Cup competition brings a unique set of circumstances to teams competing. Gone is the ability to sit tight away from home in the hope of escaping with a point, with the instant knockout system rewarding bold moves and moments of inspiration.
As ever, brave tactical manoeuvres have been seen in this year’s Capital One Cup, with, in the words of iconic Only Fools and Horses character Del Boy, a “he who dares” philosophy adopted.
The unique challenges of the League Cup mean that managers must attempt to strike a balance between defensive solidarity and goal scoring potential, all in a period of the season where new signings are settling in and players are attempting to reach full fitness. Very tricky indeed.
In continental knock-out football, and the League Cup of old, two legs were contested at every round, allowing teams to soak up pressure on the road and hope to capitalise on home field advantage.
While it is true that nowadays sitting back can still be a viable option, the best possible outcome will be to take the game past normal time. Middlesbrough adopted a cautious approach against Swansea in their quarter-final tie, and looked on course to take the Premier League outfit into extra time and a possible penalty shoot-out. But, a moment of poor fortune, Seb Hines’ own-goal, left them with just eight minutes to rescue the game, an almost impossible feat.
Beyond extra-time there is always the looming threat of the penalty shoot-out. Although it is a cliché, spot kicks are somewhat a lottery, with good fortune almost as important as ability. Plymouth took Burnley all the way to spot-kicks during their visit to Turf Moor, but were just unable to make their efforts stick, losing 3-2. Aldershot also narrowly missed out, slipping to a 7-6 defeat at the hands of Wolverhampton in a shoot-out.
Due to the reduced odds when operating in a negative manner, more and more teams are electing to go all out in search of qualification for the next round. This has seen a number of vast score lines during the competition. Swindon’s 4-3 extra-time win over Stoke was testament to a lower ranked team getting in the face of the favourites, and was all the more remarkable considering it occurred at the Potters’ fortress of a home ground,the Britannia Stadium.
Perhaps the perfect example of an all out tie came during Arsenal and Reading’s epic clash at the Madejski Stadium. The Royals stunned their opposition with a bright start, racing into a 4-0 lead with just over half-an-hour gone. The Gunners, after recovering from the shock, made their own push for goals, bringing the game back to 4-4 with an injury time equaliser at the end of the second period. The scoring was still not complete, with a further four goals, three for Arsenal completing the comeback.
In terms of formational set-ups, the five-man midfield has been a popular structure this year. A number of ‘underdog’ teams have elected to put an extra man in the middle of the park, in the hope of stifling their opposition’s ability to build attacks. As always 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 have played their part, but with modern football favouring two holding midfielders, these layouts have seen their short comings revealed.
The unique nature of the League Cup brings variation and creativity from managers. This year has been no different, with fresh takes on old systems common place, as managers adapt to unusual opposition and new circumstances. With the semi-final’s still to come, the home/away format of the final four may once again throw fans some interesting tactical manoeuvres.