Just how important is English football’s League Cup? It’s a question which can only be answered subjectively, of course. Many football fans – mainly from older generations – have a lot of love for the competition and would be disappointed to see it abolished altogether. Yet, when speaking to supporters nowadays, the EFL Cup, or the Carabao Cup as it’s known under its current sponsors, is often considered almost a non-tournament.
Back in September, it was announced that the French Football League (LFP) had decided to cancel their own domestic League Cup from next season onwards. They had actually failed to sell the broadcasting rights for the competition for the period of 2020 to 2024, giving enough indication of the competition’s lack of value to French football fans.
With the ending of French football’s Coupe de la Ligue, it means that from next season, of the ‘big five’ leagues in Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, England, France), only England will have a League Cup competition.
So, what is the League Cup/EFL Cup/Carabao Cup? It is the main cup competition of the English Football League. From the start, it involves all 92 Premier League and EFL clubs and ends with a final at Wembley Stadium, normally in February.
Of the 23 sides to have won the trophy, Liverpool holds the record for most victories, having won eight since the competition began in 1960/61. Their last victory came in 2012 when they defeated Cardiff City on penalties. Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are the current holders after they recorded a penalty shootout victory over Chelsea in February 2019.
With fixture lists already hectic for teams – especially those also competing in European competition – we consider the question, is there any benefit to continuing with the Carabao Cup?
In a nutshell, I believe the Carabao Cup should maintain its place on the domestic football calendar. Let me go through the reasons why.
While it can cause a fixture pileup for some clubs – they are normally the teams who have sufficient squad depth to cope with such a dilemma.
For many clubs outside the Premier League’s ‘big six’, the EFL Cup provides an opportunity to get into the Europa League, which brings with it a lucrative payday. Even the ‘big six’ teams (Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal, Man City, Liverpool, Man Utd) can also reap the rewards of a good run in the League Cup. The main positive for Premier League clubs, in particular, is it gives coaches a chance to see how the team’s fringe players and youth talent cope with the demands of a first-team fixture against more experienced opposition.
Many years ago, there used to be two-legged ties in earlier rounds of the League Cup. However, due to mounting criticisms regarding fixture congestion, the only two-legged round currently in the tournament is at the semi-final stage. Now, the question is still posed about whether even the semi-finals should have a two-legged match-up. Maybe a one-off meeting at a neutral ground would be more appropriate for the League Cup semi-finals?
In terms of prize money, the competition is a non-event. Only the four semi-finalists receive any cash reward with last season’s tournament winners, Manchester City, bagging £100,000. The losing finalists, Chelsea, won £50,000 with Burton Albion and Spurs awarded £25,000 each for making the last four. It’s safe to say then that the money involved in the League Cup is not enough to make it a priority for teams in the Premier League. Therefore, we have to look elsewhere for the reasons to stick with this competition. The positives mentioned earlier – opportunities for fringe players and youth talent, plus potential Europa League qualification – are, in my view, good enough to keep the tournament running. Yes, the big teams are going to treat it with less respect than we would like in the early rounds. But once they reach the semi-finals, or maybe even the quarter-finals, just watch how their approach changes. Now they can almost smell the silverware and the players and fans can dream of Wembley.
Other ‘solutions’ have been pitched by various fans and members of the football media. One such suggestion was to have a rule implemented for the Premier League clubs, limiting the changes to the previous side used in the league – maybe if a manager could only make seven changes from his last league selection, for example? It was argued that this would enable rotation but also prevent a completely different, ‘weakened’ lineup starting, thus keeping a certain level of integrity for the League Cup. It’s not a bad idea, really. But do we want to go down the road of ‘forced’ integrity?
Teams should be allowed to treat the League Cup as they wish. If the top Premier League clubs only want to take the competition seriously once they’ve reached the quarter-finals, then so be it. It presents more of an opportunity for youth players to impress in a higher-profile game than 90% of anything they will feature in at U23 level. Also, if a club needs to have a decent cup run to kickstart a stagnating season, let the League Cup be another ray of hope for them.
Realistically, the Carabao Cup is probably on its last legs. The fact that England is the only remaining league from the top five in Europe to run a domestic League Cup doesn’t bode well for the future.
If it does disappear into the ether in the not-too-distant future, many top managers will be happy but it will be a blow to squad members across the country, and youth talent, in particular.
With the League Cup, it may well be a case of not knowing what we’ve got until it’s gone.