat the Culture Club” as John Motson famously described Wimbledon’s victory over Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final, only four times has a club outside the now established Big Six won the trophy (Everton in 1995, Portsmouth in 2008, Wigan Athletic in 2013 and Leicester City this year). The League Cup has been won by only two clubs from outside the Big Six since 2004, Birmingham City in 2011 and Swansea City in 2013.
This is, of course, just one negative impact of the amount of money in football and the governance of the game has not changed to reflect how the landscape has mutated beyond all recognition. Club ownership is the biggest issue and that is purely because of the potential financial benefits on offer. I have written about this before, most recently in my piece following the botched attempt by Sky to introduce pay-per-view and earlier in support of the FSA’s Sustain the Game initiative, and I would also recommend Adrian Goldberg’s short film, Keepy Uppy, which also bemoans how the game has changed since the formation of the Premier League.
As for the game itself, I was actually quite impressed with the quality of our academy players, particularly in the first half. Albion had the better of the opening half hour which begged the question as to what a stronger side might have achieved. Understandable errors from the young Albion players and the quality of the opposition told in the end, but the team can take pride that they didn’t give up and I just hope their confidence hasn’t take too much of a hit. I’m sure we’ll see a few of them in the first team this season.
Hopefully this match will be nothing more than a footnote to the season. It will soon be forgotten if Albion win at Peterborough on Saturday, but what it did highlight is the paucity of options that Big Val has at his disposal. Jordan Hugill arrived on loan on Wednesday to what can be best described as a mixed reception from fans on social media (personally, I think he is probably the right sort of player we need), but one or two more before the deadline on Tuesday would be welcome.