Priorities — everybody has them. Juggling kids and career, or with a deadline looming, filing a tax return is likely to be more pressing than taking your family out for a nice dinner. The key point is that circumstances dictate priorities everywhere. The same applies to football — specifically, how this season has developed has led to the big teams placing their priorities away from the FA Cup.
Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur both exited the FA Cup last weekend having put out second (or third) string sides. Arsenal also drew 0-0 with Hull City and will likely rest the first-team mainstays again for the replay. This has attracted criticism from some corners of the footballing world, with accusations of disrespect towards the competition levelled at the teams’ managers.
I can understand the traditionalists’ disappointment having wanted to see exciting Cup ties, but place the situation into context and it’ll start to make sense.
Manchester City’s FA Cup tie on Sunday was the start of a run of 5 games in under 2 weeks. After a Champions League encounter in Kiev this week, they face Liverpool in the League Cup final this weekend. The appointment of Pep Guardiola to replace Pellegrini should be an obvious enough sign that Champions League glory is a clear priority for City’s owners. City are also heavy favourites for the League Cup, which represents an immediate chance of silverware this season.
In the league, they’ve had a couple of damaging results of late, but at 6 points off the summit and with Arsenal still to visit the Etihad, the squad still sees the title race as far from over. Obviously in the context the FA Cup game is going to carry the least importance.
Spurs and Arsenal both find themselves in a position where they have a great chance of winning the league, something neither of them has done for a long time. ‘A long time’ being relative to the other typical title chasers, of course. They’ll be going all out to take as many points as possible from their remaining games, keeping their players fresh for each one. Extra Cup games which mean a rescheduling of league fixtures and an interruption of weekly training and recovery schedules will be an annoyance.
Arsenal are still in the Champions League, but don’t be surprised if they don’t put up much of a fight at the Nou Camp, or if there are any surprise niggles which keep some players out.
This gives rise to another frequently asked question: why can’t well-paid footballers play two games a week?
Well, the answer is they can. When I was younger I often played 2 games in 24 hours, in fact I may have even played 2 games in a day. Of course any player could manage to play 90 minutes twice in a week if necessary barring match fitness and injury. But whether they can play so many games and still be as effective is another question entirely.
A congested run of fixtures means having to recover quicker and accelerate a training schedule to a level that isn’t sustainable. That’s not to say that players should never play twice in a week — a handful of times a season is OK — but when the season is reaching a crucial stage, with players already having played a lot of games, and a team is chasing success on several fronts, an extra game where the players could do with a day of rest is an inconvenience and takes its toll.
Again that does’t mean a team can’t do well when they face a congested fixture list. A team I played in once had an awful backlog of fixtures due to a Cup run and postponements — we’d played fewer than half our league games by mid-February — and still won the league.
But at the very top level where each game is prepared for meticulously and players follow strict schedules to keep as fit as possible, of course they’ll struggle as the games keep coming. They might not ostensibly perform poorly, but will struggle to run that extra bit to track an opposition runner or close down the ball, for example, which in turn can have a deciding effect on a game. Anyone who’s played a competitive 90-minute game before can confirm how much that takes out of you if they stop and think for a moment.
This is why teams go down the route of resting their important players, as they need to be in top shape for the big games. If Özil or Sanchez had played 90 minutes against Hull on Saturday before playing another 90 against Barcelona, having already played 30 odd games each this season, would it be a big surprise if they then produced lethargic displays in Sunday’s game at Old Trafford and Arsenal failed to score because of them not performing?
That scenario would have a significant effect on Arsenal’s prospects of winning the league, which is clearly what they want this season. A Cup tie against a Championship side, when set against this vital league match, is always going to be of secondary importance.
The same holds true for City who travel to Ukraine this week. If you want to turn your anger towards someone, why not look at the FA who scheduled the game at Chelsea for a Sunday rather than Friday or Saturday? That extra day of recovery would have made at least some difference.
People — including footballers — are always after more in life, and especially want what they don’t have. For Arsène Wenger and Arsenal fans, that’s the Premier League title, which has become more of a holy grail after 12 years since winning it, compared to recent FA Cup wins. For City’s owners it’s the Champions League, which will be the symbol of status they think will cement their place among Europe’s most elite.
The ‘magic of the FA Cup’ is still very much alive, but when they continue to elude you, the phrases ‘magic of the Premier League’ and ‘magic of the Champions League’ sound that bit more attractive.