clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Why winning the EFL Cup matters

New, comment

The League Cup means something different to all of the semifinalists, but it’s not irrelevant to any of them.

Liverpool v Manchester City - Capital One Cup Final Photo by Catherine Ivill - AMA/Getty Images

The League Cup, by reputation and prestige, is English football's third-most important trophy. The reasons behind this junior status are sound ones: it was invented to show off floodlights, it has a weird, three-handled trophy, and it finishes far earlier than seems appropriate. As such, plenty of the participant teams treat the early stages with barely-concealed disdain, and very few people seem particularly upset if their team departs the competition.

Yet, in some ways the League Cup, once we get to the semifinals, is far more interesting than the FA Cup or the divisional titles. If a football season is a story, then the trophies are the maguffins, and the ownership of most is only decided at the hopefully-thrilling denouement. Then we're done. All that comes afterwards is a weird epilogue in which all the protagonists turn out to be friends and head to Dubai for two months.

The late stages of the League Cup, by contrast, are a couple of twists that come right in the middle of things. And so we can wonder whether what happens in the semi-finals and final might change what happens next.

Two of the teams involved, Manchester United and Liverpool, are in the awkward position of having to care about the competition while also making it clear that they have far loftier ambitions for their season. United have a Champions League spot to reclaim and a reputation to rebuild, while Liverpool are just five points behind Chelsea at the top of the table. As such, the extra fixtures might well constitute a headache, particularly for Liverpool, who also have an unwanted FA Cup replay to contend with.

Yet trophies, like maguffins, matter in and of themselves. Liverpool lost in last season's final to Manchester City, and as far back as August Jürgen Klopp was determined to go one better this time around:

“How can we be more than 100 percent ambitious? We cannot replace European football, we want to be as successful as possible. And when we say we want to fight for everything then of course the League Cup is involved.”

Klopp and Mourinho have different circumstances but ultimately the same job: they have charge of two teams that aren't winning as many trophies as their fans or their owners would like, and they have to change that. And we know from his past career that Mourinho views the League Cup not just as a trophy but a midseason catalyst, a "title" that brings others in its wake. After winning his first, in his first season with Chelsea, he pronounced to the nation: "We now have the first title and almost for sure we will have the second one." Sure enough, they won the league.

This chimes with the view of Brian Clough, who once proclaimed that a victory in the 1976 Anglo-Scottish Cup, an even stranger competition than the League Cup, lay behind his subsequent success with Nottingham Forest. His players had "tasted champagne, and found that they liked it.” It's not a hard and fast guarantee of future manager and player bonding, of course; Manchester City won the thing last season, and that didn't do Manuel Pellegrini any good. But the idea is a persistent one: small success now leads to big success later.

For Hull City, United's opponents in their semifinal, the priority for the season is not European qualification or the dream of a title, but the struggle to stay in the league. Is the taste of champagne any good to a drowning man? We don't have much to go on here, since teams in relegation trouble don't often make it through to the late stages of cup competitions, but the most recent precedent we do have isn't great. Wigan Athletic were the last properly struggling team to win one of the big trophies, the 2013 FA Cup, and they were relegated three days later.

At least, with the relegation struggle in mind, new manager Marco Silva will get a couple of extra games with his team. Though given that they've got no fit central defenders and United are in pretty decent form, that might be less a benefit and more a curse. Zlatan Ibrahimovic has the look of a man that can do awful things to the opposition's morale.

Rounding out the semifinals are Liverpool's opponents Southampton, whose season looks, at this stage, to be entirely resistant to any kind of twist whatsoever. They've already exited the Europa League, they're sitting comfortably in mid-table, and it would be a surprise to see them either fly up to bother the teams above them or get dragged down into the mire below. There's always the FA Cup, but if they win their replay against Norwich City they'll have to get past Arsenal, who are quite good.

As such, this tilt at the League Cup probably counts as an early denouement, if that makes any sense. But beyond that, and with apologies for the inevitable fluffiness of the coming suggestion, it would be nice if Southampton won something, wouldn't it?

Plenty of football's most impressive achievements go unrewarded, in terms of trophies at least, and over the last few years, no club has been more impressive than Southampton. To rise up from the volatile mess of League One, enter the volatile mess of the Premier League, and settle comfortably into upper mid-table is difficult enough. To do so while losing two managers to notionally bigger, definitely richer clubs and while selling the spine of the team each summer is little short of remarkable.

But you don't get a trophy for that. Trophies are generally reserved only for the impossible (hello, Leicester) or the obscenely rich (hello, the current top six). Everybody else just has to keep their heads down, keep working, and hope that circumstance gives them a shot. Swansea City managed it four years ago, back when they were the best-run side in the country, and Birmingham City two years before that, because Arsenal are hilarious.

Ultimately, it would be pleasing, in a kind of karmic sense, if Southampton could pick up something shiny as tangible reward for their extreme competence. Even if it is only the weird three-handled mid-season distraction. It might not be of any import to the rest of their season, it might not save them from relegation or kick-start an era of dominance, but it would be pleasing in a quieter sense. And given that they'll have to beat Liverpool and then likely United to do so, it would be pretty funny, as well.