1) We all enjoy the all-you-can-watch football buffet over Christmas. Having three full league programmes between Boxing Day and January 2 creates a wonderful feast for armchair fans and match-going supporters. Reducing it to two, and thus spreading both sets of games over a number of days, wouldn’t feel the same.
But we can’t have it both ways. You can’t demand Premier League football – with the best players on show – on tap and then act surprised when managers make a raft of changes for an FA Cup tie three days later. Managers have already expressed their anger at the number of illnesses and injuries sustained by players who are being pushed to the edge of their physical limits. League seasons have already been put in jeopardy.
This is a direct result of the vast financial wealth enjoyed by Premier League clubs. Those in the bottom half understandably prioritise staying in the division and those in the top half of the Championship understandably prioritise promotion campaigns. It might sound distinctly unromantic, but can you blame any manager that made eight or more changes?
If those in power really do want to give the FA Cup third round a leg up, the league season over the festive period would need to be reduced. But the Premier League is acutely aware that this is the time of year when their television figures get a boost, and so would presumably be against a reduction.
2) Rather than fret and moan about the FA Cup’s diminishing status, why not find succour in the positive impact it has? We are continually urging for greater pathways to be established for academy graduates in English football. If regular minutes remain hard to come by in the Premier League, the FA Cup now becomes an excellent platform from which they can gain experience and prove their ability.
The third round’s best example was Norwich City’s Adam Idah, an 18-year-old striker whose only previous senior start came in the EFL Cup against Crawley. The Irishman has played a single Premier League minute, but was given a start by Daniel Farke against Championship Preston on Saturday. Idah responded with the first goals of his career; three of them. He became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in Norwich’s history.
“Obviously it’s a great start to the year for me, just over the moon really to get a hat-trick,” a buzzing Idah said. “Even to start the game was unbelievable so it’s been great. That’s what I’m working towards [getting league minutes], working hard every day in training to try and get that opportunity and I’m just delighted to take it really.”
This matters beyond the weekend. Idah has been behind Teemu Pukki, Josip Drmic and Dennis Srbeny in the striker queue at Norwich, but will now be in Farke’s thoughts for their Premier League fixture against Manchester United. Even if he does still struggle to get regular league starts, scoring three times against a Championship defence will alert clubs in that division about the possibility of a loan.
3) Another fairytale can be found at Sheffield Wednesday. Osaze Urhoghide was released by AFC Wimbledon in the summer and had trials at Hillsborough before being signed. After impressing Garry Monk’s coaches in training, Urhoghide played the first senior match of his career in defence at Premier League Brighton. He helped keep a clean sheet and looked composed and calm throughout.
— Sheffield Wednesday (@swfc) January 4, 2020
Watching that interview hammers home the fragile life of a young footballer, for whom the future is insecure and the guarantee of making the grade non-existent. That only piles further pressure on them to perform when given infrequent chances to impress. Congratulations go to Urhoghide for grasping it with both hands.
4) One possible solution to the aforementioned problem – and it would involve altering the heritage of the competition – would be to shift the third round back another week in the calendar, playing it on the second weekend in January rather than the first.
It might not ease the issue of players being rested completely, but it would allow the Premier League and Championship teams to enter the third round after a full week without a matchday. That would surely persuade some managers to pick stronger teams.
5) Another potential change to the FA Cup could be to scrap replays in certain cases. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Nuno Espirito Santo both agreed in their post-match interviews that a replay was the last thing both clubs needed, and that they would have preferred a penalty shootout.
Solskjaer and Nuno’s gripes about fixture scheduling are a little off. Both knew the rules before the game and it’s important to point out that FA Cup replays are built into the calendar – no games will have to be rearranged. But given that Manchester United will have 18 matches between December 1 and February 1, you can see why Solskjaer is concerned about fatigue.
Scrapping replays entirely would seem to be a misstep. They can provide smaller clubs with a financial boost – a reward for their excellent result in the first game. But the FA Cup could follow the lead of the FA Trophy, which implements a policy where the tie can be settled by a penalty shootout at the end of the first game – without replay – as long as both clubs agree in advance.
6) Solskjaer’s more pressing worry is United’s continued inability to break down teams who refuse to let them play on the counter attack. Marcus Rashford did hit the bar after coming on as a substitute to try and win the game, but United failed to have a shot on target in a domestic competition for the first time in five years.
