It was never in doubt. The punishing festive schedule gave managers the perfect excuse to pick weakened teams in the FA Cup, and that didn’t only apply to Premier League clubs.
England’s premier domestic cup competition has become a reserve competition in its early rounds. We will hear much about the ‘magic’ of the cup being destroyed, and that argument does seem to gain weight with each passing year.
This is an inevitable result of the rapid commercialisation of the game, and the vast financial rewards the top flight provides.
Those clubs in the bottom half of the Premier League do not want to see their attempts to stay in the division derailed. Clubs in the top half of the Championship do not wish to derail their promotion campaigns. But these changes need not ruin the FA Cup, they merely change it.
You can rue the supposed death of elite clubs picking full-strength teams and being humbled by lower-league journeymen, but that was always a rarity anyway. Ask those AFC Fylde supporters who traveled to Bramall Lane whether their day was spoiled by Chris Wilder making changes to his team.
One result of players being rested is that it gives academy graduates a chance to play in a competitive environment. We are forever urging for better pathways to be given to young players, and the domestic cup competitions provide a vital window. Adam Idah has played one minute of league football for Norwich City, starting his only senior match against Crawley Town in the EFL Cup.
On Saturday, he was given his second start byDaniel Farke for the trip to Preston, and promptly scored a hat-trick. Or take Osaze Urhoghide, released by AFC Wimbledon this summer and picked up by Sheffield Wednesday after a trial. He played the first match of his senior career in their win at Brighton.
These moments matter to young players. Not only does it give them a crucial confidence boost at a time when training every day without realistic hope of league minutes can feel like a futile exercise, but it also acts as a shop window for potential loan moves. Idah has proven that he can trouble a Championship defence. Other clubs in the division will sit up and take notice.
After Manchester United’s 0-0 draw at Molineux added yet another fixture to an already busy schedule, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer admitted that he would have preferred the tie to go to penalties than to a replay, despite United being more likely to qualify than they were on Friday. But Solskjaer cannot rue misfortune, only incompetence.
United did hit the bar through substitute Marcus Rashford, but failed to have a shot on target in the entire match — for the first time in five years in a domestic game — and were managed expertly by a much-changed Wolves team. Solskjaer may have spent the week lashing out at former United striker Robin van Persie for his criticism of the club’s performances, but the Dutchman is right.
There is no fear factor for United anymore. They are embarrassingly easy to defend against if you stop them playing on the counter-attack. The fact that United avoiding defeat against Wolves was seen as a surprise is a damning indictment of their reduced expectations. They have played them five times in 15 months, without a victory.
Newcastle United should have been out of sight at half time against Rochdale, and will curse their own inability to kill the game off.
They will be confident of dispatching League One Rochdale in the replay at St James’ Park, but that hardly gives Saturday’s draw a positive spin.
Most worrying is the continuing struggles of Joelinton, a £40m centre-forward who is quickly becoming the worst value-for-money signing in the club’s history.
The Brazilian missed presentable chances against Rochdale and lost possession for their equaliser. He’s getting worse, not better.
This is not all on Joelinton. He succeeded in Germany as part of a forward line rather than having to plough a lone furrow as defenders bypass midfield with long, direct passes.
That approach has damaged his confidence.
Steve Bruce has a choice to make. Does he bring Dwight Gayle or Andy Carroll in to support Joelinton and change Newcastle’s shape to try and get more from his record signing, risking harming Newcastle’s defensive solidity? Or does he leave Joelinton on the bench in favour of Carroll and continue his direct approach, risking denting the striker’s belief even further?
The only positive spin of yesterday’s defeat is that at least Carlo Ancelotti knows the task that lays ahead of him. Everton’s Merseyside derby record has caused the club great embarrassment over the last decade, but this was the worst defeat of all.
It wasn’t just that Everton lost to a second-string Liverpool team at Anfield, but that they demonstrated such a lamentable inability to win the midfield battle and create chances.
It suggests not just that Everton require significant surgery in the transfer market, but that the money they have recently spent has been utterly wasted.
“In my time at Anfield we always said we had the best two teams on Merseyside — Liverpool and Liverpool reserves,” Bill Shankly once said as a jab at their rivals. In 2020, it’s the absolute truth.