1) There is a theory – and it carries some weight – that griping about the FA Cup losing its magic has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more people within the game publicly moan about what they consider to be a lamentable decline, the more they assist that decline. If everyone that purported to care deeply about the competition talked up its good points rather than highlighting the bad, the FA Cup might well be considered to be in far ruder health.
But it has probably gone too far now. After Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, surely the two most culturally influential managers in English football, spoke out about the need for change, others have followed suit. On Saturday, Brentford manager Thomas Frank spoke of his relief that his club would not face a replay after they were eliminated by Leicester City and Oxford United’s Karl Robinson admitted that he would have preferred not to face Newcastle United again. There is no suggestion that Brentford took it easy to avoid another game (their late assault on the Leicester goal suggested the opposite) but it’s still a bad look for the FA Cup to have managers – lower-league ones, no less – shrugging their shoulders after a defeat.
You can see Frank’s point. As with Sabri Lamouchi after Nottingham Forest lost to Chelsea in the third round, these two Championship managers will not be judged on their performance in the domestic cups but on their ability to take their clubs into the Premier League. Why would you put that at risk by extending your stay in a competition that you are highly unlikely to win, given the depth in resources of those clubs at the top of the food chain?
But when every manager pushes for change, it becomes far more likely. Personally I would rather see the EFL Cup scrapped than the FA Cup adapted to fit the preference of the biggest clubs, but the danger in doing anything so significant is that it only opens the door for Champions League expansion and another money grab from those who already enjoy such financial dominance.
2) The new FA Cup cause celebre seems to be the abolition of replays. Gary Lineker copped some flak for airing his view, but it’s fair to say that he has plenty of managers on his side.
The FA Cup is given slots in the calendar that allow for league games to be fitted in around them, but there is no doubt that replays cause headaches for those sides that participate in European competition or the relentless Tuesday-Saturday Football League cycle.
The issue with scrapping replays is that it punishes smaller clubs, who would miss out on vital financial resources handed to them by ticket revenues. The proposal to scrap replays from the fourth round onwards does largely mitigate non-league clubs being affected, but it is unusual for League Two not to be represented in the fourth round and they could certainly do with the extra cash thanks to the inequalities that exist within English football.
The answer, if replays really are going to become history, is for the Football Association to only agree to the proposal if ticket revenue splits are also changed. That could be done in two steps: 1) Any team from a lower division drawn at home against a team from a higher division can choose to play the tie at the home of the opposition, if they wish. 2) All ticket revenues for FA Cup matches are split 50/50 if the two teams are in the same division, 25/75 if there is one division between them and 0/100 if there are two divisions or more between them.
3) Out of adversity comes opportunity. Leicester City supporters and Brendan Rodgers will have breathed a huge sigh of relief when they received the news that Jamie Vardy’s injury was not as serious as everyone at the club feared. He may well even be fit for Leicester’s EFL Cup semi-final second leg against Aston Villa this midweek, and will start if at all possible.
But Kelechi Iheanacho deserves great credit for how he has stepped into the breach, however temporarily. He became something of a joke figure at Leicester for his goalscoring drought, but he has now scored seven goals in 12 appearances this season. The winner against Brentford came after his match-clinching run to earn a penalty against West Ham on Wednesday.
It isn’t easy to be a back-up striker behind such an obvious figurehead. The unpleasant reality is that no Leicester supporter wants to see Iheanacho starting as the lone centre-forward. That must be a pretty debilitating environment for a player to work in. Good on him for learning to cope and thrive in such circumstances.
4) There is a section of West Ham’s support which believes that relegation would be a good thing for the club. It would allow them to go through a deep cleanse that would involve the owners selling up, the squad being overhauled, the team winning matches and the grim smog being lifted.
Unfortunately, that’s not always how it works. Saturday provided plenty of evidence that relegation would not allow West Ham to win games at a canter and persuade supporters to fall in love all over again. Here was a strong West Ham team being beaten, at home, by a second-string West Brom side that is in poor form in the Championship. Rather than being confident that West Ham would flourish in a shallower pool, it’s just as likely that they would find a way to drown in it. Remember Sunderland?
West Ham are now close to the type of mutiny that saw pitch invasions and the directors’ box being swamped against Burnley in March 2018. The two years since have witnessed a succession of promises from Davids Gold and Sullivan and Karren Brady, an array of well-meaning managers and new signings but precious little leadership and thus no sustainable improvement whatsoever.
If that wasn’t enough, supporters are being forced to watch a David Moyes-managed team flounder and play turgid football 18 months after they were told the club wanted to move on from the Scot because he wasn’t the right fit for the owners’ vision. Every opportunity those owners have been given to prove their own competence has been passed up. Fans feel that they are being asked to pay a king’s ransom to watch something they love be suffocated. That is always likely to provoke intense frustration that spills over into anger.
5) There is something to be said for a manager being prepared to make decisive changes to alter the course of a match. We are more likely to criticise a coach for not being proactive enough than for being too proactive.
