Is Lower League gap closing? F.A. Cup reflection

Well I have to say what a crazy weekend it has been in the FA Cup; shocks a plenty as so-called giants have succumb to the tenacity and spirit of lower league teams. The best thing about the weekend has to be that despite our wobble we managed to dispatch our opponents in Brighton. Arsenal managed to pass their test and avoid being one of the premiership teams to hit the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Whistle is blown; game is won and successful passage into the next round achieved; no shameful exit and no unwanted replay on the agenda. It seems a long time since we were able to glide under the radar unnoticed and I quite like it that way.

Now our focus turns to Wednesday against Liverpool, the fans are happy and now it’s down to Arsene Wenger to ensure that the weekend’s events do not spawn any complacency. Liverpool will be down but it can certainly act as a motivation for them to right their wrongs with an instant response against us. Arsenal need to want it more than Liverpool and that means we need to turn that spring in our step into a determined and focused stamp of intent.

It’s a bit too early for a pre-match review of the Liverpool game on Wednesday so I will turn my attentions back to the giant killing of the weekend. It certainly raises the question of whether the gap in quality from the elite in the premiership is becoming shortened against lower placed teams.

In Arsene’s long stint as manager he managed to hold onto a record of never losing to lower league opposition in cup football. That was broken eventually against Burnley a few years ago when he fielded a young team in a quarter-final of the Carling Cup. Even then it was shrugged off because of the team selected; fast forward to this season and the loss on penalties to Bradford in the Capital One Cup. On this occasion we selected the strongest team we possibly could in that tie, no kids were anywhere near the starting eleven or the bench and yet we managed to go out of the competition.

bradford fc Jack Wilshere

Bradford fans celebrate around Jack

 

We may not have been outplayed by Bradford and it did seem it was one of those days where nothing seemed to work for the team but at the end of the day given the standing of both clubs in their respective leagues there should have only been one outcome. We went out and will always look back on that moment with embarrassment and as a permanent reality check in our clubs history.

Now you look at that result and say Bradford played the game of their lives and should enjoy the moment before being brought back down to earth in the Semi’s against Aston Villa. Yes Villa was at the time going through one of their worst runs of form in recent years but they had two legs to get it right. How wrong were we? Bradford took the game to Aston Villa, refused to bow down to Premier league opposition and deservedly earned their place in the League Cup Final against Swansea City.

Now we look at the results pulled off by the likes of Leeds, Oldham and Luton Town. When the fourth round draw was made you would be forgiven for assuming you would see Tottenham, Liverpool and Norwich in the draw for the fifth round of the FA Cup. One upset out of the three at a push but for all three to finish in favour of the underdog is quite a feat. Each of those teams deservedly won their games and the fans of those premiership teams cannot begrudge them their moment.

Leeds celebrate

Leeds celebrate against Spurs

 

Is the gap closing on the elite because of a raise in standard of lower league teams or is the so-called quality of the elite teams that are going out to these lower league teams reducing. I will include Arsenal in this question because of the Bradford result; you could probably say it’s a mixture of both factors. We certainly would not expect such results in the days of Vieira and Henry and even the most positive of Arsenal fans would admit our standard has declined over recent years; the lack of silverware is evidence enough.

Lower league teams have stepped up their quality over the years, gone are the days where every league below the premiership resorted to long ball football. As more and more young managers influenced by the workings of their successful managers from their playing days bring to their new jobs all the techniques they learned it becomes a lot evident when you watch lower league games in action. You will still get the odd long ball teams but there is a growing number of more and more passing teams that play good football in the championship and lower divisions.

oldham celebrate

Oldham celebrate Liverpool scalp

 

One other massive factor I would highlight from the recent giant killing is the psychological focus that is maintained by the underdog teams. They fight like it is their life depended on it and when watching the games you can see that they want it that bit more than their more privileged opponents. Complacency is a big failing in the so-called big teams and the managers struggle to motivate their players to give 100% when they know they are playing smaller teams.

It has reached the point where a top-tier team has to psychologically prepare for a game against Luton town the same way they would against Barcelona. It’s easier said than done and that is one of the failings that stun some of these top teams. It isn’t a case of just turning up and expecting the opposition to be star struck by your attendance.

That is exactly why the next round for Arsenal against Blackburn cannot be taken lightly; we know them well from their time in the premiership but given their standing now we will have to expect demand a fully focused performance.

It is our last realistic chance of silverware this season (the Champions League though not impossible will be a tough task) and the Bradford result should be motivation enough to not take this game for granted.

Enjoy your day people.

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