It’s impossible to watch an FA Cup match these days without hearing something about how the FA Cup just isn’t as special as it used to be. The oldest competition in football is now a competition of rotated squads and empty stadiums.
There’s not much you can do about that. There aren’t enough matches in the competition to have it generate more television revenue. There will always be more money at stake for your league position then for winning the cup and therefore managers will always see the cup as a bonus, but not one great enough for them to tire out their players.
The cup is not dying. It’s fun, it provides upsets, and especially in England, the best team doesn’t always win it. It’s an opportunity for silverware that will put a bow onto any season.
But while every fan wants to win the FA Cup on FA Cup final day, their feelings towards the cup during the proceeding rounds can vary.
The FA Cup doesn’t need saving, but it could use a facelift. Perhaps maybe it could use a pretty radical one.
England’s fourth Champions League spot should be given to the winner of the FA Cup.
*Ducks for cover*
Now now, quiet down and let me explain.
This idea isn’t nearly as radical as it sounds. Cup competitions are fun because of their unpredictability. That unpredictability is something we’re losing in the club game. Bayern Munich have won the Bundesliga eight years in a row. Juventus have won Serie A seven straight seasons, and PSG have won Ligue 1 seven of the past eight years.
The Premier League doesn’t have that problem, though in the past two years Liverpool and Manchester City have been head and shoulders above the rest. Over the past five years the Premier League has only had one title race that offered any real excitement or went down to the wire. Leicester City’s title win was fun, but that was from a standpoint of “can they really see this out” and not a back and forth race with anyone chasing them (they won by 10 points).
The excitement of the cup comes from its unpredictability. The best team doesn’t always win, but a lot of times they do! Here’s a list of the winners of the domestic cups in each of Europe’s top five leagues over the past decade. Those teams that won the League and Cup double are highlighted in green.
Twenty out of the fifty winners (40%) won the double. In the past five years that number rose to 12 from 25 (48%).
Highlighted in red are teams that won the Cup and would not have qualified for the Champions League from their league position. (Schalke - in purple - finished 14th that season, but made the semifinals of the Champions League. Chelsea finished sixth, but would have qualified for the Champions League anyway after winning the competition). This is partially influenced by how many teams each country enters into Europe’s top competition.
You’ll notice that England is not like the rest. They’ve only had one team win the double in the last decade. They’ve had five teams win the cup from outside the Champions League places — and Arsenal have just become the sixth.
A big argument against giving Champions League football to the winner of the cup is you don’t want undeserving teams getting in. That would obviously be a big concern of UEFA, who want to protect their product.
That probably won’t happen. Wigan is obviously a big outlier but the rest of non-Champions League playing winners all came from teams in the Europa League spots. In fact, only twice this century has the FA Cup been won by teams outside the European places in the table.
Now that the old “Big Four” has turned into a “Top Six,” the odds of one of those six teams winning the FA Cup and taking the Champions League place is... almost a certainty.
UEFA don’t necessarily want the best teams in the Champions League anyway, they want the biggest. While they’d be upset about Wigan stealing Arsenal’s place in 2013, they wouldn’t lose any sleep over Arsenal, Chelsea, or Manchester United back dooring their way into the tournament.
As leagues become more and more predictable, the idea of a type of playoffs has gained popularity. Several smaller European leagues no longer use a straight home and away system in their domestic seasons anymore.
In England, the lower leagues all have playoffs to determine the final promoted team and those have all been a success. Putting in a playoff between for the fourth through sixth teams for England’s final Champions League spot is an idea, but that adds more games to an already overcrowded schedule. It’s also frankly unnecessary because the playoff is right in front of your face: the FA Cup!
If the cup was another outlet for Champions League football we’d no longer see it being taken lightly. Think about two weeks ago when Manchester United took on Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinal.
There was a debate among both fanbases about how they should treat the game. Should they be going for a actual, winnable trophy, or should they be resting key players for the final week of the season in the midst of a very tight top four race.
For many fans, the trophy was nice, but qualifying for the Champions League was more important.
Both managers toed the company line and spoke about how important the cup is and how much they’d like to win it, but the teams they selected let everyone know they each had an eye out for their next league game.
Would either one have risked losing this game if it meant getting another chance at Europe’s top competition if things didn’t work out in the Premier League over the following week? Not likely.
We’ve already seen this idea take shape and its impact.
For years we had the Champions League/European Cup, and below it the Europa League/UEFA Cup. The Europa League always was, and still is, second tier and few team really cared about winning it.
That was the attitude of Premier League clubs from the beginning. What’s the big deal about winning that draining competition? Between 1992, when the Premier League was formed, and 2014 only two English clubs appeared in the UEFA Cup/Europa League Final.
Starting with the 2014/15 competition, UEFA declared that the winner of the Europa League would qualify for the group stages of the Champions League. In the five finals since there have been four English clubs — including an all-English final.
English clubs previously hated the Europa League. It was a burden. Thursday night games in far away countries. Then, in 2016/17 José Mourinho was rotating his side in league games so he could field his strongest XI in the Europa League. He saw it as an easier path to the Champions League than fighting in a very tight top four race. He was right.
That’s what would happen in the FA Cup. You won’t want to throw those games away as they could be valuable “in case something goes wrong” insurance.
Would it possibly lead to the sixth and seventh place teams rotating their squads in league games to prepare for the cup? Maybe, but don’t forget that the first two FA Cup games Premier League clubs play are in January. You’re not giving up on the league that early.
The flip side of course is the race for third place will become even more contested. You don’t want to finish fourth and possibly leave your Champions League fate up to one of the teams above you winning the cup.
A decade ago, as Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was dealing with heavy financial restrictions, he commented that “finishing in the top four is like winning a trophy.” That fourth place trophy line quickly became a source of banter for opposing fans.
But over the past decade it’s become an all too real thing. Finishing in fourth place is prioritized over winning trophies. Don’t believe me? Just go back two weeks and look at the opinions over who Ole Gunnar Solskjaer should play in the FA Cup semifinal.
This shouldn’t happen. Football is about winning trophies. We shouldn’t be forced to choose between prioritizing a league place and something tangible like a trophy.
Let’s combine them. Then you can celebrate Champions League qualification as if it’s something tangible, because it will be. It’s a perk that comes with winning the oldest trophy in football.
And it won’t shake up who England is sending to Europe’s biggest competition nearly as much as you think it would.