Jürgen Klopp made headlines when he announced Liverpool would field a U23 side in their FA Cup replay against Shrewsbury. Is Kloppo right in making a daring point against overloaded scheduling?
The FA Cup is football’s oldest competition. Most everyone sees it as one of the most prestigious. The FA Cup reflects the special mojo surrounding the English game. And yet for all the historical glory associated with it, the FA Cup has lost its appeal in recent years. Big teams give it a decreasing degree of priority every season. They prefer to focus on the Premier League and European competitions. That sentiment unraveled this week after Jürgen Klopp announced that Liverpool will play its Fourth Round replay against Shrewsbury with the U23 side. But he didn’t stop there. Neil Critchley, Liverpool’s manager in that category, will sit in the dugout during the game.
Wait, what’s a replay?
Like the DFB-Pokal, teams play FA Cup ties over a single leg. However, unlike the DFB-Pokal, there is no extra time or penalty shootout in case of a draw. Tied games end with the draw, and a replay is scheduled a couple of weeks after the fact, to be played in the away team’s ground. This has been a unique and perennial feature of English cup competitions. It has remained largely untouched, save for the fact that unlimited replays haven’t been allowed for a number of years now.
In the age of multiple competitions, replays have gone from being an exciting and rather reasonable means of tiebreaking, to an annoying nuisance for big teams. Their schedules, they reason, are cramped enough as they are.
The need for a rest…
Klopp’s apparent dig at the FA Cup is not gratuitous. He explained in a press conference that the Premier League sent a letter to clubs in April last year outlining a plan to introduce a resting period in February. The Premiership is known for its unrelenting calendar. Teams play on the traditional Boxing Day holiday and New Year’s Day. This is unlike every other major European league – even those with 38 matchdays – which allow a resting period of up to two weeks, generally scheduled to coincide with the end-of-year festivities.
According to Klopp, the letter expressly asked clubs to respect the proposed resting period. He, in accordance with the suits and his staff, intended to keep their word. Klopp views the replay as something out of plan. As a result, he is offering an unforeseen solution to an unforeseen problem.
Much of the manager’s reasoning is compelling. Players knew of the rest period and will likely have plans to spend it with their families. Liverpool players are due back on 10 February for training, and Klopp will not have it any other way. For him, it is important to create a precedent. Player welfare lies increasingly at the centre of concerns in football. With pre-season tournaments, international friendlies, two or three domestic competitions and the odd SuperCup-like game, players can average upwards of 50 games every season.
It comes as a pleasant surprise that such fierce resistance to an overbooked schedule comes from England, the overbookers par excellence. Given that the Premier League and the FA work together to book the yearly calendar, it is hard to understand why any replay would be played during the break. Klopp saw this and simply took a hard stance.
…and the FA Cup’s washed down reputation
Even though much of what Klopp says makes sense, it’s unlikely that he would be as intransigent facing the Premier League or UEFA. And that’s precisely the thing: the FA Cup is a devalued competition.
For big teams, the incentive of playing for a spot in the Europa League and comparably small prizes isn’t awfully appealing. The FA Cup awards £3,600,000 to the winners this year. Such a figure hardly amounts to half the salary of a mid-to-high tier player at a big club. Indeed, for many of them it’s more symbolic than useful.
Look at it from Liverpool’s perspective. The Reds report annual income north of £500m, and the average player salary is slightly below £5m. They are pretty much guaranteed to play in the Champions League next season. An FA Cup victory represents less than 1% in their revenue stream, and a place in a competition below their Premier League achievements. For them, winning the FA Cup is perhaps significant in the grander scheme of a potential Treble. But aside from that, it’s more a chore than anything else. That is why club leadership stands firmly behind Klopp.
How did people respond?
In any number of ways! Naturally, many people voiced their support for Klopp. They agree with the general line of his comments. That the FA Cup is in need of reform to make it more attractive and renew its importance is nothing new.
Those who disagree paraded their arsenal of traditionalist and punitive rhetoric. A lot of them are using Klopp’s decision to strengthen the cause for rules on “weakened sides”. Indeed, the FA Cup rules include one that says teams must field a team representative of the full strength of their squad. But that, by virtue of its vagueness and the lack of complementary rules to narrow down how that is to be measured, is a rule rarely enforced. Enforcing it would place English football at the top of a slippery slope. Why have managers if the governing bodies have their own idea of how teams should line up? Doesn’t such a scheme pose a danger to young players trying to break through from the youth ranks of big clubs?
Pep Guardiola subscribed to this view when indirectly addressing Klopp’s decision. He said: “We’ll be wherever they tell us to be, but please don’t tell us how to make our player selections”. Much to the chagrin of Michel Munger himself, the bald man has a point.
To say that Jürgen Klopp is singlehandedly demeaning the FA Cup is misleading. It obscures the real reasons behind this. The market has deemed the FA Cup secondary to the Premier League and European tournaments. As I said before, this is directly tied to the monetary and sporting profit. The FA Cup’s prizes pale in comparison to those of the Premier League. One could argue that Klopp added unnecessary insult to injury by choosing not to attend the replay against Shrewsbury. But even if you agree, that is a matter of form rather than function.
Why does this matter?
The debate regarding schedules reaches far beyond England. We’re fans of German football here. German teams enjoy the least busy schedule of Europe’s five major leagues. The Bundesliga has a reduced number of teams and fixtures, and DFB-Pokal games are sorted out with extra time and penalties. But if you couple this with international calendars, it’s as crowded as any other.
Much of football’s obsession with playing more is down to money. This blind pursuit of cash comes at the expense of the players – and the fans. If there is to be a balance between tradition and resources, the approach to solve this cannot be punitive. It must come from a concerted effort to streamline the game. The FA could simply rid the world of its anachronistic replays. FIFA could abolish international friendlies.
If Jürgen Klopp’s bold move gets the conversation going, he’ll have done more than anyone before him. And for that, we salute him.