* Death, taxes and discussions over whether the FA Cup’s famed magic is a distant memory. On Saturday and Sunday, wise sages regaled us with tales of times of yore, when football’s oldest competition was also one of its most cherished. When part-time builders would stand toe to toe with the elite. When the giant-killings were true and merriment was had. This was the time when the FA Cup meant something, when it was more important than life itself.
Then they started mumbling something indecipherable under their breath about the Premier League and how Manchester United ruined everything by not participating almost two decades ago.
We're hanging on to the idea of magic that, in reality, began to die out a long time ago. There are pockets of it left. That's all
— Oliver Holt (@OllieHolt22) January 28, 2017
Of the few guarantees in life, the constant soapboxing over the FA Cup’s standing in football is somehow the most painful. It is not as important as it once was to some, but it would have taken a brave man to pause celebrations at Sincil Bank to remind the home fans that their comeback win over Brighton did not matter because the Championship side was not at full-strength, or say the same at Gander Green Lane. Wolves’ win over Liverpool was served with the same caveat, while similar lines were prepared for Wycombe had they held on against Tottenham.
Sure, the FA Cup is third priority at best for some Premier League and Championship sides. But that does not dilute how impressive it is for Lincoln to beat a team 72 places above them in the league pyramid. Nor how a Wolves side battling Championship relegation thoroughly deserved to beat a Liverpool team which included experienced internationals. Nor how Oxford outclassed Newcastle, or how Wycombe pushed Tottenham to their limits. Are such achievements not precisely what the FA Cup has always been about?
Seriously, how joyless do you have to be to see the negative side of this?
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) January 28, 2017
— Sutton United FC (@suttonunited) January 29, 2017
* The more interesting issue is not that managers choose to pick under-strength teams, but that those players coming in have performed so badly and looked so disinterested across the board.
One explanation is that the managers are to blame for demotivating fringe players. By picking a reserve team, rather than only making three or four changes, the manager is effectively preaching the message that he does not care about the match. He is telling his starting XI that they are not first choice, and therefore that nothing they do really matters.
Still, it would be nice to think that individual pride might take over, and that those players who are not in the first team for league matches might try and persuade their manager that they should be. It hardly speaks volumes for their professionalism that, when given a chance to impress, they let it go.
* Nine months ago, Danny and Nicky Cowley were working as PE teachers at the The FitzWimarc School in Rayleigh, combining their jobs with leading Braintree Town to third place in the National League. Then Lincoln City came calling with an offer of full-time employment to both, and the brothers believed their dreams had come true. It turns out they had only just begun.
Now Lincoln, who have not been in the Football League since 2011, are top of the National League table, a point clear of Forest Green Rovers with two games in hand. The slightly bigger news is that the Cowley brothers have guided their non-league team into the fifth round of the FA Cup. On Saturday, Sincil Bank was rocking. Two Championship clubs have been defeated in the last two rounds.
“I’m surprised. It’s not often football surprises me, but…” Cowley said after the game. “You always go into games thinking you have a chance but this is beyond all of my wildest dreams. It’s surreal and it’s been surreal for quite a period of time – probably post-Ipswich, to be honest. The first Ipswich game, seeing those 5,000 away supporters and hearing the noise they made, from that moment onwards it’s been crazy – but a good crazy. I’m just delighted for everybody. I can’t believe the scenes and the emotion and the support.”
Now cross your fingers that they get to go to Old Trafford or the Emirates next.
* For the past few weeks, Loris Karius had held up his end of the bargain. It was on December 11 that Jamie Carragher told the German to “shut up and do his job”, a message delivered in tandem with Gary Neville. In return, Karius would no longer be the subject of their punditry ire.
He has played just five games since, having been dropped by Jurgen Klopp for Premier League fixtures. In that time, Karius has kept two clean sheets against Plymouth, and gave Liverpool a fighting chance with a number of saves in either leg of the EFL Cup semi-final against Southampton. He had impressed. But against Wolves, those familiar problems returned.
It took just 53 seconds for the Championship side to take a shock lead at Anfield, and 53 seconds for Karius to undo all his recent good work. The German cannot be blamed for leaving Richard Stearman unmarked to head home from four yards, but questions will be asked as to why he did not come and claim the cross. Be it poor footwork, lacklustre positioning, costly decision-making or a combination of all three, it was a goalkeeping error.
Most importantly, it could render the 23-year-old’s debut campaign in England over. He has been relegated to a role as cup keeper, with Simon Mignolet starting the last seven Premier League games. Klopp would be brave to change his goalkeeper for a third time this season.
* There have been plenty of rumours about Anthony Martial being unhappy with Manchester United and Manchester United being unhappy with Martial, but this was a weekend to forget about the doubts and enjoy a 21-year-old enjoying himself off the leash. Before the game Jose Mourinho insisted that this was not Martial’s last chance to impress him, but this still felt significant. Supporters will hope that Mourinho was suitably convinced.
