What future for the EFL Cup?

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.

If Europa fatigue exists, it is a symptom of a bloated structure

WOLVERHAMPTON Wanderers have been playing competitive football since the last week in July. Before they kicked off their Premier League programme on August 11, they had played three UEFA Europa League games and in total, they have now completed seven ties in addition to their five Premier fixtures.

Their latest game, a 1-0 home defeat at the hands of Portugal’s Braga, has raised concerns that Wolves may be jaded in the first few weeks of the season. Understandably, Wolves were excited about the prospect of European football – it used to be considered a prize for performance and the club has experienced success when they reached the first UEFA Cup final in 1971-72. Today, the Europa is considered slightly irritating for some English clubs and there is an element of truth when critics claim the currency has been devalued.

The Europa is so big now – well over 200 teams will play in the competition in 2019-20 – that it has to start in late June. Given most domestic campaigns end in May, that means some clubs had precious little rest between shifts. Those with relatively small squads or lack of strength in depth will be severely stretched if they embark on a lengthy journey. Wolves, who have a decent squad but cannot currently compete with the numbers employed by the very top clubs, have performed well in their European games, beating Crusaders, Pyunik and Torino, but in the Premier, they have yet to win a game. Scratch the surface and it’s the last three games that should concern Molineux regulars. In particular, the way Chelsea scored five against them and Braga snatched a win in the Europa, both games possibly a sign that Wolves are in need of a break.

Of course, Wolves manager Nuno Espírito Santo has denied Wolves are in burn-out mode, a combination of footballing machismo and belief in his own methods, perhaps. He refuses to use the Europa League’s qualifying stage as an excuse for their disappointing league form.

Some of the other teams that went into the Europa at the same stage are faring better than Wolves. Ludogorets of Bulgaria are top and unbeaten in nine, while Slovan Bratislava of Slovakia are second with six wins from eight. The Premier is considerably stronger than these leagues, however, so it is unlikely they are experiencing the same pressures that are piling up on Wolves.

UEFA’s strategy of “European football for all”, is laudable on one hand, but the current structure is so over-engineered and so invasive that the competitions are unwieldy and continue to place excessive demands on clubs. Some might say the financial rewards are so lucrative that they should just carry on regardless, but the most logical thing to do would be a complete rationalisation of the two competitions.

The Europa does not have the financial appeal of the Champions League – the winners get € 8.5 million in prize money and for every group stage win, clubs receive € 570,000. When you line that up against, for example, the Premier, Wolves could lose quite a bit of cash if their run in Europe really does influence their final placing in the league.

Burnley, in 2018-19, also found the going tough as they attempted to manage a Europa League campaign alongside a gruelling Premier programme. Each time Burnley appeared in the competition, they failed to win their next Premier game.  Playing so many games before the domestic programmes clicks into gear can create a very uneven playing field. The competition is already seeded, but it hands even more advantages to the seeds in cramming the fixture list with qualifying rounds at such an early stage of the new season.

A return to a knockout competition is surely worth considering for the Europa. Interest in the competition grows substantially once the tedious groups are over, as it does for the Champions League. The problem is, nobody will vote for such a change as the incremental income that can be secured from progress in a European competition would be difficult to give up or reduce. And while the Europa, if you commit to it, can be a long and winding road, crowds are rising, with the average almost touching 25,000 last season. The Champions League also went up to 49,000 in 2018-19.

The bottom line is that by making European football all-inclusive, the exclusivity of appearing in pan-European is significantly diluted. The current format has become so inflated that it has lost some of its value. The concept is still fundamentally special, but if UEFA want their competitions to be a touch of glamour, that rich icing on the cake, it should remember they were never intended to be an everyday event. Unwittingly (one hopes) UEFA have not killed the goose that laid the golden egg, but they have certainly damaged its wings by pursuing economic gain and opting for quantity over quality.

When clubs’ domestic programmes suffer because of drawn-out qualifying stages, which could hit hard at revenues, then they will really start to see a competition like the Europa as a hindrance rather than a reward for the previous season’s endeavours.



Photo: PA