But there has to come a point when rather than praise a manager for making early substitutions to try and change a match, you wonder whether he might be better off getting the team selection right in the first place.
Last Wednesday at Leicester, Moyes made two substitutions at half-time after West Ham had been outplayed in the first half. On Saturday, Moyes made three substitutions at half-time after West Ham had been outplayed in the first half. He admitted after the game that he would have made five had rules permitted it. That doesn’t say much for his ability to create a logical game plan that suits his players. This could be a long four months for West Ham.
6) Quote of the weekend goes to Steve Bruce and his extraordinary optimism. After Newcastle had drawn 0-0 with Oxford United, he thanked the 52,000 supporters who had attended the match.
“We had a quite remarkable crowd,” said Bruce. “And my biggest disappointment is that we didn’t send them home in raptures.”
Given that their club is owned by a man seemingly intent on strangling all life and joy out of it, given that Newcastle haven’t reached the fifth round of the FA Cup since 2006 and given that Newcastle is run on the basis that 17th place and another injection of broadcasting revenue is satisfactory, I’m not quite sure beating a League One team at home would provoke “raptures”.
7) Karl Robinson has already had two shots at the Championship, and will be disappointed with both experiences, but it seems remarkable that he is still the right side of 40. Now in his third spell at Oxford United and again doing an excellent job, Robinson is aiming for promotion to the second tier again.
This FA Cup weekend did not produce any major shocks (with apologies offered to Portsmouth and West Brom), but the standout result was clearly Oxford’s 0-0 draw at St James’ Park. Anyone who assumes that Oxford defended stoutly and ground out a result can think again. Bruce was indebted to Karl Darlow for a string of second-half saves.
That matters to Robinson, because this is his shop window. If that sounds a little disrespectful to Oxford, their ambition may well match the manager’s. There must be a number of clubs in the Championship whose owners might consider Robinson when a change needs to be made.
8) The funniest FA Cup replay of all will take place at St Andrew’s, where landlords will host tenants after tenants hosted landlords in front of a crowd that will, again, be split 50/50. A fixture nobody particularly wanted in exactly the same circumstances as the one they have just played.
Of course the rules have to be the same for every tie, but this match does highlight the growing EFL crisis. Birmingham City are currently under investigation and may face a second points deduction in two seasons, while Coventry City are playing outside of their own home for the second time due to a row between their dismal owners SISU and rugby union club Wasps, who now own the Ricoh Arena.
Coventry City supporters are generally grateful to Birmingham City for allowing them to share their stadium, in doing so ensuring they could participate in League One this season, but this was no great love-in. Those Coventry fans that still do go to watch their club do so out of support for the tireless and overachieving Mark Robins and a refusal to give up on something they love despite those in charge of it extinguishing all goodwill a long time ago. No city deserves to lose its football team; no football fan should be forced to call someone else’s home theirs.
9) The next time that a manager is criticised for playing defensive football and using a low block against a team with far greater resources, killing the spectacle for neutrals as if they have any responsibility to bear neutrals in mind, consider Tranmere Rovers against Manchester United.
Tranmere desperately tried to be different. Micky Mellon instructed his side to press high up the pitch, perhaps looking to exploit any potential lack of confidence in a side that lost at home to Burnley in midweek. But you cannot just decide to press and expect it to work. That strategy takes great organisation and preparation. Tranmere pressed in ones and twos and were so easily passed around by United players that they looked like school children playing a team three years above.
When pressing fails to work, it instantly becomes shambolic. With too many players caught ahead of the ball, United found acres of space in Tranmere’s half and made the most of the opportunities that came their way. Unlike in recent matches, their finishing was excellent.
10) At the time of writing, I do not know if anyone has fallen into the trap of believing that this victory proves anything about Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s suitability for the task at hand. But I really, really hope they haven’t and don’t.
All Sunday afternoon proved is that no pitch can be a leveller between two teams of vastly different financial resources. United have an annual revenue 139 times higher than Tranmere’s. Their record signing is Shaun Teale, who cost £500,000 in 1995. Luke Shaw earns more than that every month.
Proof of Solskjaer’s ability to take United forward – and be the best-suited manager to do so – can never come against these opponents or even in these competitions. That really doesn’t need to be repeated, does it?
11) If reports are to be believed, Tottenham will spend the final week of the transfer window desperately searching for a new striker. Anything else would represent negligence, given the absence of Harry Kane and anyone to replace him.
Son Heung-min is an excellent footballer, and needed the confidence boost that the opening goal against Southampton might well provide. But he is far better drifting in from the left than being the central striker, and is certainly not the target man that Jose Mourinho has always preferred to use.
