Last week saw the League Cup return in earnest with Premier League teams in action. Chelsea, Liverpool, Arsenal and both Manchester clubs all progressed, as the current champions Leicester notably looked like pushing Chelsea out of the competition after defensive errors put them two ahead. John Terry was notably absent and it showed but a late comeback saw the Londoners 4-2 up at the final whistle.
The return of the League Cup, however, also revives one perennial question: do the top teams still care about the competition? Liverpool, despite their success made seven changes to their starting line-up and this decision does not stand out as unusual in the competition.
The question of whether managers should be encouraged, or indeed allowed, to field weakened teams in the League Cup has been a consistently contentious one. Should those fans paying for tickets be rewarded by a hearty performance from the first team? Or is the League Cup an invaluable competition for offering valuable experience to younger players?
For big clubs, flying high with big squads, it seems to be exactly that – a useful way of bringing new talent through the ranks and sorting the wheat from the chaff under the spotlight of a competitive game. However for Premier League teams struggling lower down the table with smaller budgets (and often smaller squads as a result), the idea that England’s third competition is no more than an inconvenience, becomes more understandable.
While the Premier League trophy is one of the most sought after in world football and the FA Cup has retained at least some of its sheen, the League Cup seems to have fallen behind.
The budgets of elite football clubs in England are reaching a new high thanks to new TV contracts, and similar phenomena are taking place in the rest of Europe’s top leagues. While in some ways this makes the game more exciting it also, in places, serves to shift the focus away from smaller teams in lower leagues, who rarely see a cent of television money.
The widening gap between ‘the best and the rest’ is one of the important factors undermining the League Cup as Premier League teams take lower league opposition less seriously, which impacts on their view of the competition itself.
In 2012 (yes this debate resurfaces every season) a Telegraph poll saw 88 per cent of voters agree with and support the usage of the League Cup as a breeding ground for young talent, suggesting they had no issue with seeing what some call ‘weakened teams’.
The question is a complex one though as so many interests are caught up in the debate; should what fans want be the primary concern, or do we need to apportion more significance to the agency and authority of top managers who are after all, in many ways, the custodians of the modern game?
The conclusion to be drawn then is surely that the League Cup means different things to different people. Even those managers struggling in the lower echelons of the Premier League do not have a united front of opinion, after all some see the competition as a tiresome inconvenience in the midst of the league season, while others see it as a real chance for silverware.
Swansea City’s 2013 win (seeing off a plucky Bradford City in the final), was historic for the club and shows the value that the League Cup can hold.
On the other side of the coin Birmingham City fans will remember their 2011 League Cup win as a mixed blessing, as the same season saw them relegated.
Image courtesy of vagueonthehow