The most damning indictment of United’s decline is that defeat would not have been surprising and a draw against a non-Big Six team is a good result. Manchester United have played Wolves four times since September 2018 and have not won once. One team is well-drilled, well-organised and with an attacking strategy that can be tweaked to fit each opponent. Can Solskjaer honestly claim that’s his?
7) But if you’re looking for a success story with the kids playing a starring role, go to Griffin Park. Thomas Frank chose to make a host of changes with Brentford in good league form and harbouring serious play-off ambitions.
Of Brentford’s ten outfielders that started against fellow Championship side Stoke City, one was aged 18, two were 19 and four were 20. The average age of the side was 20.4, and they beat Stoke while allowing their opponents only two shots on target.
“My wish for this game was totally completed because I wanted a win, important minutes for a lot of players and to show that we have a clear identity in the club so we could rest 10 players,” Frank said. “The first 30 minutes we needed to work hard and get in the game but they didn’t create anything. After half-time we had opportunities to kill the game but when they didn’t happen we showed our identity and culture.”
Frank highlights another thing about picking young and reserve players in the FA Cup: they might do really well. It’s one thing bemoaning the alleged lack of respect to a traditional competition, but that fails to carry much weight if said players then prove that their club has a bright future.
8) It’s another piece of classic Newcastle United-ing. Part of the reason for Rafael Benitez’s refusal to sign a new contract last summer was the club’s own reluctance to sanction a permanent deal for Salomon Rondon. Benitez felt that Rondon was the most vital element of Newcastle’s survival from the drop in 2018/19, but the club believed that the striker’s wage demands were too high.
With Benitez exiting stage right for China, Newcastle replaced Rondon with the £40m purchase of Joelinton. Fast forward five months, and he has one goal in 22 appearances. Steve Bruce started him against Rochdale to try and get his centre forward the much-needed confidence that only goals can bring, and promptly watched on as things got even worse. Joelinton missed two glorious chances to extend Newcastle’s lead and then lost possession for Rochdale’s equaliser.
This is not all on Joelinton. At Hoffenheim he flourished when playing either as part of a front two or – less frequently – in a front three. So far at Newcastle, the Brazilian has played as a lone striker and regularly been left horribly isolated. Joelinton is being criticised for his inability to win headers and hold up play as successfully as Rondon did last season, but has never claimed that to be his area of expertise.
Bruce now has a call to make. If Newcastle are to make Joelinton a success, they must surely try playing two forwards to give him more support. The alternative is to start Andy Carroll and leave Joelinton on the bench, but that might be viewed as accepting defeat and risk damaging his confidence even further.
9) Matt Stead has already written some lovely words for Callum Hudson-Odoi, but here are a few more. His new contract in September was the first significant PR victory of the Frank Lampard era at Stamford Bridge. Having made it very clear in January that he wished to leave Chelsea, a five-year deal, accompanied by quotes about Stamford Bridge “always being my home”, constituted the club’s best news of 2019. He would not have signed it had Maurizio Sarri stayed.
Unfortunately, that contract was no guarantee of a starting place. Hudson-Odoi has only started three league games this season. If the likely departure of Pedro and possible exit of Willian this summer create extra space in Chelsea’s squad, rumours linking them with Wilfried Zaha and Jadon Sancho might unnerve Hudson-Odoi.
That makes afternoons and performances such as these so important. Hudson-Odoi faced a Championship team that made 10 changes for their trip to Stamford Bridge, but there is still precious value in scoring one goal, making another and being the best player on the pitch. Lampard will have been impressed.
10) Sabri Lamouchi can hardly be blamed for making so many changes. For the first time in years, Forest actually have a chance of promotion from the Championship. Win their game in hand – to be played in midweek on January 22 – and they will be six points behind Leeds United and West Bromwich Albion. Lamouchi chose to fill his matchday squad with academy graduates; it included 10 in total.
The one with the most potential might be Alex Mighten, a 17-year-old striker who has represented England at every level from Under-15 to Under-18. Mighten played as a lone striker against Andreas Christensen and Fikayo Tomori, but caused both of them problems and held the ball up brilliantly given that he was often left completely isolated.
