Third Round FA Cup weekend was as anti-climactic as ever. A Liverpool B team drawing with Plymouth Argyle was as close as we came to a real upset, despite the evident craving for such shock amongst the television coverage. The Magic of the Cup was far from prevalent, it was a weekend of mismatched fixtures and a low standard of football for the most part.
Strong sides won and weak sides lost. There were a fair few games that went against the bookmakers’ favourites, but they were hardly the sort of earth-shattering against-the-odds victories that we are told the FA Cup is all about. There was no Wrexham beating Arsenal or Havant and Waterlooville tale. This was to be expected from when the draw was made, really, and that is what the FA Cup gave us: expectation.
One thing that a shortage of shock does for the competition, though, is it means we can expect a higher standard of football throughout the latter stages. With the ‘bigger’ teams all remaining in the draw for the fourth round, we are likely to see at least one of the managers from the top six throw all his eggs into the metaphorical FA Cup basket.
Tottenham eventually got past Aston Villa, Manchester United walked all over Reading and Manchester City trounced West Ham. Chelsea swept Peterborough aside with their second string, Arsenal did enough to get past Preston and Liverpool will surely field a full strength team and defeat Plymouth in their replay. They could all end up facing one another in the fourth round (now that would raise a few eyebrows at the top tables) but the likelihood is that at least two of this season’s runaway six strongest Premier League teams will be heading to Wembley for the semi-finals. You would probably get poor odds on all four of the semi-finalists to be from the top six, in fact.
The draw will obviously dictate just how seriously each team takes the FA Cup this year. With that in mind, though, Chelsea and Liverpool have the luxury of this being their only other competition away from the league (aside from Liverpool’s short spell left in the EFL Cup). The Blues will be expected to focus their efforts on turning their Premier League lead into a title, but undoubtedly have the freshest squad to throw into the cup.
While title dreams may prevent Antonio Conte and Jurgen Klopp from really committing to the FA Cup, Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Arsene Wenger are now outsiders to lift the Premier League. Each manager may find himself in a ‘top four versus FA Cup’ situation later in the season. On top of this, all three have the upcoming prospect of European football to contend with, making squad management substantially more challenging. Mauricio Pochettino is in a similar creaking boat with Europa League football on the horizon, the former Southampton manager has seen his side return to their best form of late but – as he did against Aston Villa – must rotate to keep his team fresh.
Hectic schedules make the FA Cup a tough one to prioritise. The feeling is that whichever of the two teams fail to make the top four will be the ones that need silverware most desperately. That is, of course, an unknown until the chance at the FA Cup is long gone. While Manchester United and Liverpool are only two games away from an EFL Cup final, that leaves Arsenal, Spurs and Manchester City.
Guardiola will still believe his side can go deep into the Champions League, as will Wenger, but neither side look capable of such a run just yet. Arsenal and Manchester City face the very real risk of failing to make the top four and the FA Cup could be the ideal remedy to such a disappointment. Spurs, too, may need to find a way to compensate for a poor Champions League display, but – just as Manchester United will think – the Europa League could be their most secure path to Champions League football in 2017/18.
Dodging the shocks, receiving a favourable draw and having a fully fit squad to pick from could make the FA Cup a saviour for one of the top six. As managers look to spread their resources to compete across multiple competitions, the FA Cup can all too often be forgotten. Although its financial reward and prestige is diminished, winning a trophy will reduce some of the pressure that could build on these managers. Finishing outside the top four would be akin to grave failure for Wenger, Mourinho or Guardiola and, without a realistic chance at silverware elsewhere, Wenger and Guardiola should see the FA Cup as their competition for the second half of this season.
Both managers have the depth to pair that with a reasonable push towards the top four (or maybe even the title) but the oldest cup competition in the world is a risk-balancing tool that managers must think about using.