A couple of these may change after Sunday’s later games. Still, we didn’t want to deny you some conclusions any longer…
* It’s something we probably say every year, and yet each season things get a little worse. The FA Cup may not be dead yet, but it’s certainly suffering a slow suffocation. At a time when money rules all, abstract notions such as tradition and romance are rendered mute by the noise around them.
The most pertinent question is this: Who is the FA Cup actually for in 2017? It can’t be for elite clubs, because they use the chance to rest players and pick young teams. It can’t be for mid-table Premier League teams, because most of those limped out of the competition at the earliest possible stage. It can’t be for relegation-threatened clubs, because their priority is Premier League survival. It can’t be promotion-chasing clubs, because their priority is promotion. Is it the clubs below them, with Cardiff City attracting little over 5,000 fans for their tie against Fulham? No.
That leaves the underdogs and the little guys, for whom the FA Cup is clearly a very special competition. Which leads us to…
* Well done to Barrow for getting this far, whose game wasn’t televised. And Stourbridge, whose game wasn’t televised. And Sutton United, whose game wasn’t televised. And Lincoln City, whose game wasn’t televised. And Eastleigh, whose game wasn’t televised.
You see that’s the thing with being an underdog: you’re only noticed when it fits in with the big boys. Broadcasters spend 80% of their programmes telling us about how special the FA Cup is and why it is so famous, and then only ever choose the games involving the biggest teams in the country. That’s how you get Manchester United’s never-ending run of televised cup fixtures.
There is nothing wrong with prioritising viewers and thus choosing West Ham vs Manchester City for live coverage less than a month before West Ham vs Manchester City in the Premier League is given live coverage, but don’t be surprised if the public get turned off. And don’t be surprised if people mock when you stand by the pitch in the London Stadium and talk about the ‘magic of the Cup’, when your employer is playing a pivotal role in killing the white rabbit in the hat.
* Walter Mazzarri. Slaven Bilic. Claude Puel. David Moyes. Aitor Karanka. Marco Silva. Claudio Ranieri. So ends the list of those more likely than Mark Hughes to be the next Premier League manager to leave their post – according to bookmakers at least. Individuals who were appointed in the summer. Individuals whose performance last season ought to have earned them a reprieve. Individuals who won promotion last season. Individuals who won England’s bloody top flight with Leicester. All more likely to jump or be pushed than a man who excels at finishing ninth.
Enough is enough for many Stoke fans after their club suffered a second third-round domestic cup exit this season. Championship Wolves were posed no problems in inflicting upon the Potters an embarrassing home defeat, one which renders Stoke’s season all but over in January. The ceiling is seventh, and there will be no cup run to dull the mid-table monotony.
Hughes did not even field a weakened side. He made just four changes, starting Ryan Shawcross, Xherdan Shaqiri, Giannelli Imbula, Marko Arnautovic and Bojan. The players were poor, but this looks like a squad losing faith with their manager. And why wouldn’t they? The man in charge does not know his best starting XI, his best formation or his best tactics.
Stoke sit 11th in the Premier League table, but they have beaten just six teams this season. The league positions of that sextet are: 12th, 14th, 18th, 19th and 20th. Oh, and 15th. In League Two. Hughes might well have taken the club as far as he can.
* “Why does it always have to be a foreign manager? Why is this geezer any different to Gary Rowett?”
And why do Sky Sports continue to give Paul Merson a soapbox and a live microphone? The pundit’s latest missive regarded Hull’s managerial appointment of Marco Silva, the Portugeezer coming to England and stealing jobs from Mike Phelan and Gary Rowett. Phelan, who proved incapable of inspiring an admittedly poor squad, and Rowett, who might not have actually fancied the uphill challenge of a Premier League relegation battle. For much, much more on that go read our Mediawatch special.
The 39-year-old likely envisaged his debut in English football as a rather more celebrated spectacle – a 2-0 victory over Swansea was secured in front of an attendance of under 7,000 due to a fan boycott over the club’s owners – but a win’s a win, and this was only Hull’s sixth of the season. Their ambition of emulating Middlesbrough by combining double domestic cup final defeat with relegation remains a glorious possibility.
