Interesting round, boring round? It’s all in the luck of the draw

Date published: Saturday 5th January 2019 8:38

We  shouldn’t, in principle, enjoy football as much as we do. In principle,  a season is just the same squads at the same clubs in the same kits, playing the same fundamental game week after week for nine months.

But the reason it remains compelling and brings us back every week is because there’s enough little variations, tweaks, changes and responses to keep us going. This lad was rubbish last week; is he going to be dropped? This side lost heavily last week; will they do any better this time? These tactics looked porous a couple of weeks ago; is it the right choice against different opposition?

When the FA Cup third round offers up an unkind draw, all of that is gone. Coming straight off the back of the overloaded festive calendar, there is little incentive for any manager to pick their nominal best eleven, and that no longer only applies to the top Premier League sides. The opportunity to give key players a rest is too tempting, especially for those battling at either end of the table or those with fringe players to keep happy with at least the pretence of a first-team chance.

If the larger team wins, you expected them to win: that West Ham, Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal, Burnley, Everton, Crystal Palace, and Tottenham all secured routine victories gave us very little new information about those sides.

Even if the smaller team wins, it was only against a second-string. At a glance, the most surprising results across all Saturday’s games were Bristol City beating Huddersfield, Gillingham beating Cardiff, Portsmouth beating Norwich, and Newcastle drawing with Blackburn; but none of the vanquished teams played anything like their strongest teams.

The romantics, traditionalists and sentimentalists may complain about the lack of endeavour and ambition shown by those sides, and argue – not unreasonably – that the opportunity to win a trophy should be incentive enough to prioritise it.

But the sad reality is that the risk/reward analysis doesn’t stack up. Only two of the last 23 FA Cup winners (Portsmouth and Wigan) have come from outside the current big six clubs, and five of the last six finalists from outside that elite now miserably ply their trade in the Championship (Stoke, Wigan, Hull, Aston Villa) or League One (Portsmouth).

This is not to suggest a correlation between those two things – obviously, none exists – but rather to underscore that while winning two or three cup games can be financially and reputationally massive for the likes of Warrington Town or  Sutton United, it offers no tangible long-term benefits to those sides who are already enjoying the vast riches and exposure of the Premier League.

As a result, opting not to go all-in is a sensible decision not from the perspective of the boardroom businessman in his suit and tie, but from the perspective of the under-pressure coach on the touchline.  The knock-on effect is a tournament in which the early rounds teach us little about character or capability other than in the unlikeliest and thus rarest circumstances.

The most immediately obvious partial solution would be to move the third-round games away from the immediate aftermath of the Christmas schedule, which would mean the death of one tradition in order to protect the other.

But that’s assuming we even see it as a problem that needs solving. What if this is simply the manifestation of one of the major potential downsides an unseeded and randomly-drawn straight knockout tournament in the era of large, rotatable squads? You’d struggle to find people to argue in favour of removing the randomness of the draw be introducing seeding or some kind of round robin group stage.

The randomness is entirely the tournament’s charm; we love the idea of a non-league minnow getting a trip to Old Trafford just as much as the idea that Liverpool might draw Manchester City in an early round. But just as often you’re going to end up with something a bit…meh. That’s just the tradeoff you make.

If the balls come out the right way for the fourth round, you can bet the interest will come back pretty sharpish, and there will be plenty of articles pumped out about a bit of the old glamour returning. We’re really all just as fickle as the random draw itself.

Steven Chicken is on Twitter

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