In theory, the FA Cup gives England’s minnows a chance to upset their big Premier League brethren, but that’s so rarely the case. In reality, small teams give their fans a chance to watch their favorite club play host to some of the world’s best players. Or if it’s an away game, the club scores a nice cash infusion with the shared gate money from a big-time team’s big-time stadium. And then they lose and go back to grim Saturdays in the third division. This weekend, though, reality was turned upside down — and Middlesbrough and Bradford City stuffed it into a rocket and kicked it into outer space.
Wait, Wait, Wait, WHAT?
On Friday, Manchester United traveled to tiny League Two1 side Cambridge United. Before winning promotion last season, Cambridge had spent nine years in the wilderness of non-league football. They’re the lowest-ranked team left in the Cup — and they held Manchester United to a scoreless draw.2 It was a tremendous moment for United the Smaller’s supporters, but also for the club’s bottom line.
That was just the beginning. On Saturday, Manchester City — the defending Premier League champs — lost 2-0 at home to Championship side Middlesbrough. The defeat came complete with the obligatory yakety sax moment we’ve come to expect from City’s biggest slip-ups.
Not to be outdone by their fellow title chasers, Chelsea took a 2-0 lead against League One side Bradford City at Stamford Bridge — at Stamford Bridge! — before coughing up four — yes, four — unanswered goals. While Jose Mourinho was clearly not pleased with his team, he also took the moment to break out his rarely seen, lesser-known, magnanimous alter ego Jozy Mourinho.
It seems almost mundane, then, that Tottenham and Southampton both lost home fixtures to Leicester City and Alan Pardew’s Resurgent Crystal Palace.3 Liverpool, who drew 0-0 with Championship side Bolton, somehow leave the weeekend looking pretty good. And if you throw in Swansea’s away loss to Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal and West Ham were the only top-half-of-the-table teams to escape the carnage with wins.
[Insert Five Wide-Eyed Emojis]
Official name change pending.
As any dedicated March Madness viewer will tell you, sometimes upsets just happen, man. This past weekend, though, was more than just a couple of upsets happening. And if you look hard enough, you can always find possible excuses. Manchester City, for some reason,4 played a midweek friendly in Abu Dhabi and flew back the day before the Middlesbrough match. Sergio Agüero, Fernando, James Milner, and Jesús Navas were all involved. Frank Lampard left the friendly after 20 minutes with an injury and still came on as a sub on Saturday. City are a much more talented team than Middlesbrough,5 but at least that meaningless midweek game and the tired legs that may have come from it give us a proximate cause and something to theorize about.
Hint: $$$. The reason is money.
The sky is blue, cigarettes are bad for your health, and this impending New York blizzard won’t signal the beginning of the apocalypse.
Chelsea, on the other hand, provided us with a complete mystery. In fact, the game wasn’t even televised, so trying to break down what happened against Bradford City isn’t just grasping at straws, it’s grasping at straws in a dark room with your hands tied behind your back. Is it significant that they conceded the last three goals after Cesc Fabregas replaced John Obi Mikel as the midfield partner for Ramires? Did it matter that Willian came on for Mohamed Salah? Can we do anything other than add a couple more question marks to our “CHELSEA LOST AT HOME TO BRADFORD CITY?!?!?!” match analysis?
In general, it’s a fool’s errand trying to analyze these early-round games the same way you would a Premier League match. For one, there’s the knockout nature of the Cup, which certainly changes tactical approaches. For another, so much of what goes into these Cup matches are the kinds of things that you can only guess at from the outside. Are the top-tier teams taking these games as seriously as they would Premier League matches? (And, you know, not jetting off to the Middle East.) Are they scouting their opponents and looking to exploit their weaknesses? Or are they treating the match like a glorified training session? Despite playing on a tiny field and without their best passer, Juan Mata, Manchester United sure looked suspiciously focused on combining through the middle of the field. Maybe there was an opponent-specific reason for that, or maybe it’s what Louis van Gaal decided his team needed to work on. Was the back three of Glen Johnson, Emre Can, and Mamadou Sakho that Liverpool debuted meant to exploit Bolton’s weaknesses, or was it a new formation that Rodgers wanted to give some time to jell together in an “easier” game?
So Tune In Next Round?
The FA Cup is mostly about the smaller teams. As soccer becomes increasingly global at the top end of the game, it’s easy to forget that the vast majority of England’s seemingly infinite number of football clubs have very small fan bases. After all, there’s a reason why the majority of FA Cup games aren’t televised. For many games, the number of people interested in the results is very limited.
That’s why the Cup has always been focused on specific moments. There’s the iconic upset, like Middlesbrough and Bradford City. Then there’s the “small squad makes it to Wembley,” where a non–Premier League team reaches the semifinal and gets to walk out into a charged environment at a massive stadium to take its shot at the big boys. In most American tournaments, those moments are completely intertwined. You can’t get to the end as an underdog unless you beat a contender along the way. The FA Cup — with its un-weighted re-draws after each round — facilitates both types of moments. So each round there are a couple of upsets, but at the same time, the process allows for a team like Sheffield United last year or Millwall the year before to reach Wembley without beating anyone tougher than Aston Villa.
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The beauty of this system is the way it balances mass and niche appeal. A couple of marquee games every round can draw TV audiences and the attention of neutral specators, while the majority of smaller games take place out of the limelight but in front of a club’s die-hard fans. The drawback of the system is that it makes it harder for those smaller teams to build a following after staging a major coup. Did you enjoy Middlesbrough’s moxie? Well, unless they get drawn against another big team, you won’t get to watch it again next round. Bradford City were — probably — heroic against Chelsea, but we didn’t get to see it, and there’s every chance they could get drawn against and lose to Reading, or Blackburn, or Derby, or another unheralded foe — and they’ll be gone and forgotten before the rest of the world gets a glimpse of them.
That’s not a problem per se, but it does meant that, should Liverpool and United end up following Chelsea and City out the door — which is unlikely, sure, but after Saturday you get where Kevin Garnett’s coming from — the FA Cup will be left without the marquee matchups that create the balance that allows the rest of the tournament to thrive. With most of the big boys gone, the best-case scenario would be for an upstart club to capture a whole new following of fans that brings eyeballs both to the team and to the tournament. The worst-case scenario is that viewers just tune it all out and watch Barcelona or Bayern Munich instead.
None of that matters to Bradford City, or Middlesbrough, or Cambridge United, or Bolton Wanderers, though. They’re all still in the tournament, and their fans get at least one more game with the hope of another. You can be the one to ask them if they care about mass-market appeal.