As for Swansea manager Paul Clement, whose reign begins in underwhelming defeat, the mission facing him grows ever more difficult with each passing pundit. He is now the unwilling flagbearer for the ‘Why does it always have to be a foreign manager?’ school of thought, with Merson, Robbie Savage and Chris Sutton the lead teachers. Avoiding relegation is arduous enough without carrying the pressure of proving someone else’s point; do these pundits not realise they are making an unenviable task even harder?
* As for the foreign manager appointed by Crystal Palace recently, keeping those good old Englishmen out of work, Sam Allardici’s start to life in his new post continues to underwhelm. He received a warm welcome upon his return to Bolton, but a 0-0 draw and subsequent replay will have been towards the bottom of his list of priorities. It is now two draws and two defeats in four games for a man whose last win as a manager came in the last minute against Slovakia in September.
The Premier League side had nine shots, while their League One counterparts had 13. They had the same amount of shots on target (3) and corners (6), while Palace had 53% possession. Twenty-nine league places separate the two sides, but it was difficult to tell which resided in English football’s third tier.
It took three months for Allardyce to effect change at Sunderland last season, their revival coinciding with action in the January transfer window. If the 62-year-old requires a similar winter boost this campaign, his magic touch might be waning. Palace’s squad is good enough for a top-half finish. All they require is a manager to manage them.
* You can doubt the current ability, current value (at least given his wage) and future use to Manchester United, but you cannot take away the record. At some point Wayne Rooney will break Bobby Charlton’s goalscoring record for Manchester United. It’s not fickle to consider him no longer fit for United purpose and yet congratulate him on the achievement. The two can be mutually inclusive.
For more on Rooney, Marcus Rashford and Manchester United, you really should go here.
* Does any team do public embarrassment quite like West Ham? A week where their risible £5m bid for Jermain Defoe and £3m offer for Robert Snodgrass became common knowledge ends with a 5-0 thrashing at the hands of Manchester City. Those laughable bids for the key players of relegation rivals were inadvertently revealed by the club themselves, the performance in defeat to City was appalling, and vice-chairman Karren Brady admitted that the board are “struggling to understand” the current problems.
Every time the club look to have turned a corner, they trip over their own shoelaces. That’ll happen if you keep letting Havard Nordtveit tie them.
* For all West Ham’s ineptitude, Manchester City were magnificent. Kevin de Bruyne played in a deeper midfield role, David Silva dictated play, Raheem Sterling ducked and weaved and Sergio Aguero got some vital minutes on the clock. There was even a good evening for John Stones, who kept a clean sheet and scored his first City goal.
It was interesting to hear Pep Guardiola’s words after the game, in which he admitted that he had made mistakes in his tactics and team selection during his first few months in England.
“I’m not going to change England and I don’t want to do that,” Guardiola said. “Of course, it’s going to change me. That’s why I came here – to be changed. That is nice. When I do all my career the same thing, 15 or 20 years as a coach, it’s boring.
“Sometimes I have an idea: three at the back or play a player like this. And sometimes it didn’t work and when that happens it is always the manager and I never complain to the players. You have to look at yourself and see what you have to do to help them find each other and play to each other more fluently. That is my job. I have to help them.”
A frank assessment of his own culpability, and one that rails against the xenophobia-tinged accusations that Guardiola is an egotist. Richard Keys was the first one to arrive to the subsequent PFM party with a haughty ‘At last!’ that Guardiola had admitted his own flaws. The irony of Keys criticising others for refusing to accept their own guilt is presumably not lost on you all.
Guardiola is under huge pressure to succeed at Manchester City, putting his own reputation on the line. But to portray him as a swaggering ego who thought he could waltz into English football and redefine our understanding of the game is nonsense. Guardiola never sold himself as that, and nor should we. He is simply a damn fine coach hoping to improve an already prodigious CV.
* The divisiveness of Arsenal’s form is a reflection of the manager and club as a whole. At no other club do the micro and macro issues mirror one another so exactly.
See the result at Preston for evidence: a shambolic, humiliating first half followed by a comeback that eventually ended in stirring victory, despite the comparatively meagre opposition. In the last two games alone Wenger’s side have made draw feel like defeat and victory like draw. A mystery wrapped up in a riddle inside an enigma.
