By William Hill
8th January 2019
Liverpool left out Virgil van Dijk, Andy Robertson and Allison completely, while Sadio Mane, Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino were all left on the bench. The result was a 2-1 defeat at Wolves and elimination from the third round of the FA Cup.
Not that supporters are especially concerned, with the Merseyside club far more focused on their assaults on the Premier League and Champions League this season.
Neither was pundit Paul Merson, who stated of Liverpool following the defeat:
For me, it could be the best thing that happened to them.
The cup clash represented Liverpool’s fifth fixture in 18 days – a run which also happened to start with a Premier League outing at Molineux.
It’s just fact that the FA Cup isn’t the competition it once was. Clubs from the lower leagues will still dream of memorable giantkillings, but for the elite, it seems to be regarded more of an inconvenience.
Jurgen Klopp wasn’t the only manager to ring the changes on third-round weekend.
Relegation-threatened Premier League club Cardiff made eight changes from the team that picked up a vital three points at Leicester earlier this month for their visit to League One Gillingham. They too went out.
Leicester, who aren’t realistically going to qualify for Europe or get relegated, can virtually start their summer holidays five months early after going out at League Two Newport.
The FA Cup should have been perfect for the Foxes as a way of achieving something meaningful, yet they only retained four starters from their latest league win at Everton. The likes of England’s 2018 World Cup duo Jamie Vardy and Harry Maguire were nowhere to be seen.
This rotation has even stretched to Championship clubs, prepared to prioritise a promotion push over a cup run.
Around half of Leeds’ starting XI for their defeat at QPR contained first-team fringe players, while the entire substitute’s bench had barely made an appearance between them.
So what steps can be taken to increase the standing of the FA Cup again and make it a competition that clubs are prepared to target seriously from an early stage?
Below are five strategies that could reignite the FA Cup and make it the best cup competition in the world again:
1) Ditch the League Cup
Much of the blame for the FA Cup’s troubles is placed at the door of a hectic fixture list, with some clubs attempting to win as many as four trophies and having to balance the fixtures within each competition.
The decision to ditch replays from the fifth round of the FA Cup this season is one move that has been made to combat this, but this doesn’t seem a great solution.
For the lower-league teams, they want to play the top clubs away, for the experience of stepping out at Anfield or Old Trafford and for the payday enjoyed by having a fixture in such a highly-attended stadium.
However, they also want to play them at home, where tight touchlines, uneven pitches, small changing rooms and generally-unfamiliar conditions all help to increase the possibility of a shock result.
In terms of memories, smaller teams get the bulk of theirs from FA Cup matches and removing replays also reduces the prospect of such nostalgia.
The League Cup is certainly directly at the bottom of the food chain of all priorities and, like the FA Cup, is used by the top clubs to blood young players and provide them with first-team experience.
Removing this from the football schedule wouldn’t do much damage and countries such as Italy, Spain and Germany all manage perfectly fine every season with just one domestic cup competition.
With only one domestic cup to win, clubs up and down the football pyramid may be more enticed to try and win it.
2) Play games in midweek
The current football fixture list allocates space for specific FA Cup weekends, with replays often falling in midweek should they be required.
Therefore, it’s been showcased that the FA are tolerable to FA Cup matches being played during the week.
The League Cup hasn’t especially suffered from having all of its early-round games played on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday, so there’s no reason that the FA Cup would either, at least from the third-round stage onwards.
Clubs could still provide cheaper tickets, as many do to improve League Cup attendances, and with the event being more high profile, there would be an improved prospect of repeating some of the atmospheres synonymous with the days of old.
3) Move the start date of the third round
Not only could the third round be played during midweek, it may also profit from being held at a slightly different time of the season.
At present, it’s tagged onto the end of the busy Christmas schedule, where teams already have a substantial number of games to play in a small number of days.
Something has to give in terms of squad availability and the pressure to reduce first-team injuries.
Getting rid of the League Cup could help move the third round to an earlier date (assuming all of the preliminary rounds involving clubs in Non-League could be squeezed in).
4) Make the prize money higher
For 2018/19, winning the FA Cup is worth £3.6 million from the FA’s prize fund, while the beaten finalists receive £1.8 million.
To put this into perspective, in the 2017/18 Premier League season, each place in the table was worth just over £1.9 million. This is what West Brom received for finishing bottom, while Man City received close to £39 million for lifting the title.
As the team in 12th earned the best part of £6 million more than the team to finish 15th, it’s easy to see why the Premier League may take extra importance, even for the teams lurking in mid-table.
Money talks in football more than ever in the modern game and a substantial boost is required to the prize pot to get teams to take it more seriously.
If the FA Cup winners received £50 million for their efforts, managers and clubs wouldn’t be so quick to write it off.
5) Give the FA Cup winner a spot in the Champions League
If a vast increase in prize money is unachievable, another financial boost to clubs could be to allow qualification into the Champions League.
At present, FA Cup winners gain access into the Europa League, but the difference in the level of financial recompense on offer between the two chief European competitions are considerable.
The maximum total earnings for a team in the Europa League (minus TV payments) is just short of €16 million. In the Champions League, this rises to over €57 million.
A team can earn close to €13 million in the Champions League just for being involved in the group stage, while bonus sums are secured for wins and draws.
Although it might seem a little unfair for a team to appear in the Champions League courtesy of winning six games in the FA Cup, it would certainly ensure participants put out their strongest sides possible.
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