With the Premier League taking a break this week it was time to focus on the fourth round of the FA Cup. Another step towards a Wembley Cup Final on a sunny/rainy (delete where applicable) day in May could be taken. David vs Goliath, big team versus minnow and so on. A chance to progress and really have something to focus on once the business end of the season approaches. So why is it that so many Top Flight teams are making so many changes for these games?
Bournemouth, Everton and Stoke have already fallen by the wayside, exit stage left, from this grand old tournament. Down at The Den, where Bournemouth made eleven changes, they faced a Millwall team seven matches unbeaten. You can guess the outcome. Everton and Stoke were both beaten, at home I may add, by Leicester and Wolves (more on them shortly) respectively. West Ham lost at home to Manchester City, although both sides were pretty full strength.
Into the 4th Round we go. Spurs at home to League Two Wycombe Wanderers, Chelsea against neighbours Brentford and Liverpool at Anfield against Stoke’s conquerors, Wolves. All three teams fielded a mixture of youth, fringe players and first teamers. Chelsea cruised through with a four zip thrashing of Brentford. Spurs somehow managed to achieve a Houdini style escape act… just! 2-0 down at half time, 3-2 down in the 90th, before a 97th minute winner dragged them through to the draw on Monday. Liverpool on the other hand were not so lucky. Wolves certainly found their bite and with quick counter attacking football, Liverpool had 80% possession for large periods, set about upsetting the proverbial apple cart to send Klopp’s men spinning out of the competition.
Burnley won at home to Bristol City with Sean Dyche seeing fit to make half a dozen changes and still getting the job done. Boro also changed a few and scraped through a 1-0 home leg with the old milk adverts, Accrington Stanley.
Saints and Arsenal both made changes to suit their ever expanding fixture schedules and it showed. Arsenal had an absolute field day against the inexperienced young Saints. A 0-5 mauling.
Further down the pyramid and with one eye on the Premier League, Newcastle and Brighton both made several changes to their normal elevens and yes, you guessed it, crashed out. Oxford dispatching of the Geordie boys and non league Lincoln City embarrassing the Championship high flying Seagulls.
Onto Sunday and Watford are dumped out of the Cup by League One Millwall. Keeper Gomes was rested although called upon later when Pantilimon went off injured while captain and talisman Troy Deeney was also benched and by the time he was called upon in the 75th minute, it was too late.
Fulham despatched of Hull City in a 4-1 thumping. Hull making several changes from the midweek victory over Manchester United but it was all in vain. It was another casualty of the squad rotation culture.
Speaking of United, a chopped and changed first eleven was still strong enough to see off a plucky Wigan side who, until conceding on the stroke of half time, still looked decent. Strength in depth, like Chelsea, saw United into the hat for the next round. Some teams can get away with such changes, others can’t.
Managers are paid to make decisions, but they are also paid to win football matches. Squads are big and players need to be kept happy, but at the expense of some silverware? These fixtures can give youth an opportunity of progression if carefully managed, not by making wholesale changes. The year Wigan won the FA Cup, beating Man City in the 2013 Final, a Wigan fan was asked prior to kick off, “If you could win the FA Cup or avoid relegation, which one would you choose?” His answer was clear, “Win the FA Cup!” To be honest I think we would all say that, wouldn’t we?