“I think since the start of the season we have had many, many, many comebacks and many goals in the final minutes,” Wenger said after the final whistle. “It was a great cup tie and we needed to dig deep to win the game.”
You can’t blame Wenger for his positive spin, and his reference to late goals. This was Arsenal’s 16th goal of the season scored in the final ten minutes of matches, and the third game in four that Arsenal have gained a result in the last five minutes.
Yet Wenger’s claims of mental strength are indicative of the catch-22 situation at Arsenal. If a comeback victory or draw requires Arsenal to have fallen behind, then their displays – and Wenger’s subsequent boasts – of mental strength require an initial collapse. Mental strength is best used as a latent threat, used in occasional emergency rather than every other bloody week.
And yet there Arsenal are, still with a fighting chance in three competitions. For now.
* It hardly affected Chelsea’s serene progress against Peterborough, but we may just have seen the final nail hammered into John Terry’s Chelsea coffin. When you’re done for pace and positioning by a League One striker, that might just be that.
Chelsea’s club captain has now been shown three of the last six red cards given to Chelsea. One of the finest achievements in Antonio Conte’s season is moving Terry out of the team without causing so much as a ripple of discontent, and that says plenty about the defender’s progression into footballing old age. Next stop USA, you’d think.
— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) January 8, 2017
* No Premier League manager would admit that a replay is worse than cup exit, but Jurgen Klopp must have been an angry manager in the Anfield dressing room after a lethargic 0-0 draw at home to League Two Plymouth Argyle. Resting players is perfectly understandable, but also entirely counter-productive when you a) draw the game and b) end up having to bring on several key first-team personnel to try and avoid the extra game.
It is an extra game that gives Klopp a dilemma. Should he play his first-team players in Plymouth on a Tuesday or Wednesday night, thus throwing away some of the advantages a lack of European football gives Liverpool, or does he again keep faith in those who let him down against Plymouth? Suddenly, January will have nine fixtures.
In truth, Liverpool deserved nothing better. Klopp’s youthful team may have had 28 shots, but this was the old, frustrating Liverpool, shooting mainly from distance and almost exclusively off target. Plymouth may have played for the entire 90 minutes with backs against the wall, but in goal Luke McCormick was solid rather than spectacular. He did not need to be.
* Eddie Howe is a wonderful manager, and the most promising this country has to offer. But it was difficult not to get frustrated when listening to his comments after Bournemouth’s embarrassing exit at the hands of Millwall.
“My hands are tied a little bit,” he said. “We are so stretched, the Premier League is such a demanding league, we feel we need our best players available for selection.” That was his explanation for making 11 changes to his side, which resulted in a 3-0 defeat to a League One team.
The argument is simple: the Premier League is the priority. Such an attitude is derided when preached by title challengers or top-four chasers, but how can Bournemouth possibly justify throwing away a genuine chance at winning a trophy? Rotation is a symptom of modern-day football, and Howe’s “hands were tied” in that respect. But changing every single player is inexcusable.
Southampton made eight changes, and now face a replay against Norwich. Burnley made six, and take on Sunderland again after their draw. Derby knocked out a West Brom side who made five changes. Mark Hughes introduced four new players from Stoke’s previous starting XI, but changed the system.
Every Premier League club from seventh to 13th is either out of the FA Cup or faces a replay to reach the fourth round. Nobody from Everton to West Ham are strong enough to break the monopoly of the strongest top six in recent memory, nor should they realistically fear relegation. For any middling Premier League side, this represented a genuine chance of silverware. Yet each were happy to relinquish that in order to consolidate their role as not good enough to break the top-six ceiling, but too good to get dragged into the relegation mire. Good job they got the season ticket money up front.
Despite our downbeat words for those managers who deliberately passed up an opportunity at FA Cup success, the scheduling of the festive fixtures did provide them with a ready-made excuse. Almost every Premier League manager criticised the decision to schedule three full programmes in the space of six days, and they had a point.
We will never know if managers would have made fewer changes had one of those programmes been scheduled for an alternative midweek. The chances are that some would still have opted to rest large swathes of their first team, just as they have done in previous seasons. Yet the Christmas programme provides a reasonable excuse. It really is silly to ask elite players to play 90 minutes three times in six days and then act surprised when they’re all half-knackered.
