Tom's Take #4 // The FA Cup International Break
It’s become hard to shield the FA Cup from the criticism of those who proclaim it dead. When the balls held in the hands of Wayne Bridge and Darren Fletcher on Monday night are the most talked about event of the weekend, you’re left with little room to negotiate your way around the argument.
While social media timelines can often look like Armageddon is around the corner on any weekend when we are not treated to Premier League football, the general consensus that this FA Cup 5th round felt like an international break was a damning indictment on the competition. International breaks are characterised by low intensity games that neither player nor spectator is fully invested in; the antithesis of what the FA Cup is supposed to be about. What was once a cornerstone of English football and a key feature in the trophy cabinet of any successful team, has now been reduced to an unwelcome distraction, swatted away in the wake of the more impending Champions League and Premier League campaigns.
If the ties did little to get the pulse racing on paper, they did no more to excite in practice. Cup upsets tend to occur earlier in the tournament, but the bookies favourites successfully navigating through each tie in some good but unspectacular games did little to inject excitement into the competition. Man United-Chelsea undoubtedly seized the mantle of the tie of the round when drawn, but apparently the memo didn’t reach the Chelsea dressing room as they turned in a groundhog day performance in which Jorginho would still be making sideways passes now if not for the mercy of the referee’s whistle. With big Champions League games looming, the weekend was a chance to showcase the qualities of the FA Cup but it felt like an opportunity missed.
Championship teams like Swansea and Millwall making the quarter finals were a feel-good story, (with Millwall’s recent FA Cup history a particularly impressive feat) and Newport gave a more than competitive fight before succumbing to Man City via Leroy Sane bludgeoning the ball into the back of the net off goalkeeper Joe Day’s nose. From this perspective, it’s clear plenty of clubs are meeting their end of the bargain in preserving the ‘magic of the cup’. Yet, it’s in the upper echelons of the game where the prestige of the Cup has began to erode and this is where the rot must be stopped.
The FA Cup is no longer a priority that will be aimed for at the start of the season for many clubs, that is clear. Numerous reasons have been suggested for this, ranging from an acknowledgement that in an increasingly physically demanding game something has to give and stretching to the influx of foreign managers meaning success in the league and on the European stage is prioritised over a domestic cup now. On both issues, it must be acknowledged that Man City are fighting on four fronts still and seem to display an insatiable appetite to win whatever the competition - that is testament to both Pep Guardiola and his squad. At the same time however, it must also be said that Guardiola is uniquely blessed with the resources to rotate so effectively and therefore maintain their multi-pronged attack on each available trophy. Below them, Liverpool as good as sacrificed their place in the FA Cup by fielding a weakened team against Wolves - with Jurgen Klopp undoubtedly wanting to win but hardly seeming devastated that they didn’t, such was the opportunity for a (perhaps) crucial rest period that was now presented.
If the Liverpool manager could make the argument that they’re in the title race and still in the Champions League, numerous Premier League clubs with little to play for have shown similar regard for the FA Cup - with the likes of Everton, West Ham and Bournemouth all seemingly safe from the drop but unlikely to make the European places in the league, yet going out on a whimper in the cup. The argument is NOT that these clubs do not want a successful cup run, but more what price are they willing to pay in doing so? For years now it has become clear that clubs would happily take simply existing in the Premier League over rolling the dice for a cup run and it is this that has fundamentally damaged the prestige of the tournament. With this in mind, even a ‘Cupset’ doesn’t always hold the magic it once did - almost like beating your older brother because he wasn’t fully trying.
Whatever the reason, the FA Cup is quickly heading in the direction of its ugly kid brother, the League Cup, in how it’s viewed. Far from an ambitious aim at the start of the season, for bigger clubs it is becoming an insurance policy where you can point to a trophy if the rest of the season hasn’t worked out as you planned. For a lower Premier League club a cup run is now a nice bonus but not essential to a manager who is looking over his shoulder to avoid the drop or more keen on pushing for European football and the Football League clubs are then made to suffer by the bigger clubs not treating the tournament with the respect they once did and making it appear less prestigious. If you’re unsure on the accuracy of that, ask Arsene Wenger how his first FA Cup victory was celebrated and revered in comparison to his last.
So, whether we need to grant a Champions League place to the winner of the FA Cup, or even create financial incentives that mean clubs cannot simply overlook the tournament, it is clear that this historic tournament needs a boost. International breaks are never popular - lets not reduce the FA Cup to similar treatment.