As we navigate beyond English football’s first-ever winter-break, the rigours of the game’s hectic winter schedule are one of the few things to push VAR out of the headlines. Injuries to England strikers Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford, which could potentially put their places in the Euro 2020 squad at risk, have focused many people’s attentions.
So too have the regular complaints of managers like Steve Bruce, whose injury-plagued squad is as likely to be as a result of more traditional training methods than excessive matches, and controversial decision of Jürgen Klopp to not only play the kids in their FA Cup replay with Shrewsbury but also not turn up himself.
But it is Pep Guardiola’s input into the debate which has been the most radical intervention so far: scrapping the League Cup.
He is a curious person to make this suggestion. After all, his Manchester City side has won the League Cup in two of his three seasons in English football. Few would bet against them lifting it again this season too. For some, it’s galling for a manager who’s only been working in the English game for three seasons, and who never played here, to be calling for a competition that is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year to be axed.
Along with most top-flight managers, Guardiola has regularly denigrated the competition by fielding sub-strength sides at every chance. He has played a part in the downgrading of the competition and now he is calling for it to be scrapped altogether.
I have a huge amount of time for Guardiola as a manager and the positive impact his innovative tactics have had on English football – but he is wrong about this and his suggestion makes little sense, not least because there is a much better alternative.
The League Cup is a tournament with a proud track record of offering smaller league clubs the opportunity of a day out a Wembley, the chance to win a major trophy, and a route into Europe. In an era where all of these aspects of English football tend to be dominated by a cabal of the richest clubs, this is something precious.
There is no denying that in recent times the big clubs have come to dominate the League Cup, like every other competition. One of the so-called big six has won seven of the last eight finals. But around that we have also seen the likes of Swansea (2013), Birmingham (2011), Middlesbrough (2004), Blackburn (2002) and Leicester (2000) triumph in the past 20 years.
A League Cup victory means little to a big six side or even their fans these days. But to clubs like Swansea and Birmingham, it a major achievement and a significant moment in their history. Indeed, far from getting rid of the League Cup, we should be looking to reform it to ensure that moments such as these are more common.
The solution, for me, is a simple one; it allows the romance to be preserved and even enhanced while at the same time releasing the big clubs like Manchester City from the burden the competition causes on their overstretched squads: clubs that qualify for European competition should no longer enter the League Cup.
There are 92 professional clubs in English football. Of those, four will qualify for the Champions League and three more for the Europe League. From 2021, there will also be one team qualifying for the new Europa Conference League. That still leaves 84 league teams including 12 Premier League sides who would be eligible to compete in the League Cup. It would also guarantee that there will be a different team winning every season, since the winner would qualify for Europe and so not enter the following campaign.
Most of these would be sides that aren’t typically competing for trophies at the tail-end of the season, who rarely get the chance of a day out at Wembley and hold little or no aspiration of qualifying for European competition. The League Cup would be a tantalising opportunity for them to do just that.
It would be naive not to recognise that football is driven by money and the absence of the big six from the League Cup would undoubtedly deter sponsors and lower TV revenue. But, given the lack of respect the big six show to the competition already, it can be argued that this is already the case. Carabao currently pays an estimated £6m a season to get its name on the League Cup. By comparison, Emirates’ deal to sponsor the FA Cup is thought to be around £10m a season.
Given that it’s the big six teams that are pushing for changes to be made to the League Cup in the first place, it is arguable that either they or the Premier League should be called upon to make up any revenue shortfall that these changes resulted in.
I would also argue that a competitive League Cup consisting of teams giving everything to win it is likely to attract far more spectators than the current half-hearted affair. As a result, sponsorship should remain stable. Take a look at this season’s Copa del Rey in Spain for an example of how a reimagined domestic cup can succeed.
Removing sides who will also be competing in Europe is a simple and effective way to solve a lot of problems. It would relieve fixture congestion for them, reinvigorate a fairly moribund competition, and preserve its proud and historic roots. It’s a common-sense solution that is in the game’s best interests.
But if the ongoing VAR saga has taught us anything, it is that common sense has very little influence on the way the beautiful game is run these days.
By David Spencer @dspencer47