Image from SkySports
The oldest cup competition in the world has often been branded as the best in world football, perhaps even in sport altogether. The half-knots and part-timers have the opportunity to take on the millionaires and superstars of this generation, while any team can beat any other, regardless of a team’s stature, wealth or familiarity, something that has always been proven, year after year.
However, with the growth in popularity and importance of the Premier League and European trophies, there was a real sense that the FA Cup was losing its touch. The bigger sides started to play weaker sides, whilst even the Football League sides prioritised their own league positions and targets over the promising financial package of a big-name tie. Moments like Charlie George’s 1979 long-range strike, Roberto Di Matteo’s quick-fire opener in 1997 and the ‘Steven Gerrard Cup Final’ of 2006 are treated like historical artefacts in a museum, and the buzz of Cup Final Day around the country is more of a whisper than a ripple.
Yet, the magic of the Cup still exists, best proven by Monday night’s fascinating encounter between Wigan Athletic and Manchester City, where the former repeated their 2013 Cup Final triumph by stunning not only the Premier League leaders, but the champions-elect, and perhaps one of the best teams ever to ever play in England’s top division. A 1-0 win for the Latics meant that Paul Cook vanquished Pep Guardiola, Dan Burn contained Sergio Aguero, and, most importantly, Will Grigg shrugged off England duo Kyle Walker and John Stones to seal a enticing quarter-final spot for the League One side.
What does this mean for the FA Cup? Can we still call it a top-tier trophy? Or could it still be improved in some way?
Wigan Winners and City Contemplate Defeat
Cook’s men really showed their metal on Monday evening, and despite a five year-absence from the top flight, proved that they could still compete with the very best in the land. This was far from a weakened side selected by Guardiola as well, with Aguero playing the whole match as well as new £60 million signing Aymeric Laporte and midfield maestro Fernandinho. City even needed to call upon the favourite for Player of the Year contender Kevin De Bruyne to try and break the deadlock with half an hour to play, so this was very much a full-strength City side.
The result was down to two main factors; Wigan’s resilience and City’s wastefulness. The home side threw their bodies on the line, particularly in the second half where they blocked 11 out of 14 of City’s second half attempts at goal. Dan Burn was superb in marshalling the defence against a Citizens attack which has scored over a century of goals already this season, as De Bruyne and fellow midfielder David Silva attempted to thread balls through to Aguero. Yet the Latics’ defence stood firm, and it was a very impressive clean sheet, a feat only matched by Wolverhampton Wanderers and Crystal Palace against the league leaders this season.
Guardiola’s men, meanwhile, were quite wasteful, especially considering the amount of possession that they had. They dominated the ball for the entire game, limiting their lower league opponents to only 17% of the play during the 90 minutes, and this control granted them nearly 30 shots at goal. However, Chris Walton in the Wigan net was only tested five times, while the visitor’s closest attempt to scoring all game was when Chey Dunkley nearly averted a header into his own net in injury time. It was a poor display from City overall, and the dream of a quadruple was shattered in disappointing fashion.
Is the Cup ‘easy’ to win?
To be perfectly honest, Manchester City were favourites to win the Cup before a ball was even kicked in the competition. They have nearly steam rolled their way to winning the Premier League title without breaking any sweat, so their capability to beat any team in the country made them a dead certain bet to reach the quarter-finals at least. The fact that they were knocked out by a third division side, of all teams, poses a serious question as to whether this competition should be taken for granted.
Since the turn of the millennium, only seven teams (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Wigan) have walked up the Wembley steps and lifted the trophy, which shows that even most of the Premier League teams struggle to assert themselves in the tournament, meaning most football fans around the country should can only dream about winning the Cup. On top of this, the Cup has only been defended twice in this period (twice by Arsenal, once by Chelsea) so it is actually very difficult to assert some dominance in the competition, despite Premier League sides only having to play five games before the cup final. Perhaps this puts Arsenal, and Arsene Wenger’s, three FA Cup wins in four seasons into perspective, as while their league and European ventures have proved rather unsuccessful, the Gunners have still mastered the art of a winning mentality in the cup, despite being beaten by Nottingham Forest, albeit with a very weakened side, in the third round this year.
How can the FA Cup be improved?
In order for the FA Cup to continue to thrive, its traditions must be kept. Debates have arisen over the necessity of Cup replays and the effects they have on fixture congestion, but this rare feature of European cup competitions is what makes the FA Cup so great. Take Rochdale for example, whose heroics to go toe-to-toe with Tottenham Hotspur over the weekend have been rewarded with a replay at Wembley, instead of a gruelling extra-time period or a second leg with the away goals rule hanging over their heads. Replays provide lower league fans with hope of memorable visits to Premier League grounds, or unforgettable moments similar to those at the DW Stadium on Monday evening.
The cup is not completely covered in glory however, and improvements could be made. First of all, Premier League clubs could do more to invest in an FA Cup journey, in order to increase the number of teams who have won the FA Cup. Football League sides made up over a third of the teams in the last-16, and with the prize of European football for the winners, Premier League clubs should do more to put their names among the cup winners list. This year could spark a change, with clubs like Southampton, Swansea, Brighton and Leicester all with a strong chance of reaching the semi-finals, but with clubs like Wigan and Rochdale looking to cause problems, we are strongly reminded about the magic of this historic competition.