If you’ve ever had that feeling that your team is just terrible and that you and your buddies could beat them if they kept playing like that (does this sound familiar Leafs Nation?), move to Europe and take up soccer. The national cup competitions in Europe function unlike anything that we’ve ever seen in North America. Can you imagine a game of amateurs versus professionals that actually meant something? Welcome to the FA Cup competition. While none of the teams left are amateur, the attack of the minnows this week certainly upset the accepted order of English football.
First up was the semi-finals for the League Cup, where League 2 Bradford City eliminated Aston Villa 4-3 on aggregate to become the first 4th tier team to compete in a cup final since 1965. On the way to the final they’ve taken out three Premier League teams and a Championship side. Up next for them is Swansea, while not a minnow, managed to take out Chelsea 2-0 over the two legs (with a little help from their ballboy).
Aston Villa then charitably allowed Millwall to move on in the FA Cup by losing 2-1 on Friday. The upsets continued on Saturday with Premier League side Queen’s Park Rangers losing 4-1 to League 1 MK Dons, and the biggest shocker of the weekend with non-league Luton Town knocking Premier League Norwich City out 1-0 (the two teams are separated by 85 places in the standings). Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more interesting Sunday featured Chelsea escaping League 1 Brentford 2-2, forcing a replay (another match, this time at Chelsea’s ground). The next match had Championship side Leeds United take out Tottenham 2-1, and in the grand finale of the “cupsets” League 1 Oldham eliminated Liverpool 3-2.
So what does this say about the “best league in the world”? The upsets alone are not enough to indicate problems in the EPL, but there are some other trends that point to some difficult times ahead for the top flight of English football. The first sign was the elimination of Man City and Chelsea from Champions League. Again not too significant, but in a season before the financial fair play rules bite, it will be difficult for the Premier League to remain competitive in Europe with their current salary structure. At the same time, the recent fan revolt by Man City fans, arguing that £62 ($100) was too much for away tickets to Arsenal points to problems that the traditional fan base of clubs are being priced out (particularly worrying for my thesis, as many of the complainers argue that the price is changing the atmosphere of the games). That will squeeze the Premier League teams at both ends with salary demands to keep talent and competitiveness, yet without alienating supporters. Remember that there are enough teams to support multiple leagues and that loyalties are firm, but not fixed.
Yet another issue is Pep Guardiola. Yes, even a single man can be seen as a sign for trouble for the League. Pep’s move to Bayern Munich shows that money can’t buy everything (well, at least for Roman Abramovich). I’m reading Pep’s choice as one that suits him better because German teams do better at developing their own talent. Pep’s background is La Masia, he knows and believes in a strong academy system. He doesn’t play for the short term, he is Barça bred through and through. There was no way he would have gone to Chelsea, who bet everything on the short term – if it doesn’t work sign someone else mentality. While EPL teams still have academies, only a few really use them as a key source of talent, the biggest being tight purse strings Arsenal.
So while this weekend’s display shows that the gap between the top and the rest may not be as big as we would otherwise think, I’m not convinced that it is a case of the rest catching up, but the top falling back. Longer term issues face English football than one weekend’s unexpected results.