League or Cup?

I recently got into an online debate where my views that we should simply abandon the cups were vehemently opposed.  I suggested we take on Oldham with the following XI: Jones – Wisdom, Carragher (c), Coates, Robinson – Coady, Allen, Suso – Sterling, Shelvey, Borini.  Shelvey as a false 9, with Suso as a false 10, 4-1-2-3.  The bench was to contain Suarez, Sturridge, Henderson and some kids.  When asked “What if the tie was United at Anfield, rather than an away fixture against Oldham?” I replied I would field the same side.  Some agreed with the sentiment but the point was raised that Rodgers wouldn’t hear the end of it from the Kop.  I said it was part of the manager’s job to manage the expectations of the Kop.

The following statement kept coming up throughout the debate: “I want a cup run but not at the expense of the league”.  All this told me was that people wanted a cup run.  “Yes, yes, it mustn’t affect the league, but that doesn’t happen, so we’ll take a cup run especially since we’re practically through to the 5th round already” mentality; people who blindly believe that cup runs don’t influence league form, despite the evidence to the contrary last season where Liverpool reached 2 finals but fell completely apart in the league around the time of the first.

It wasn’t just Liverpool though – clubs that won the FA Cup either lifted the EPL title or didn’t compete for it.  In the latter case the fixture load was shown to be overwhelming.  If you can win the league you can win the cup, but winning the cup does not guarantee you can win (or even compete) in the league.  Going back to the 2000-2001 season, the team that won the FA Cup won the league twice, came second twice, and finished 3rd or worse on the other 8 occasions.  In fact, the team winning the FA Cup finished 3rd with as few as 69 points twice during this period, where prior to 2010 it was common for the 3rd placed team to finish near 80 points.

It’s fairly clear that an FA Cup run hurts one’s chances of finishing with as many points in the league as one would want, unless one’s squad is deep enough with sufficient quality to win the double; even Chelsea with their rich squad and bloated success in the FA Cup couldn’t finish within 5 points of the league winners in 3 of the 4 seasons they won the FA Cup under Abramovich, most recently finishing 6th in their Champions’ League/FA Cup winning season where their league form actually deteriorated after Villas Boas was sacked.

So surely if one is weighing up the options of cup run vs league run then one needs to assess the effect extra fixtures has on the team’s league form.  What better test than European competition?  Ignoring Liverpool’s home-and-away qualifier against FC Gomel prior to the EPL season opener, Liverpool played 8 fixtures in the Europa League this season.  In the EPL fixture immediately following these 8, Liverpool drew 5, lost 2, and won 1.  The won game was against West Ham, where Diame’s injury turned the tie on its head; a lucky escape for Liverpool!  Pardon me for not being encouraged by this, especially since Rodgers has only signed one player thus far while letting go of Joe Cole; I’ll believe we have signed Coutinho when I see him with pen in hand at Melwood.  The squad is too thin, and we’ve done nothing about that.

So as far as I am concerned, if we are to be serious in our efforts to reach the top 4 this season (or at least finish a plucky 5th), then the extra fixtures in the Europa League and the FA Cup (and the rescheduling of the fixture against Swansea due to their participation in the League Cup final) are a burden we can simply not afford.  I understand the need to keep players sharp, but Liverpool travel to the Emirates on Wednesday to face a side that has had an extra day’s rest, and against whom a win could put us in prime position for 6th ahead of them (or even 5th if Everton continue their slide).  If we’re going to be plucky in the league, then why not be plucky in the FA Cup with the kids?  Give them the incentive to win by promising them starts in the next game no matter the opposition.

I’m confident the side I picked above will beat Oldham anyway; all this “showing respect” is utter nonsense for the quality of players we possess relative to theirs.  I’m tired of hearing how opposing managers of bottom table sides like Norwich and Aston Villa are doing well with their clubs and how we will have to play well to win.  Twaddle!  Shankly made his players believe they were unbeatable, and then when they walked out on the pitch they proved him right.  Rodgers needs to start doing that as well if he’s to have a successful career in charge of Liverpool.  But until he can we’re just better off without distractions that do little to enhance the stature or bank balance of the club.