* “That is the job of Steve Walsh,” said Ronald Koeman on Saturday evening, having witnessed his Everton side squander a lead to crash out of the FA Cup at the hands of Leicester. The Dutchman wants January signings, and he is making no attempts to hide it.
While the initial reaction is to want a coach to, well, coach his current players and not rely on a chequebook, Koeman’s stance is understandable. Everton made just three changes, the fewest of any Premier League side, with their squad not strong enough to cope with rotation. As it happened, neither was the side he put out; Ahmed Musa’s double cancelled out Romelu Lukaku’s opener.
Walsh is tasked with completing protracted negotiations for Morgan Schneiderlin and Memphis Depay, but the plights facing Everton’s director of football juxtapose neatly with his former club. Leicester targeted Wilfred Ndidi, spent the necessary money to sign him, did so in time to play him in this game, and the £15m midfielder impressed. What Koeman wouldn’t give for similar proactivity in the transfer market.
* One club that got away with making 11 changes were Brighton and Hove Albion, a team that has the Midas touch. Chris Hughton chose to change every player from the victory at Fulham on January 2, but Brighton still breezed past MK Dons.
Like all fans of clubs who have suffered years of past abuse and neglect, Brighton supporters are a pessimistic bunch. Many are predicting a repeat of last season’s mini-collapse, when a small squad was crippled by fatigue and left empty before and during their play-off semi-final. They dare not believe, because to believe is to invite the Gods of football karma to inflict their wrath.
For every other fan of a Championship club, however, Brighton are the blueprint. Success has not been achieved through lavish spending, but by allowing a proven manager to quietly go about his business. Too many Championship clubs are ineffective rehabilitation centres for Premier League just-not-quites or never-weres, but Brighton is the opposite: this is a club that improves players. Players like Anthony Knockaert, Glenn Murray, Gaetan Bong and Jiri Skalak.
The 2-0 victory over MK Dons made it six victories in a row for Hughton’s side. They are unbeaten in the league since September 10 and have now conceded six goals in their last 13 matches. Barring a disaster of unfathomable proportions they will take their place in the Premier League next season, and no club is more deserving. A favourable draw and FA Cup run would be a wonderful side order.
* The subject of poor, downtrodden British managers has raised its head again, but there is a far bigger roadblock to young domestic coaches than ambitious foreign managers: the old boys club.
Take QPR, for instance, who chose to give Ian Holloway another chance in the Championship after he was sacked by Crystal Palace and then Millwall. Holloway is exactly the type of manager who you can envisage a certain type of pundit championing for Premier League jobs, without bothering to look at how he’s doing in the second tier.
Awfully, is the answer. QPR had actually followed six straight league defeats with two victories, but lost 2-1 at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday to provoke an explosive response from their manager.
“That team, who haven’t played before, will never be picked again. Simple as that,” said Holloway. “I wanted that team to fight and do it for each other. Unfortunately they couldn’t do it. Simple things we don’t do well enough as a group. It’s very disappointing.”
Holloway is always good for a soundbite, but it’s hardly a motivational message to a squad struggling for form. QPR are only five points clear of the relegation zone, a point closer than they were when Holloway replaced Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink in November. This is not the glorious return the manager would have envisaged.
* One way in which a slightly tainted FA Cup can help Premier League clubs is affording fringe players the opportunity to find form. Step forward Ahmed Musa, who doubled his Leicester goal tally in the space of six minutes at Goodison.
Musa’s Premier League form has been dismal since arriving for a fee of over £16m in July. Having created four chances on his debut, the Nigerian has created only three more in the league since and has managed just three shots on target in 532 Premier League minutes. Claudio Ranieri has given Musa just 45 minutes of league action in the last month.
Coming off the bench at Everton after injury to Leonardo Ulloa, Musa scored twice to lift some of the gloom at Leicester and pile more onto Koeman. With Ulloa potentially out of the next few games and with Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez at the Africa Cup of Nations, Musa has the chance to redeem a difficult season.
Daniel Storey and Matt Stead