Two chances created, two assists, one disallowed goal and, finally, the confidence to run at the right-back and get in behind. It may only have been League One opposition, but these are steps in the right direction after being left slightly in the cold.
Bastian Schweinsteiger also impressed, but that felt like a final hurrah in what will surely be one of his final Old Trafford starts. For Martial, he will hope this is the start of something special. He really does deserve to get a run on the left with Henrikh Mkhitaryan flanking Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
* “You look at players in the Premier League at big teams, turning 20, 21, and not getting a sniff. I think some of them are happy now to pick up the money, sit on the bench for the under-23s, wish their career away.”
Coming from a player who has been linked with a move to Liverpool and a number of other top-flight clubs since making his professional debut in 2011, Will Hughes’ words had added meaning. He is the anomaly in modern football: the young player happy to turn down the elite.
Will Hughes is just a dream. If he had a different attitude he'd be a bit-part player for a mid-table Prem team. As is, he's a hero for DCFC
— Leicestershire Ram (@LeicsRam) January 28, 2017
In the 2-2 draw with Leicester, Hughes was the man of the match. He looked completely at ease against the Premier League champions, who made only three changes to their starting line-up. Derby led 2-1 when he was substituted due to injury in the 63rd minute; they lost control of the game and, subsequently, the lead by full-time.
It was the 21-year-old’s 173rd career appearance. Liverpool’s Connor Randall has played eight games; Tottenham’s Harry Winks has played 22; Arsenal’s Rob Holding has played 40; Chelsea pair Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Nathan Ake have played 27 and 58 respectively. Each are 20 or 21 and started at the weekend for a top-five Premier League club. Yet Hughes, with a wealth of first-team experience behind him, is far further ahead in his development than any of them. He is the poster child for rejecting the “big teams”.
* Spare a thought for Arsenal’s poor kit man. The Gunners made ten changes against Southampton – oh, the horror – and featured a midfield scraping the bottom of the double-barrel. Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Jeff Reine-Adelaide were both excellent in the 5-0 win, but it was Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain who was the star of Arsenal’s all-hyphenated-midfield. He grasped the opportunity more than anyone else.
He provided more key passes than any other player (three). He made the third-most passes (68) at the highest accuracy (91.2%). He made two tackles and two interceptions, and assisted one goal. In a week when Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin showcased their inherent unreliability in central midfield, it was a timely reminder that the 23-year-old’s long-term future could realistically be in that position.
* ‘After another serious injury, Welbeck should be advised to take baby steps. There is a fair chance that he might start an Arsenal game for the first time since May in the FA Cup this weekend. The talk may be of him needing to score to impress Wenger but, for now, it’s more important to just get miles on the clock. After all, when Welbeck is happy, we are all happy’ – Big Weekend, Friday.
“Danny Welbeck was very sharp because he has been working very hard. He comes back from a long way out and has gone through some very difficult moments mentally. But his resilience was absolutely marvellous and he was rewarded tonight, so we are happy. Welbeck has been out for such a long time, I didn’t expect him to score straight away and it shows the desire is there” – Arsene Wenger, Saturday.
He’s happy, folks. So we’re all happy.
* From Dmytro Chygrynskiy to Keirrison, there exists a great deal of evidence that Pep Guardiola has one true weakness as a football manager. The Spaniard is a serial winner and a revolutionary, but ‘genius’ is not a word that can often be used to describe his record in the transfer market.
Guardiola’s first window did little to counter the theory that he often struggles to identify and sign players who will excel in his system. City outspent every Premier League side this summer, but none of his seven purchases have had a positive impact. I often have to remind myself that a 33-year-old Claudio Bravo cost £15.4million.
Could Gabriel Jesus be his first Etihad transfer success? The Brazilian’s Manchester City career is little over 100 minutes old, but he has shown enough in his cameo against Tottenham and in his first start against Crystal Palace that he can reinvigorate the club’s season. The forward’s work-rate was phenomenal, his assist for Raheem Sterling’s goal was wonderful, and his pace, strength and confidence belied his 19 years. He looks bloody great.
* There will be no Wembley dates to book in the diary. There will be no cringeworthy dancing. There will be no respite from a relegation battle. From now until May, Crystal Palace have nothing but Premier League survival to fight for.
Sam Allardyce would not have it any other way. But it represents a huge risk for the manager. Palace had their moments against Manchester City, but this was their fifth defeat in eight games under the 62-year-old. He has won just once – a replay against League One Bolton in the previous round.
Prioritising the Premier League is understandable, but a balance must be struck. An FA Cup run can foster confidence and momentum, two intangibles which would prove invaluable in a relegation battle. Combined with their recruitment efforts this week, the minimum expectation from their next two fixtures – Bournemouth away and Sunderland at home – must be four points. This is not the first time a fanbase is growing impatient under Allardyce, but it is the fastest.
