It is time to scrap the League Cup – and give the FA Cup a radical makeover

Paul Wilson
Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

When Jürgen Klopp was asked last week for his thoughts on the Africa Cup of Nations being moved to January next year he spoke uninterrupted for almost eight minutes, detailing his dissatisfaction with the burden on players and clubs and the complete lack of meaningful response from anyone in charge of the game when managers complained of the dangers of trying to cram too much into an already crowded fixture list.

A few days later when Pep Guardiola was asked for his views on fixture congestion, bearing in mind that Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford had been sidelined long term, almost certainly as a result of playing too many games in too short a space of time, the Manchester City manager was ready with a plan of action. Scrap a competition, was the gist of his reply. Most likely the Carabao Cup. “We need less games, less competitions, less games,” Guardiola said. That should have been fewer, or course, but this is not the time to be picking up a non-native English speaker on his grammar. What Guardiola said next was spot on. “People can live without football for a while. It’s too much.”

Related: Pep Guardiola wants League Cup to be scrapped to ease fixture congestion

While sympathy for the very top clubs is often tempered by their tendency to take part in ill-conceived money-spinners such as next years 24-team Club World Cup in China, the injuries to Kane and Rashford are real. Let us not forget also that when Klopp played his youth team in the FA Cup against Everton, he lost one of the few senior players on the pitch after six minutes when James Milner suffered a hamstring injury.

Klopp always maintains that his first duty is to look after his players, not the fans, the television companies or the game’s administrators, and Guardiola would doubtless say the same. Coming from abroad, as those managers do, it is probably easy to identify the English problem as one cup competition too many. Most leagues around Europe are not quite as big as the English professional pyramid, and most have one main cup knockout.

The question now is whether English clubs and supporters can agree on the same thing. The problem here is that over the last quarter of a century or so, since the arrival of the Premier League and the gradual expansion of the Champions League into something involving four or five English clubs, priorities have changed at the top end of the game and the appeal of the cup competitions has become relatively niche and minor.

That is plain to see, yet it is also clear that only a fairly small number of clubs are affected by the need to finish in the top four or stay out of the bottom three, and they are all in the Premier League. There are 72 clubs outside the top flight who are still quite happy with the cup competitions as presently ordered, and any suggestion that they be tampered with to make life easier for the elite are met with cries of Premier League self-interest, if not downright selfishness.

This is the sort of argument that could go on indefinitely, and in fact is doing, with little action or improvement taking place as a result. Although we all should respect the right of lower-league clubs to retain contact with the increasingly detached band of Premier League giants, it ought not to be heresy to suggest that one cup competition that works might be better than two that don’t.

Leading clubs have been tepid about the League Cup in its various guises for years now; in its early stages it really exists only as a jaunt for smaller sides with a better than even chance of an upset or memorable result. Yet the League Cup has one thing in its favour: it is played at the right time of the season, with a final well out of the way before promotion/relegation/Champions League knockouts begin to bite.

Aston Villa’s XI for their FA Cup defeat at Fulham included Henri Lansbury, above, who has started two Premier League games this season. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The FA Cup’s misfortune is to be played at completely the wrong time of the season. In the old days the third round would signal a welcome break from league activity, a different narrative, a bit of romance. Now it just comes as an extra slog after the unnecessarily hectic festive period. Many managers simply want out – witness Dean Smith’s Aston Villa and Nigel Pearson’s Watford lineups in the third round just played – and while this could again be regarded as a malaise peculiar to the Premier League, it affects everyone if the desire to progress is no longer there. If the alleged magic of the FA Cup is predicated on the possibility of a smaller side knocking out a big one, the thrill is clearly not going to survive a situation where top sides are happy with an early exit.

Beyond that basic limitation, the poor old FA Cup now looks like something designed by a committee in any case. There are rounds with replays and rounds without replays. There are ties with VAR and ties without VAR. Both semi-finals are played at Wembley, when absolutely no one thinks this is a good idea, and the final kicks off at that most traditional of times, 5.30pm on a Saturday.

A personal view is that Guardiola’s idea is a good one, and that the League Cup should be the competition to make way, but only if the FA Cup can be moved back to take its place in the calendar. A streamlined FA Cup too, with no replays, not even extra time, just 90 minutes and then penalties, leading to a final in late February. On the same basis, an EFL knockout could take place over the second half of the season if desired, with the 72 clubs outside the Premier League and maybe a few wild cards fighting it out for an appearance at Wembley in or around the last week of the season.

Related: There is still magic in the French Cup

Too radical? Not traditional enough? What about replays as cash-generators and the time-honoured routine of the FA Cup final as the climax to the season? Some sacrifices have to be made and some of those customs and traditions have gone by the board already. The bottom line, really, is that cup knockouts of any kind are supposed to be exciting, and in that respect the two we have are delivering only on an occasional basis, and sometimes not at all.

A regular correspondent got in touch recently to observe that 50 years ago his father, though more of a rugby follower than a football fan, would often make an exception for FA Cup ties because you couldn’t beat the electricity of two teams going all out for a result on the day. That is what has been lost somewhere along the line. Fixing it will not be easy, but the Guardiola principle that less can be more is surely a starting point.