It’s the end of the first week in January and blitzkrieg of Premier League fixtures has finally died down. Players and managers can finally take some time and get players back to fitness. Well, it depends who you ask. The debate of if/how to prioritize the League Cup, the FA Cup, and the League itself is not new and it’s not going away anytime soon.
The crux of the debate is squad selection for clubs fighting for the title, still in the Champions League or fighting for a spot in Europe field when they have an EFL or FA cup match in the heart of January. Four teams still remain in the EFL Cup and all 20 Premier League teams now enter the FA cup in the third round after playing a game roughly every four days in December. Add in nearly half the Premier League season and European football resuming in February. The busy season for English Football is clearly upon us.
For Premier League teams still in the League Cup semifinals (Hull, United, Liverpool, Southampton), the decision to “try” is compounded by how close these teams are to silverware. Southampton is a team with little to play for in the league and will likely field a strong side against Liverpool. Hull seems destined for the Championship next year, making winning the League Cup the only real chance at something positive.
Liverpool and United present entirely different debates. Liverpool is chasing Chelsea for the title and United has now re-inserted themselves in the fight for a top four spot. Mourinho has consistently chosen his A team throughout the League Cup and I don’t expect him to deviate from that lineup. He will likely choose a younger squad this weekend in the FA cup match against Reading to save his squad for the EFL match Tuesday and EPL match next Sunday against Liverpool.
Klopp has ramped up the strength of his squad in each subsequent round of the League Cup. Liverpool’s weekend FA cup match is home to League 2 Plymouth Argyle; the perfect opportunity for Klopp to play zero starters. Given that Wednesday’s first match of a two leg semifinal is at Southampton and his squad will have one less day of rest when they meet United next Sunday, Klopp may opt for giving a few young guys a chance to play with senior squad members in the EFL match. Importantly, these two games present a chance for Philippe Coutinho to get back to match fitness.
Unfortunately for League 1 side Peterborough United, Chelsea are not playing in European football and they’ve already been eliminated from the League Cup. Chelsea play Peterborough Sunday then don’t play for another six days. The Blues were unable to capitalize on their extra days of rest at Tottenham and the game at Peterborough should be used to keep the first team in match form.
Arsenal present a very interesting dilemma given that they’re the defending FA cup Champions. Like Chelsea, the first team players would have a long break if they were rested for the FA cup match this weekend at Preston North End. Arsenal are one of two English teams still alive in the Champions League, although they were unfortunate enough to draw Bayern Munich. The health of Wenger’s players will be key to having any shot at beating the Bavarian Giants. Wenger already has a lot of injuries on his plate and there’s no reason to risk starters this weekend against a mid-table Championship side.
Taken out of context, this statement seems odd, but nonetheless Manchester City were unfortunate to draw West Ham in the third round of the FA cup. West Ham is another team with little to play for. A home FA cup match against a City side in a tight top four battle and with UCL round of eight aspirations screams upset. Bilic would be wise to go all in against City and give the new London stadium something to cheer for. Pep should counter Bilic’s strong side by continuing to rotate through his back line and giving Iheanacho the start at the striker spot. Having strong players available on the bench is the best course of action.
Finally, we should mention Spurs because they gave us what all football fans wanted – a closer title race. Tottenham quietly has inserted themselves into third place in the league, ahead of Mourinho’s United, ahead of Pep’s City, and ahead of Wenger’s Arsenal. With a shot at the top four, a Europa title, and an FA cup, Tottenham should go for it all. They’re squad is deep, they’re relatively injury free, and they’ve proven an ability to adapt to different playing style. Spurs could easily complete a double without winning the league.
Managers are not bad people for ignoring one or more types of competition. Prioritizing is necessary to keeping players healthy and teams in competitions that benefit the club most. The winner of the League cup receives 100 thousand pounds. The winner of the Champions League receives an estimated 100 million pounds. Simply put, choosing to play young players in order to give starters a rest could have a long term impact financially. As fans we have to accept that not all trophies are created equal.