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Managers are always in the wrong when it comes to FA Cup selection. The general narrative goes that you should play your strongest team, because fans want to win trophies.
Premier League managers rarely do that, they see the Cup as a chance to rotate. This is met with criticism even before said match has been played (see Paul Merson’s comments prior to Leicester’s drubbing of Peterborough).
It’s not often that managers like Claude Puel get praise for rotating and winning. When it goes wrong, the abuse rains in from all platforms. The usual ‘disrespecting the competition’ nonsense is flying around within seconds.
Win with a weaker team and it’s ‘you should have won anyway’, lose with a weaker team and you get slated. Lose with a full-strength side and it is mayhem.
Managers can’t win. But, in the age of Premier League safety coming above all else – as is dictated by the prestige and riches of England’s top flight – managers are right to prioritise.
And, as we hear after matches like Leicester’s win, the squad players should be able to see off lower league opposition. You have a squad to allow rotation, and Cup matches are invaluable opportunities to discover what your second string and youngsters can do.
Exiting the Cup as soon as possible, though, is not just a point of indifference for some clubs, but a positive outcome.
Stoke City, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, and Arsenal all fell at the Third Round stage. The first three clubs are embroiled in the tightest relegation battles in years. Arsenal played a makeshift team that allowed them to be at full-strength for their Carabao Cup semi-final second leg against Chelsea, which they won.
In the upcoming set of midweek Premier League fixtures, Palace and Stoke face two enormous matches. The Eagles head to West Ham, while the Potters – who put in one of their best performances of the season last time out – host a struggling Watford. These are fixtures that will define the tenures of managers, and the futures of clubs.
Bournemouth, meanwhile, head to Stamford Bridge on Wednesday and host Stoke on Saturday.
It might not be how a lot of fans would want it, but it’s how it is. Premier League safety is far superior to a cup run in a competition that sides like these three are very unlikely to win.
Had they remained in the FA Cup, this trio would almost certainly have played a weakened team in the Fourth Round with just a couple of days until vital Premier League matches. Bournemouth would likely have prioritised their match at Chelsea, even with points unlikely.
Compare the 10 days or so the aforementioned triumvirate have had off with Southampton and Watford, who played each other on Saturday. It could be argued that Southampton will have a boost from their Cup success, but having played a strong side, fatigue will no doubt impact them in midweek.
Watford had their poor run extended at St Mary’s. Now they head to a rested Stoke with extra miles in their legs.
Departing the Cup prematurely is no sin. It deprives fans of the excitement of knockout football, but avoiding relegation is atop of club priorities throughout the top flight.
Stretched squads can do without the additional strife of Cup matches, and it might make all the difference in a bottom-half of the table separated by just six points.
Written by Sam Cox
Follow Sam on Twitter @SamRCox_
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