Mighten is yet to play a league minute for Forest, and at 18 must soon look to leave on loan to gain experience. But with Lewis Grabban and Rafa Mir Forest’s only centre forwards and Mir’s loan deal from Wolves likely to be terminated in January, Lamouchi could do a lot worse than give Mighten a chance in the league.
11) Leicester City’s progress under Brendan Rodgers has largely been judged by their excellent league position, but do not underestimate their domestic cup runs. Leicester will play an EFL Cup semi-final first leg on Wednesday evening and on Saturday sauntered into the FA Cup fourth round with a 2-0 win over Championship Wigan.
Rodgers understands the importance of these competitions, particularly with Leicester enjoying such a large gap to fifth place in the league. Qualifying for the Champions League will be an extraordinary achievement, but the absence of European football also gives Leicester a realistic shot at silverware. For a club that has won only four major honours in its history and has never won the FA Cup, why on earth would they cede such an excellent chance to make this season even more memorable?
12) It would have been impossible to solve this particular problem even if they had won 4-0 at the Riverside Stadium, but Tottenham remain a team that is desperately low on confidence. Jose Mourinho switched back to the three-man defence after defeat at Southampton, but it doesn’t seem to give them any obvious advantage. The big problem is a sluggishness in possession and holes in central midfield that make them prone to conceding goals.
Buying one or two players in the January transfer window might freshen up the squad, particularly if Christian Eriksen’s future is resolved this week. But the honest truth is that Tottenham will not find full health until they have managed several wins on the spin – they haven’t managed more than three in a row since February 2019.
It’s now one win in six in all competitions. Any desperate hope that Mourinho’s mere presence might revitalise this Tottenham squad have evaporated. It’s going to be a long second half of the season if January doesn’t bring any surprising good news.
13) Remember when Mourinho’s teams used to be characterised by brilliant defending, grinding out results through their parsimony? Don’t worry if you have forgotten, because it’s been some time. Mourinho has seen his sides keep one clean sheet in their last 17 matches and 15 successive away games. Maybe he has changed after all. Just not how he meant.
14) We don’t need any further proof that football is a ridiculous game with no rhyme or reason, but have some anyway: before New Year’s Day, QPR had won one of their last seven home games and failed to score more than twice in any of them. On New Year’s Day they beat Cardiff City 6-1, and on Sunday they beat Swansea 5-1. Probably apply to the Welsh Premier League, lads.
15) In explaining last month how Liverpool were “trying to create” players “in the shadows a little bit” of their remarkable first team, Jurgen Klopp used one example in particular. The “pretty promising” Neco Williams, seemingly cast from the exact same mould as Trent Alexander-Arnold, was excellent.
His raking, long-range passes from right-back were wonderful, his deep crosses dangerous, his threat latent but potent.
But there is something in the idea of Liverpool’s reserves being created “in the shadows” of their first-team counterparts. Yasser Larouci mimicked the boundless energy and enterprise of Andy Robertson or James Milner at left-back. Pedro Chirivella did a passable impression of Jordan Henderson as he dictated play from deep in midfield. Curtis Jones took a break from matching Georginio Wijnaldum’s remarkable work-rate and intelligence to score the winner. Takumi Minamino debutised and deputised for Roberto Firmino. Harvey Elliott seeks to share the insatiable hunger and trickery of Mo Salah. Adrian continues to give Alisson a run for his money.
And that is Jurgen Klopp’s greatest trick: to build a winning machine with spare parts. To cultivate a culture that runs throughout the entire club. Most teams are desperate to avoid anything that might disrupt their momentum or rhythm. Liverpool seem to thrive even more in those situations.
16) But what does it say about Everton that even with a new manager, a much stronger side – albeit one also affected by injuries – and a decent bit of form behind them, their Anfield curse lingers?
They had their chances. Mason Holgate, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Richarlison: they all should have scored. But Everton’s last effort on target on Sunday came in the 27th minute, while Liverpool had more shots and possession.
This, not the narrow 2-1 defeat to Manchester City, was the reality check. The first half was promising, featuring the right response to the rare billing of favourites at Anfield. The second was laughably passive, aimless and nervous as they became overawed and intimidated and that familiar doubt crept in.
Duncan Ferguson restored some of their belief and identity, but Ancelotti has a hell of a job on his hands.
Daniel Storey (conclusions 1-14) and Matt Stead (conclusions 15 and 16 because he’s lazy)