10 thoughts on “League or Cup?

  1. Hey Thundyr, it’s that classic dilemma isn’t it. A cup run and potential silverware at the end of the season or to focus on the EPL and treat the cups as an inconvenience. I don’t think there is any doubt that the EPL has become the be-all and end-all in the English game for the very good, if unromantic, reason being the sheer financial rewards on offer. Conservative estimates value a single EPL season as being worth upwards of £60M to each club! So it’s difficult not to have some sympathy for clubs who prioritise the league, either to attempt to survive for another season or to challenge for European spots.

    As you rightly point out, Liverpool’s run to two cup finals last season directly impacted on their EPL performance, which was woeful. But despite the dismal EPL campaign we did end our wait for silverware with the, albeit devalued, League Cup. A great example of the dilemma facing coaches in my opinion is Arsenal. When they were challenging for, and winning, league titles Arsene Wenger treated the League Cup especially with a barely disguised contempt. Although Arsenal reached FA Cup Final’s he also played a good few reserves in their run to the latter stages of the competition…focusing his attentions solely on the EPL. But now, with 2005 being the last year Arsenal collected silverware, Wenger’s attitude has changed. You no longer see weakened Arsenal sides, even in the League Cup, as they desperately chase that elusive trophy (because they haven’t a prayer in the EPL or in Europe). So it seems it is all well and good to ignore the cups….just so long as you win something from time to time.

    My own opinion is that I would scrap the League Cup for EPL sides. When you have the likes of Southampton, Norwich and Wigan selecting full reserve sides for the competition I think it has run its race. The FA Cup is a great knockout competition and I’d love Liverpool to reach the Final again, perhaps going one better than last year’s defeat to Chelsea. But if you were to offer me a 4th-place EPL finish or an FA Cup Final appearance, I have to say at this stage of Liverpool’s development under Rodgers I think the club would be better served by the potential of Champions League football. Unromantic yes, cynical, of course….but it is the modern-day reality.

    • Well, I kinda got my wish. I’m glad we’re out, but I’m not pleased that we lost in the way we did. Our general standard of play was very poor, and Rodgers certainly didn’t finish with a weak team. Ok, the pitch wasn’t in the best nick, and the officials were disappointing (studs up challenge on Jones’s chest didn’t even get a booking, Sturridge roughed up again nothing done, two penalties ignored, Saurez level with the last man for the disallowed goal, I could go on but really Oldham were playing well beyond the law for the entire game and the officials allowed it probably because it’s the epitome of the English game to lead with elbows in every challenge). But we didn’t match them physically and seemed utterly incapable of passing the ball to the right team; you won’t win many games playing like that.

      Is it me or has Sterling got worse with each game he’s played? Downing provided nothing again as usual – I really hate that he refuses to take his man on and that his play is identical to that of Assaidi, another player not good enough to play this system. Jones was shocking in goal – worst I’ve seen him this season. The only stand out was Gerrard, who totally bossed the game after he came on and deserved to equalise, but I’ve found that he just takes far too long to get a shot away these days so he’s easily closed down. I mainly found myself disappointed in the manager. This wasn’t a game critical to our success this season, and I thought the fringe players could have handled it because they would have been more desperate to impress. Those who took the field shied out of the physical nature of the game and we lost the game right there. Secondly, we played with absolutely no width throughout the game. Oldham were clogging the centre of the pitch so what do we do? Commit more players to the middle! Crazy – the whole idea is to play the ball where the opponent can’t defend, which implied switching Downing and Sterling to stretch the back 4 in order to create space in the middle for Suarez and Sturridge. Rodgers made a difficult assignment tougher by not being tactically aware enough, determined to win through the middle as though one can force a result against a team desperate to make something of their season. It worked against Norwich because they couldn’t score and Henderson put us ahead with a cracking goal, but one not deserved through our build-up play (where we did exactly the same thing and floundered about for nearly half an hour against one of the worst away sides in the league). Against Oldham they showed they could score on their pitch because Smith was frankly twice as good as Coates and Skrtel put together – highlighting my belief 2-3 season long belief that Skrtel simply isn’t good enough, and lending understanding as to why Rodgers doesn’t rate Coates. That meant we would be chasing the game, and outside some brilliance we were never going to score more than 3, and on that pitch and in those conditions brilliance goes out the window. Of course, if Skrtel played 90 mins vs Oldham then I’m terrified that Rodgers believes we should start with Carragher against Arsenal – if there was a team I wouldn’t start him it would be them! If anything the Oldham game was perfect for Carra!

