EVER SINCE the League Cup was introduced, its future has never felt totally secure. Back in the 1960s, some teams declined to enter, some managers complained about fixture congestion, other clubs damaged the credibility of the competition by fielding scratch sides and now, clubs playing in Europe effectively get seeded. There’s no denying the League Cup will always play second fiddle to the FA Cup, but in today’s environment, because of the overwhelming focus on the Premier, the competition now almost seems like an inconvenience to some clubs.
However, anyone who believes the League Cup is not taken seriously by the top clubs should take a look at the participants in recent finals. In six of the last 10, two teams from the so-called “big six” have met in the final. For seven of the last eight, the cup has been won by Manchester clubs and over 20 years, the elite half dozen have won 15. Not interested? Think again.
The issue is that the biggest clubs do not need to field their strongest teams to win the cup, indeed you could argue that the likes of Manchester City and Chelsea could actually field below-strength sides in the league and still make a challenge.
This year’s last four features three London clubs, only the fourth time this has happened (1971-72, 2006-07 and 2007-08 are the others). In theory, the cup should be won by a side from the capital, but in 1972 when Chelsea, Tottenham and West Ham made the semi-finals, the eventual winner was unfancied Stoke City!
There will be no shortage of motivation from at least two of the three Londoners, Tottenham and Arsenal are both eager to win anything at the moment, especially Spurs, who don’t need any reminding that their last trophy was in 2008 and was the Football League Cup. Chelsea will stand in their way in the semi-final, a team that has lost its early season verve and is suffering from illness and injury. How they could do with some of the many players they have out of loan across Europe.
Arsenal will meet Liverpool in the other semi-final. Jürgen Klopp’s side will start as favourites, but you sense the amiable German is tiring a little of the English system and its somewhat intense fixture programme. A North London derby at Wembley could be the outcome of two semi-finals in which two clubs may have other priorities.
But are people like Thomas Tuchel and Jürgen Klopp justified in questioning the number of games being played? The xenophobes would say that foreign managers knew the score when they arrived in England, but if too many games breeds fatigue and below-par performances, are they actually harming the quality of the product on offer? Let’s not forget that coaches like Tuchel and Klopp are, in their own way, perfectionists.
The Football League Cup may be superfluous in the modern game, but they are surely more worthwhile than the expensive overseas tours some clubs embark on in order to expand their global brand. One way to ease the situation could be to reduce the size of the divisions in England, the Premier/EFL constitution is still too weighty, even though some would argue it is the essence of English football, the body of 92. However, everyone has been talking about too much football since the 1960s and lo and behold, we now have more games now than they ever did in the pre-television era. At all levels, there seems to be a reluctance to reduce leagues due to a loss of income, yet is there not an argument that less football makes the game more unique and therefore, attendances could, feasibly, increase?
One of the League Cup’s charms is the two-legged semi-final, although this format also has its critics. But the alternative is yet another two games at Wembley, which would bring in the crowds – and money – but take away a unique aspect of the competition.
Traditionalists will, surely, hope the League Cup survives. The competition, in 2018-19 (the last time normal conditions existed), drew an average gate of around 14,000 – that was higher than the FA Cup (round one to final). The competition still has substance.