EFL Cup Final:  Two clubs desperate for some recognition

IN THIS age of Premier League saturation, it is quite easy for the EFL (Football League) Cup to be overlooked, but for most clubs, it represents the best avenue to success. This year, for the 10th year running, the final is an all-Premier League affair, with one of the “big six” clubs, Manchester United, aiming to win the cup for the sixth time, and Newcastle United hoping to lift their first trophy of any sort since 1969.

If United were to win, it would cap a satisfactory first season for coach Erik Ten Hag, while a victory for the Toon would kick-start a new era for the club under their Saudi Arabian ownership. You could argue this final has two clubs eager to convince the football world they mean business once more; even though Manchester United won two trophies in 2017, the past six years have been frustrating for a club that was accustomed to annual silverware under Sir Alex Ferguson.

Newcastle United have not instantly become world beaters since they were bought by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, PIF. They have made solid progress and have invested in players and their side certainly has the potential to improve, but they need to score more goals, even though they have conceded only 15 in the Premier and kept 12 clean sheets. In their EFL Cup run, their defence has been breached just twice and they have played four Premier League teams in that run, including Palace, Bournemouth, Leicester and Southampton.

Their top marksman at the moment is the exciting Miguel Almirón, who has improved significantly in 2022-23 and is a player Manchester United will have to watch closely in the final. Nick Pope, their goalkeeper, has performed well since arriving at St. James’ Park, but he will miss the final through suspension. The club spent heavily (£63 million) on Real Sociedad’s Swedish striker Alexander Isak, but he has been hampered by injury since arriving.

Newcastle have only been beaten twice in the Premier, but they have drawn 11 of their 23 games, six of which have been goalless. Although the Geordie fans are delighted at their progress since Eddie Howe became coach, there are concerns that their lack of goals could cost them a place in the top four. They have not been at their best since the turn of the year and have won just one Premier League game in six and were surprisingly knocked out of the FA Cup by League One Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough in the third round.

Manchester United seem a different and happier club since they released Cristiano Ronaldo, and it is no coincidence Marcus Rashford seems to have flourished. At 25, it is now or never for Rashford in terms of fulfilling his enormous promise, but he has scored a best-ever 24 goals and has been instrumental in the revival of United under Ten Hag.

United’s record against the top clubs in the Premier has improved and they have beaten Liverpool,  Arsenal, Tottenham and Manchester City. They have lost at Arsenal, rather unluckily, and lost 6-3 at City earlier in the campaign, a result that truly flattered them. From their early worries and difficulty with Ronaldo, they have developed into Champions League contenders and they are one of the favourites for the UEFA Europa League. They face their third Spanish side this season in the last 16, Real Betis, after meeting Real Sociedad and Barcelona already in the competition. Of the two EFL Cup finalists, Manchester United have the better recent form.

Those that claim the Premier League clubs are not interested in the EFL Cup have clearly not examined the performance of the top clubs; in the past six years, the 48 quarter-final places have been filled by 39 Premier clubs, four Championship, four league one and one league two. And since the Premier League began, the big six clubs have won 22 of the 30 competitions. It may not figure at the top of their priorities, but given the Premier title is out of reach for most clubs and European football is the reward for winning the EFL Cup, there is no reason for universal apathy. Furthermore, the crowds are up on previous years, an average of 15,948 in 2022-23 (since the first round). 

For Manchester United and Newcastle United fans, the prospect of winning some silverware will make the EFL, albeit temporarily, the most important footballing trinket in the world this weekend.

How many more times have Manchester United got to be embarrassed?

MANCHESTER United are in danger of sinking into a prolonged era of mediocrity in much the same way that AC Milan and Inter Milan did before they rediscovered their mojo in recent years. Some might say they are already at that level.

That has to be the conclusion after the latest setback to United’s recovery under Erik ten Hag. The sight of their fans leaving the Etihad at half-time as they went in four goals down to their fierce local rivals indicated that their own people have had enough.

Admittedly, United were up against a Manchester City team that was on fire and their latest acquisition, the extraordinary Erling Haaland, looked like he was going to score every time he approached the penalty area. It did look as though United had got over their early season jitters with four consecutive wins, but against City they were exposed once more.

It has not been a good couple of weeks for the club, with a huge financial loss in 2021-22 and now this humbling at the hands of Pep Guardiola’s side. It’s hard to blame Ten Hag, because he has inherited a team that has been constructed over a period of time and has the influence of half a dozen managers. The problem at United has been brewing over nine years and owes as much to poor transfer market activity as much as anything else. The 11 players that started the Manchester derby cost the club around £ 350 million compared to the £ 460 million City spent on their line-up. Although £ 100 million is a big difference, one look at City’s team and it looks like fair value, as opposed to United’s, which resembles an exercise in overspending.

The problem is also not a question of poor team managers, either. They’ve tried highly respected people like David Moyes, track record coaches in José Mourinho and Louis van Gaal, “one of our own” in Ole Gunar Solskjaer and a left field approach in the form of Ralf Rangnick, who was a wrong fit right from the word go. Now they’ve gone down the list of the most successful coaches in Europe and arrived at Erik ten Hag. They have tried almost everything except lure Klopp or Guardiola to Old Trafford. In fact, the presence of these two characters clearly gnaws at United on a daily basis. They have lost substantial ground to City and Liverpool as well as Chelsea over the past decade. And yet, Manchester United has enormous cache and greater natural cash generating potential than almost all of their domestic competitors.

Of course, they were impatient, but now United are desperate. They’ve gone from Champions League certainties to Europa League strugglers and this has clearly affected the club’s income. It’s a vicious spiral and with each blow, the confusion grows and confidence erodes. Naturally, the owners get the blame and there’s some justification in that, but there’s been no shortage of cash spent on new players, but United have not spent wisely. The apparent obsession with veteran superstars is not something a club of their status should be focused on. At the moment, they have 37 year-old Cristiano Ronaldo sitting on the bench – this is not only something of an insult to CR7 but is also a waste of money.

You only need look at the grim faces of United’s c-suite seating to see the disappointment and dismay at the club at the moment, but the most telling scene is that of the fans leaving their seats and exiting the stadium in a display of disgust. It is arguably time for United to reinvent themselves and to realise they are no longer the powerful force they once were. They have a problem and the sooner they realise it cannot be solved by the transfer market or by continually changing coaches, the better. This really is a bad time for their colossal empire to run into trouble.