Son can play the role of effective support act to a target man, but Lucas Moura’s race at Tottenham has surely run. The Brazilian has given full value for his £25m transfer fee after his hat-trick against Ajax delivered a place in the Champions League final, but that astonishing 45 minutes has become the clanging exception to the rule. Moura lacks the physicality to play as a centre forward and Son is a far more consistent option out wide. A new arrival this week – Andrea Belotti, anyone? – should relegate him to emergency option off the bench.
12) After the 1-1 draw at St Mary’s, Mourinho seemed to blame Inter for the lingering uncertainty over Christian Eriksen’s future. The Dane is expected to leave England on a permanent deal this week, but Mourinho was visibly grumpy that the move has dragged on so long. That’s a little odd; Inter were under no obligation to make a bid early in the window and Mourinho was under no obligation to keep picking Eriksen regardless.
Whether or not Eriksen leaves, Mourinho already has his replacement (albeit in slightly different wrapping paper). There are very few Tottenham players who have improved this season, but Giovani Lo Celso has progressed from bench option to a key ingredient in Spurs’ recipe for attack. The Argentinean is showing signs that he is fully settled in England and rode five Southampton tackles to create Son’s opener.
“I think the boy is earning a decision, he is making it an easy decision for the club to execute the option,” Mourinho said of that automatic purchase clause after the game. “It has been an incredible evolution since I arrived. With me in the first couple of weeks he understood what we want – he is a good learner, a good kid. I think by himself he made a decision that the club is going to execute the option.”
One of the overlooked pillars of Mourinho’s success as a manager has been his use of a No. 10 as his creative influence (Deco at Porto, Mesut Ozil at Real Madrid, Cesc Fabregas at Chelsea), and he now has options in his Tottenham squad to create an exciting, vivacious attacking plan; there is an argument for building it around Lo Celso. Between him, Alli, Son and whichever striker might arrive this week, there is enough to fuel a top-four bid.
13) As one Tottenham career starts to flourish, another draws to a conclusion. Danny Rose’s is surely over, left out of the squad for the tie. He has 18 months left on his contract, but will surely be expected to look for a new club in the summer and may well be very happy to do so. Stories of a ‘senior player’ at Tottenham leaking reports of problems with Mourinho’s training methods, written by the same journalist who has got previous exclusives with Rose, do not look good.
“I don’t know. Not injured, my decision,” said Mourinho when asked about Rose’s absence. “My decision is based on performance, and it is based on my analysis. We have Ben Davies, left-back injured for a long time, we have Danny.
“We have Japhet who is not a left-back but is very solid and very concentrated and it is difficult for him to make a mistake even playing in a position that is not his position, and Ryan is a 19-year-old learning how to defend, and of course his natural appetite is to be offensive. We have four options and it is my decision.”
Mourinho might well insist that he is a changed man after recent failure, but we can presume that he has not suddenly decided to suffer those he considers to be fools gladly. Once you’re out of the inner circle, you might as well start looking for a new place to stay.
14) I know that FA Cup ties aren’t just picked for television coverage because of the chance of upset, I know that this year’s fourth-round draw didn’t exactly cause a wave of enthusiasm and I know that the Saturday 3pm action wasn’t exactly fantastic, but whoever picked Manchester City v Fulham for live coverage should get a stern talking to. Nobody wants to watch a half-paced procession in a Premier League stadium where even the away fans struggled to muster any excitement.
15) For an insight into just how much Klopp wanted to avoid adding one more game to his calendar, consider his response to Shrewsbury’s late rally. As the only Premier League team to have used all of their substitutions this season, Liverpool are no strangers to calling on their bench. But he surely did not envisage having to bring on Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino in the final 11 minutes against mid-table League One opposition.
It at least affords Takumi Minamino another opportunity to acclimatise to his new role, teammates and life on Merseyside. The 25-year-old’s movement was again impeccable – notably for Curtis Jones’s opener as he created space by dragging defenders out of position – but the rest is yet to fall into place.
This is relatively new territory for Klopp. His previous three January signings at Anfield were either for the future (Marko Grujic), the short-term (Steven Caulker) or an immediate guaranteed starter (Virgil van Dijk). Minamino fits none of those bills and has to be drip-fed minutes as he learns. He should look to Andy Robertson and Fabinho for proof that it does take time and patience to adjust, but also that Klopp knows what he’s doing.
16) But the story belongs to Shrewsbury. Talk of scrapping FA Cup replays is put into perspective when a third-tier team without a league win in over a month earns themselves a visit to the home of the world and European champions.
And boy, did they earn it. Jason Cummings was ruthless. Josh Laurent was tireless. Liverpool were stunned at the sheer cheek of someone standing up to them. As Klopp had it, his players “sent so many invitations to the opponent”.
Shrewsbury, unlike Tottenham and Manchester United, promptly RSVP’d. Belittle it as coming against a mixture of Liverpool’s youngsters and returning injuries all you want; it was a far better selection than the one that beat a strong Everton side in the last round. Good on them.
Daniel Storey (conclusions 1-14) and workaholic Matt Stead (conclusions 15-16)