      So yeah, mission in exiting the cup accomplished, but Rodgers made some very poor mistakes and then blamed the loss on the younger players. I think we play some good football under him, but he seems to come with the wrong plan every week. He either needs to up his game or fire his assistant quite frankly. And I’m getting sick of hearing him say we have no depth in the squad; he’s had an entire month to address that and done basically nothing.

      • Yep, a very disappointing performance and while I share your view that we had a penalty shout turned down in the latter stages when Sturridge was quite clearly pulled back by their defender I can’t really argue that the more committed side won on the day. Lack of leadership – I share your view that Suarez isn’t a captain – and I agree with your bemusement at Rodgers’ tactics. I would have played Carragher ahead of either Skrtel or Coates (Coates I thought was a disgrace and just further showed the essential need for him to get some regular football…and some fitness!!) and had Jamie captain the team. Rodgers appeared to be playing almost 4-2-4 with Sterling, Borini, Suarez and Sturridge on the pitch?!? We were woefully understaffed in the centre of midfield which Oldham exploited shrewdly. The game was very physical as you say – over the top with elbows from their striker and the late tackle on Jones (who was awful) – but while you have to expect a contest I think referees consistently fail to stick to the rule book when a lower division team is playing an EPL outfit. It is as if they tolerate poor tackles and foul play simply because it’s a lower division team. But having said that, no real complaints over a deserved exit.

        I think the issue with Sterling is purely tiredness as he adapts to first-team football. He’s just 18yrs old and I think Rodgers has overplayed him this year. We are, sadly, potentially staring down the barrel of the Jack Wilshere situation at Arsenal where Wilshere lost 18mths of his career because of Wenger’s short-sighted overuse of him. I suggested a while ago that I would omit Sterling from the Europa League midweek games; I think that is a must for Rodgers now! Borini on the other hand, yes he is returning from injury but I am just not seeing anything from him that suggests to me he is capable of forging a career at Liverpool.

        Rodgers’ forthright criticism of the younger players was a little surprising but I think/hope he was using the opportunity to bring them back to Earth after his regular praising of them thus far this season. Regardless of the huge monetary difference between the Liverpool and Oldham sides on display I thought we were badly lacking the experience needed for these tricky cup fixtures and thought Rodgers got both his selection and tactics wrong. An experienced head such as Carragher would’ve been ideal to guide the team through the inevitably difficult first 20mins and he would’ve also brought some much-needed organisation and direction to a hopelessly lost defence.

  2. Here are my issues with what you’ve written, and perhaps many I’ve already written elsewhere:

    Only two managers have successfully gotten away with this, Fergie and Wenger. Fergie because he wins everything, Wenger because his youngsters still could get to the quarters or semis. Rodgers is not at their level yet so he can’t get away with it

    You see an effect, but you don’t know that the cup runs are the cause. Might be, might not. Might be player mentality, might be injuries, might be manager taking the cups more seriously like Dalglish did at the end. Might be that Di Matteo wasn’t actually that great a manager (after all his league form was worse than Villa Boas that season) and just got lucky with the Euro cup last year.

    If you don’t get what you want in the league, it’s a futile exercise. We’re unlikely to get what we want this year, therefore it will most likely be a futile and foolish exercise.