* Premier League teams were not the only sides whose team selection laid bare their priorities. Brighton and Newcastle both have commanding leads ahead of the Championship’s chasing pack, but limped out of FA Cup after ringing the changes.
Brighton’s starting XI against Lincoln City share only 67 league starts this season, of which Glenn Murray, Jiri Skalak, Steve Sidwell and Oliver Norwood account for 59. Newcastle’s starting XI against Oxford United share 50 league starts this season, of which Ayoze Perez, Isaac Hayden and Matz Sels account for 44.
You can see both Rafa Benitez and Chris Hughton’s point given the importance of promotion, but it does make you feel a little sad for two sets of supporters who have waited a heck of a long time for a major trophy.
* After a turbulent week came the perfect opportunity to make amends. Aitor Karanka criticised the Middlesbrough fans earlier this week, accusing them of having a “short memory” and “disrespecting” the players by demanding more attacking football against West Ham. Offered the chance to apologise publicly days later, he chose to reiterate his view.
So a home fixture against League Two Accrington provided a chance to let loose – to “attack, attack, attack”, as the fans put it. The hosts were made to rely on a Stewart Downing goal 20 minutes from time, but the scoreline was deceptive. Granted, the opposition was hardly stellar, but Boro made seven changes and still dominated, having 20 shots, with six on target.
“(The fans) were good – almost like every single day,” Karanka noted after the game. “I can’t say anything more about the crowd – and nobody will put myself against my crowd.” Bridges have not quite been built yet, but at least the plans have been put in place.
* “Jose Fonte’s situation is a little particular but he is contracted with Southampton,” Claude Puel said on December 30. “Virgil is a very important player for us and he will stay here. Of course they will both stay beyond January. It’s normal because they are great and important players. But it’s important for them to stay and have a good attitude and improve our position in the table.”
Well they didn’t both stay. Fonte left for West Ham and Van Dijk got injured for at least a couple of months, and on Saturday we saw what even Arsenal’s back-up strikers can do to Southampton replacements for Fonte and Van Dijk. One of Florin Gardos and Jack Stephens will be in line to start in each of Southampton’s next eight or nine matches.
* How long does Walter Mazzarri have in his job? The Italian started the season with Watford enjoying fine form if not always performances, but supporters have witnessed an alarming downturn in form. Plenty of regular match-going fans would include their side in a relegation fight.
If the FA Cup was Mazzarri’s opportunity to relieve the pressure, he passed up the chance. Making seven changes and leaving captain Troy Deeney on the bench while also picking a team shape that made Watford easy to defend against, League One Millwall deserved their victory. Watford’s defence is not good enough to thwart the opposition and their strikeforce wasn’t good enough to hurt them.
Mazzarri has been put in charge of the asylum. At best Watford’s transfer business is eclectic and at worst an exercise at throwing excrement against a wall and banking on some of it sticking. The owners continue to invest in a policy of buying strikers and hoping one of them works; their collection now includes Deeney, Isaac Success, Odion Ighalo, Stefano Okaka, Mauro Zarate, Jerome Sinclair and M’Baye Niang. That’s before you factor in purchases such as Sven Kums, bought for £8.5m and loaned to Udinese the same day. To put it candidly, the Pozzo family have just made Watford too weird.
Still, it’s Mazzarri who will pay the price. When the first team can’t win a league game and the reserves don’t look motivated to take their chance to impress, it doesn’t say much for the players. It says far more about the aptitude of the manager.
* It hardly came as a surprise that Mauricio Pochettino was unimpressed with Tottenham despite their last-gasp 4-3 victory over Wycombe. “If you cannot play in this type of game, we will have a problem,” was his pointed message.
Tottenham have arguably the best starting XI in the Premier League, but their reserves proved incapable of securing a result against League Two Wycombe. Pochettino made nine changes, but had to call upon Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele to rescue Spurs.
Jurgen Klopp had to do similar, but to no avail. Not even Philippe Coutinho or Daniel Sturridge could drag a performance out of a Liverpool side who made nine changes against an excellent Wolves.
Arsenal and Chelsea (the latter are joint favourites with Paddy Power football), on the other hand, made ten and nine changes to their starting line-ups, and won 5-0 and 4-0 respectively. Considering Tottenham and Liverpool’s chronic lack of squad depth, it is a wonder they are able to compete on the same level.
* I know that broadcasters are desperate for the FA Cup’s magic to be retained, but BT Sport went a little too far by screening Sutton United vs Leeds United in soft focus. We half expected a scantily clad lady with bouffant hair to be joined by a suave, moustached gentleman in a purple silk kimono and lay down together on a sheepskin rug.
— Mike Whorley (@mikewhorley) January 29, 2017
Daniel Storey and Matt Stead