Weakened teams, poor attendances, crazy kick-off times – all featured in the FA Cup third round earlier this month, and threaten to dent its status and traditions once again as we head into the fourth round.
Perhaps this weekend’s ties will see more clubs deciding to take football’s oldest knockout competition a bit more seriously?
Yet the temptation is clearly there for many managers to rotate, giving fringe players a chance to show what they can do, and saving their stars from fatigue and injuries, whilst keeping their main focus on maintaining their league position.
This weekend presents opportunities for Brentford, Wolves, Wigan and Wycombe to produce major upsets as they face Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs respectively.
Championship side Wolves look to have a decent chance against Liverpool. Jurgen Klopp fielded a vastly changed team at home against Plymouth in the third round and paid the price as the League Two outfit earned themselves a replay, which they only lost 1-0.
Brentford will also be looking to spring a surprise against the Premier League’s pace-setters, and their players will be fired up to do well at Stamford Bridge.
Like Wolves, the Bees occupy the relative safety of mid-table, so if we don’t see anything from them apart from first-choice XIs giving 100% commitment to win their ties then it really will be a clear sign that the FA Cup is no longer what it was it was.
“Howe’s caution was understandable to some extent, but what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?”
Bournemouth did their best in the last round to prove this, making 11 changes for their trip to Millwall and failing to even register a shot on target as they went down 3-0 to the League One team.
With the Cherries not threatened by relegation from the top flight, boss Eddie Howe was widely criticised for not given the Cup his best shot. Surely it was worth taking a risk?
Howe admitted: “In hindsight with the result, yes, but though I haven’t been forced, my hands are tied a little bit. We are so stretched, the Premier League is such a demanding league, we feel we need our best players available for selection.”
His caution was, therefore, understandable to some extent. But what is the point in having top players if you are not going to push for success with them?
Bournemouth have Jack Wilshere on loan from Arsenal for the season; why not use his abilities whilst you have him to push for success in the Cup?
Despite all the criticism Bournemouth received, it is a given that this weekend we will see another top-flight team make a similar amount of changes.
Perhaps it will lead to another upset. But what fans of smaller clubs really want to see is their team beating the best an opponent has to offer, not a mediocre second XI whose names are all greeted with a derisory ‘Who?’ when the line-ups are announced.
Maybe the FA should start handing out fines for clubs who make wholesale changes for Cup ties, though this would be tricky to regulate and enforce. Perhaps the prize money on offer should be boosted? It’s currently dwarfed by the riches available in the Premier League – even for finishing bottom of the table.
But if the big clubs (or any club for that matter) want to field weakened teams in the Cup, they can, so perhaps when it happens the smaller ones should really go for it?
“Will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?”
Of course, no-one can blame Plymouth for seeing a draw at Anfield as the best-possible outcome; half the gate money, plus a full house and the TV cameras at Home Park for the replay. That’s serious money for a League Two club who flirted with going out of business not so long ago.
But part of me still thinks even the likes of Argyle could, in the circumstances, have really taken the game to Liverpool’s assortment of fringe players and kids.
Yes, they earned around £1m from the two ties, but it would have been good to see them muster more than a single shot on target at Anfield to add their admirable defensive display.
In the replay, an early goal from Lucas forced Plymouth to start playing, and start playing is exactly what they did, taking the game to the Reds and coming within inches of a stunning equaliser from Jake Jervis with a 12-yard scissor-kick.
Okay, so they still didn’t manage many attempts on goal, but still a lot more than they did at Anfield, where an inexperienced Liverpool side were there for the taking.
Again I don’t want to criticise them too much, and others will argue that they got their tactics spot on because Liverpool do struggle against defensive outfits as we’ve seen in the Premier League. At the end of the day, maybe they were just plain unlucky to lose out.
But let’s hope we see more clubs taking the FA Cup seriously this weekend. If they don’t, the ‘shock’ results will keep coming. But will the magic of the Cup still be the same if those upsets really don’t count for much in the scheme of things?