Manuel Pellegrini

Was Manuel Pellegrini Right To Sacrifice The FA Cup?

Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood. For nothing now can ever come to any good.
Disrespecting the cup. The cup killers. Pell hell. You’re “kidding”. The day the FA Cup was mortally wounded. Not my words of course.
Shed a tear for modern football, as City have done it again and “killed” the beautiful game. You have to wonder what we’ve got lined up next. If we’re not booing the Champions League anthem, a ditty protected by the lord himself, we’re fielding weakened teams, ramping up wages (and ticket prices), only filling our stadium to 98% capacity and wasting the careers of youngsters and English footballers in general. Next up: bidding £200m for Neymar.

But of course we all know City didn’t “kill” this competition, a competition in which they’ve reached the final twice in five years. No, others have already done a good job of doing it before. That’s why the weekend press was full of discussion about how to revive this noble trophy, yet come Sunday it seemed everything was OK again until Manuel Pellegrini chose his young team. Strange that.

The truth is that those in power have crippled the FA Cup by constantly messing around with it and pandering to money and broadcasters as ever. From changing the kick off time (it should be 3pm on a Saturday – always), to allowing league programmes on the same day as the final, to moving it from the end of the season, to spreading quarter finals over four days, to having Friday night and Monday night games, to moving the draw time and having it in the middle of the One Show with a full array of gurning full kit wankers on hand to grin into the camera when their team was pulled out of the hat, to failing to help teams with a crowded fixture list who then inevitably will field weakened teams, unlike other FAs, who actually help their teams be successful,  to having semi-finals at Wembley to pay off the gold-plated ivory tower, thus completely demeaning the occasion of the final. By pressuring a team to pull out to play in a poxy tournament across the globe in order to impress FIFA, to letting the competition be run by TV companies meaning that Manchester United appear on TV 50 times on a row despite having not won the competition in that eleven year period. Now there’s talk of scrapping replays and midweek games. Clueless, utterly clueless, and a world away from my childhood, when sitting in front of the TV to watch the FA Cup final was a huge event, whoever was playing (it was never my team, after all). Now the world has changed, tribalism means I may not watch the final at all and TV coverage has saturated the market, but it’s no excuse for damaging the oldest cup competition of them all.

Not that the FA Cup is dead. It is not all about Arsenal or Manchester City. 736 teams competed this season, starting on 15th August, some wonderful stories and journeys emerge every time, and revenue from a “glamour” tie can keep clubs in business. It’s not just about the latter stages and viewing figures.

But what of Mr. Pellegrini? Well, not being able to simply play the game on the Saturday seems ridiculous, but would Pellegrini have played a stronger team a day earlier? I’m not sure. This seems to me like a classic case of misdirection from Pellegrini. He was probably sacrificing the FA Cup whenever the tie was played. Pellegrini could have had a full side available and still lost at Chelsea, and then had to have got past Everton and then two more games to win the cup. I’m not saying he did this, but by playing such a youthful, inexperienced side, he had his excuse to lose. We all know that the Champions League is the more important prize for our owners, and whilst it isn’t for me, it’s kinda tough because owners who have invested so heavily in our team have the right to prioritise, as without them we wouldn’t have such dilemmas anyway.
You may say we can’t win the Champions League, so what’s the point, but we must try, and we must progress in it, and if you think we never had a chance, I also presume you’d have been happy with Pellegrini throwing the group stages by playing kids? Right?

Alan Shearer and Graeme Le Saux can sit there on behalf of their paymasters bemoaning City’s team because it has ruined their big event, but their complete ignorance of circumstances offers nothing to the debate. Barcelona players might want to play every match, but then Barcelona don’t have seven players out injured, don’t have a separate cup final coming up, and also don’t play two games a week right through the winter, having the good sense like pretty much every other country to afford their players a winter break to recharge for the run-in.

Of course managers have been sending out weakened teams for years, especially those teams for whom not being relegated is the sole aim. Arsenal and Hull fielded weakened teams the day before City, and Liverpool have escaped any significant criticism for exiting the FA Cup after fielding weakened teams in two successive rounds, but that’s hardly a surprise as they are not City, and their manager is the wonderful Jürgen Klopp, not the dour Manuel Pellegrini.

Like it or not, clubs will always prioritise – they have to sometimes, with up to 60 games in a season, and saying that players should just play really doesn’t show a good understanding of how athletes perform and the importance of rest, recuperation and fitness, especially when looking to avoid injury and perform at their peak. With a five hour flight to a country in a totally different time zone, the three day gap for City’s squad is not the same as a team playing two games in the same period domestically, or even having to go to somewhere like Paris. As the outspoken fitness coach Raymond Verheijen made quite clear on Twitter – “as two rest days is PROVEN to be insufficient and Champions League is priority over FA Cup, how can one blame Pellegrini for not taking risk of unfit players?”
Indeed. He added that coaches will not prioritise competitions if governing bodies help their clubs. The Italian FA do this, but our FA have shown no inclination of helping clubs – I guess the feeling will be that with more wealth and better players, they just have to get on with it. But when other FAs help their teams, it puts English teams in Europe at a disadvantage, and prioritising then weakens domestic competitions too. After all, on average, teams have a 40% less chance of winning after only 2 rest days against an opponent with 3 or more rest days, and I’m sure Pellegrini is well aware of such statistics in a game now dominated by analysis.

Playing on the Saturday would have allowed both Chelsea and City three days’ rest after and before their respective Champions League games, but it was the police that scuppered this.  The total crowd at Chelsea and Fulham would be less than one game at Old Trafford, but policing two separate games separated by two tube stations is a rather different proposition to policing one game, or City and United on opposite sides of a city. Still, the day is long, it could have been done.

Pellegrini could have avoided this situation though if he had bedded in the odd youth player over the past two and a half years. There have been plenty of opportunities – Capital One Cup matches, substitutions when comfortably winning matches, and more. But he hasn’t so now he throws them all in at once in something of a fit of pique and rather hangs them out to dry. Having said that, the players will hopefully have gained something from the Chelsea match, and won’t be scarred by losing heavily to such an accomplished side, but the result was inevitable, even at half-time perhaps, and we really didn’t learn much about our youth players. Chelsea could have scored ten, our young players were outclassed, but this tells us little, as they could become world beaters in the future, they never stood much of a chance over 90 minutes at Stamford Bridge, especially when the senior players alongside them underperformed yet again. But with greater integration previously, the young players would have been better prepared for this match and the strain they’d have taken off the senior team would have probably also meant fewer injuries.

The key to this entire debate though was the injury list. City could hardly afford to take any more injuries to key players and thus effectively throw away their chances in three cup competitions in a week. In some ways, whilst this has been painted as a move designed to protect City’s Champions League chances, the cup final on the horizon may have played an even bigger part in Pellegrini’s thought process, as it is City’s best chance of silverware, even if it is the smallest trophy of them all, and the Champions League is two-legged after all, so a defeat can be rectified. A Sunday tie gave Pellegrini his escape clause, a reason to protect the remaining fit players for Wednesday and beyond.

Whatever the reasons, sacrificing the FA Cup was a gamble, and we’ll only know in a week whether it was worth it or not. Lose the next two cup games, and Manuel Pellegrini will look rather foolish, as the date of his departure crawls towards us, his team limping from one game to another. Let’s hope that the sacrifice he made this weekend and the vitriol he received as a result was all worth it.

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