    You can’t manage a fans expectations when he’s paid £40-£100 and you’ve lost to Oldham for example. If fans think the game is worthless they’ll stop coming, and nobody wants that

    If you’re going to optimise for the league, do it properly. No player in the first XI should have played a single minute in Europe, League or FA cups. You can’t do things half way like Rodgers has.

    Telling players that some games are not so important is a very slippery slope. It leads to bad mentality where you sometimes perform, but other times not if you don’t feel it. We as a club have suffered from this for years. We’re still sufffering from it. It breeds inconsistency.

    Playing a weakened team leads to some players knowing they’re in the weakened team. Not many will be happy with that. I doubt Skrtel was too happy with Carra and Agger being rested. Coates is looking for the door, Downing was too when he was second string etc

    If you play first and second teams, then a player no longer has to earn his way into the side. He can just wait for the cup game. Doesn’t have to train that hard, doesn’t have to play that well, positions are not earned, they’re rotated and you’ll get your chance. How is that for the mentality? I think awful.

    For me, if it is a truly competitive match, not friendly or charity shield or something, you play your best team in every game. If a player’s performance suffers because he’s tired, then he’s dropped and someone else earns the place. That breeds high standards and good mentality to win every game, because every game is important. Until you’re league champions, and then your mentality is great already so you can risk picking and choosing.

    Rodgers will be criticised for the team he put out, and the way they played. And rightly so. Players were poor, poor attitude, and that’s mainly down to Rodgers. Of course if suddenly our season turns around, and we get some points against Arse or Man C and end up 4th, most won’t be bothered.

    • Good points there about mentality, Rafarendum – I didn’t really consider that players could consign themselves to being second best and then just stop trying. I would have hoped that they would rather take the opportunity to show themselves worthy of a shot at the “league team”; after all, Rodgers used the Europa League as a testing ground for some of the players who have come good this season. But lately he’s reverted to a quasi-strongest XI in the cup games rather than sticking with the experimental nature of that side. Everyone needs games, not just the stars, so this was the opportunity for Robinson, Coates, Coady, Shelvey, Suso and the other fringe players to show what they’ve got. But instead only Robinson and Coates of those started, and Shelvey was the desperation 3rd sub. What I didn’t like was that we still started with 8 of our best 11 (depending on whether one can consider Lucas one of the “best” right now in terms of his fitness and so on) – I honestly think that was completely unnecessary. The XI I suggested is far from weak (given that it contains 7 of the 11 who actually started the game), and Rodgers would have had the luxury of bringing Suarez and Sturridge on if we got ourselves into a hole, rather than having them as part of the team that was being outplayed and therefore already frustrated by the opposition, their fans, and the officials. Keep Suarez “in the zone” by all means, but that doesn’t mean he needs 90 minutes every game.

      Frankly, Rodgers was going to get criticised no matter which team he put out – too strong and we’re harming the league form, too weak and we’re not giving the cups enough respect and not listening to the fans’ desire for silverware. Given the importance of the league were I him I would have punted the cup game and focussed my strongest side on Arsenal. Instead he tried to bully Oldham with a near-best team, lost, and now we still have to face Arsenal. Maybe that’s not bad – we’ve responded well to defeat thus far this season. I just don’t see why he felt it was necessary to pick such a strong side, the way he did against Hearts prior to the Arsenal game last time, and having done so and watched them fail without trying to get them to fix their attacking shape, then places the blame on the shoulders of the younger players for not stepping up. That managerial attitude reminds me far too much of a certain Roy Hodgson after butchering the game against Northampton. Rodgers said that he would take errors made by the team on himself, but enough blame lay on him for this result that he should not have shifted any onto the players at all. There’s an adage about good managers I keep coming back to: don’t over-react to defeat or success. Rodgers over-reacts to everything; as a young man in a tough league hopefully he will learn to control that.

      As for value, I think Suarez’s wages alone are worth more than Oldham’s squad, but it was pretty clear that we just weren’t up for this game. Rodgers said we weren’t complacent about half a dozen times in his post-match interview, so much that it seemed like he was in denial. I reckon had we fielded a weaker side we definitely would have tried harder, and may have snatched a replay as a result despite being the worse team on display. Those conditions, that team, and those tactics played completely into their hands. We continue to be one of the worst first half teams in the league, and that comes down largely to preparation in my book.

