Christmas pile-up the cause of FA Cup’s ills
We've all heard in recent weeks how Premier League squads have been stretched to their limits and now the debate of how that harms the FA Cup will come.
Like it or lump it, top-flight survival is the outstanding priority for most clubs due to the financial incentives that come with it and that automatically means other goals take a backseat.
This weekend sees the Premier League and Championship teams take their first steps into this season’s FA Cup and very few are likely to field first choice sides. That is fine for the likes of holders Manchester City who have strength in depth but life is tougher at the other end.
A look at the fixtures show that the bottom nine clubs in the top flight face opposition from lower divisions. While some managers may look at that as a chance to gain some momentum with a cup run, the more likely outcome is that they will instead rest their key players for the battles ahead.
Daniel Farke says that after so many games back-to-back, Norwich “will not take any risks” with star striker Teemu Pukki’s hamstring after being withdrawn in Wednesday’s 1-1 with Crystal Palace. This comes after the German himself admitted his team’s focus was on a survival which he says they “need a miracle” to achieve.
Bournemouth’s Eddie Howe perhaps misspoke when he described the gap in Premier League fixtures as a ‘mini-break. However, a look back at recent history shows knockout competitions have never been on his wishlist, crashing out in the third round of the FA Cup in the last three seasons.
Even those further up are likely to rotate. Crystal Palace sit ninth and a cup run would be much-welcomed by the fans after losing in the finals of both 1990 and 2016.
The Eagles take on Championship Derby but Roy Hodgson has admitted that there is “no question” that some of his players “definitely need a rest”.
There is no doubt that the ‘busy festive period’ stretches teams to their limits and therefore there can be no surprise that coaches see the first weekend in January as a chance to give some players a holiday.
Since December 21, most Premier League teams have played four games over 12 days. So why are we surprised that players are dropping like flies with fatigue-related issues when even the most active are used to having at least three days between outings?
Furthermore, this is all happening when most of the other top European leagues are enjoying winter breaks. The Premier League will have one in February but is that too late? And even so, why have it two-thirds of the way through the season?
With the temperatures touching freezing, a hiatus at this time of the season would surely be the best idea.
Traditionalists would be up in arms about abolishing the Christmas fixtures so that may not be considered. Similarly, this weekend has forever belonged to the FA Cup but if clubs had a promise of a fortnight off after the third round, they might field stronger teams. Plus it would give them more time to bed in any new arrivals in the market, avoiding any costly errors.
Instead, they face accusations of devaluing the competition but who can blame them after the recent pile-up?
The prize money in the Premier League means it will always be the priority. Just don’t blame managers for putting their league hopes first when it comes to the other competitions.