  3. Agree with you here regarding Rodgers comments. Giving the youngsters a kick is ok with me, although I don’t feel they were what cost us. But pretty disappointing to blame lack of squad depth.

    We had about 60 million on show up front in Suarez Borini and Sturridge, we had another 30 million in Allen and Henderson. Oldhams entire team are probably worth what? there are premier league sides whose whole squad is worth less than 60m, and we had that in 3 players on show. If the squad is too thin, it’s because he’s let too many people go, and paid too much for the players he’s brought in (partly Kenny’s fault too, but still, Rodgers is not blameless). Misallocation of funds yes, not squad too thin. In any case the XI he had out on show should have destroyed Oldham, and when they don’t all fingers need to be pointed right at the manager.

    • One thing that stands out for me from the game was that Suarez was captain. I’ve nothing against Suarez, but that kind of emotional person can never make a great captain. Did you see how he went off at Robinson for shooting rather than crossing, and how the latter basically flipped him off in response? We had absolutely no leadership out there – if Gerrard, Reina and Lucas are not playing, then Carragher absolutely must. Hell, he was shouting instructions from the bench – that is how little leadership we had out there. Again – fault of the manager.

    • I thought we were pretty good against Arsenal, but basic defensive errors cost us. This was repeated against City. I was actually quite impressed with the performances by Carragher in both games, as I thought he’d be shown to be totally out of his depth against such pace, but he acquitted himself well and was probably our best defender. Going forward I’ve really come to enjoy the performances from Henderson – he’s starting to make a real statement about his ability. I just hope that Sturridge isn’t out for long, because we really need the altered formation we use when he is in the side rather than leaving Suarez to do everything.

  4. After Everton’s loss at Norwich, it looks like its gonna be a toss up between us, our Merseyside neighbours, West Brom and possibly Swansea for 6th place and a probable European spot; and if we can manage that 6th place, that would be a huge step in the right direction and a platform for a Champions League push next season. But obviously, to get there, we need to strengthen in the summer, and that brings me onto my question: who should we get? Who should we sell? Obviously, with Carragher retiring, Coates set to leave, Agger injury prone, and Skrtel being Skrtel, I believe we should get one world class centre back and another solid one off the lower clubs, maybe a West Brom or a Swansea; Ashley Williams, for example. I don’t think we should plunge into the market by buying 6 or 7 players, the ill fated Kenny Dalglish window still fresh in the memory. I think 3 or 4 solid, stellar signings, hopefully not too over-priced and all across the park would be good. For some strength in depth, we could maybe look at potentially relegated teams’ star players, i.e. Benteke at Villa, Taarabt at QPR, because we would get them at a bargain, and the expectations wouldn’t be high. One of the signings in my opinion needs to be absolutely top drawer; I have no idea who or where, but I believe its vital if we want to push up the table, and keep Suarez. And of course, I still dream of the day that Xabi Alonso returns to Anfield – fingers crossed. One thing that has kept popping up on this blog and in the media is our lack of left backs, but in my view, I don’t see the issue. Jose Enrique looks like he can play a 38 game season no problem, and hasn’t looked susceptible to injury, that niggle he picked up last month aside. And even when he isn’t fit, we’ve still got three possible replacement options; moving Johnson across and putting Wisdom in would be the most favourable, a move which hasn’t disappointed me, playing the young Jack Robinson, or playing Downing in the position. Downing’s impressed me the last couple of months, and that’s pleasing in more than one way in that it could attract a Sunderland, West Ham, Fulham on spending 10-15 million on him, and I’d grasp that deal with open arms. But, who else, if anyone, should we let go? Honestly, for me, I think one of the most important objectives to complete in the summer is keeping Suarez if possible, and from then on, if some shrewd business is accomplished dare I say it from Liverpool I know, we’ve hopefully got a real chance of qualifying for Champion’s League for the first time in years.

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