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Tactically Naive: The FA Cup is beautiful

The FA Cup is weird and anachronistic, and absolutely still a joy even if England’s biggest teams don’t take it very seriously.

Curtis Jones yelling and being lifted up in the air by teammates after scoring a goal.

The first weekend of January is an important date in the English footballing calendar. While other leagues are wrapped up in blankets, sipping hot cocoa and gazing out of frosty windows at darkened skies, English football is performing an ancient, powerful ritual: the Third Round of the FA Cup.

The Third Round is, in fact, the ninth round; there are six qualifying rounds, beginning in August, that precede the First Round Proper. But the Third Round is the moment when the competition becomes all-encompassing: the big boys from the Premier League and the Championship deign to join the rest of the country.

Accordingly, this is the one moment of the year when the entire pyramid of English football, from peak to sprawling roots, is brought together. From West Ham to West Didsbury & Chorlton. All teams great and small. Of course, most of the very small have been knocked out by this point, but they were here, once. All pass through, even if not together.

Once upon a very long time ago, the FA Cup was more important than the league. Those days are gone: for England’s best, it sits a distant third behind the Premier League and the Champions League. But it still retains some of its old potency, and the Third Round weekend is its yearly ceremony of renewal. A carnival of tin foil cups, with giants slaughtered live on national television.

For however lofty your club’s ambitions, however rich its owner, it is tethered through this competition — along with more than 700 other teams — to the vast, ancient, impossibly beautiful ecosystem of English football. And this feeling of togetherness, this awesome and humbling sense of belonging, can sometimes last right up until the moment that the starting lineups are announced:

Here’s what went down.

Liverpool Jrs 1-0 Everton

An interesting case for the pedants among us: did this technically count as a giant-killing? Liverpool are 14 points clear at the top of English football, which you’d think might preclude any magic of the cup. Plus they always beat Everton at Anfield. You’d be forgiven for looking at the scoreline and thinking: hang on, did they misprint 10?

But Liverpool notched up this latest win with a team of footballing children. Plus Adam Lallana, who always seems to have something child-like about him — a twinkle in the eye, perhaps, and an air of scruffy comic book nostalgia. Catapults and stink bombs. He should be wearing black and red hoops, really. But we digress.

There is going to be a lot for Liverpool fans to look back on fondly this season. But tucked away will be this win, which opened up new frontiers in bragging rights. The only question left is: what do they do the next time Everton roll up? An even younger team? Drag some veterans down from the directors’ box? Stick Mighty Red up top?

Or perhaps: just field no-one at all. Out trot Everton, onto the Anfield pitch. No team in red appears, but the referee blows the whistle anyway. A long, appalling silence stretches out, an oppressive nothingness that seeps into the hearts and minds of Everton’s cursed players. The weight of years descends. And one of them bursts into tears, turns, and hammers the ball into their own net.

Arsenal 1-0 Leeds United

Weren’t Leeds fun? Obviously even asking this question feels faintly heretical, since the point of Leeds is to play the villain. Dirty Leeds. But here they were slick — Leeds, ambitious Leeds — spending 45 lovely minutes slicing Arsenal into delicate ribbons.

Just a pity they didn’t score. A bit of an oversight. Particularly since Arsenal’s players all got into the dressing room at half-time to find Mikel Arteta, who then (we assume) spent 15 minutes saying, “It’s okay. It’s alright. I’m not Unai Emery. I’m really not. You’re free.”

In the end, the game shook out as a microcosm of a Bielsa season: start like a train, finish like a tractor. But there was enough about Leeds to suggest that if they manage to clamber out of the Championship this time around, and if Bielsa stays, then they’ll be great fun in the Premier League. Compare and contrast their performance at the Emirates with Manchester United’s from a few days ago, and try not to laugh too loudly.

Wolves 0-0 Red Devilzzzzzzzzzzzz

Last season, United went to Molineux in the FA Cup and were thoroughly beaten by an effervescent Wolves side. This time around, they dragged Wolves down to their level, and between them the two sides produced one of the most stultifying games of the season. Clear and unambiguous signs of improvement.

Other giants, dead and maimed

In truth, it was a pretty shock-light round. Wayne Rooney is back for a farewell tour with Derby County, and his dynamic midfield partnership with Tom Huddlestone proved too much for Crystal Palace. Spurs and Newcastle were held by Middlesbrough and Rochdale respectively.

However, Watford faced no such indignity, taking a 3-0 first-half lead against Tranmere Rovers and then holding —

— hang on, what? Three Tranmere goals in the second half? Blimey.

Imagine having to go and sit in a small room with Nigel Pearson after that. This is a man who once fought off a pack of wild dogs with a walking pole. Some managers schedule extra training after a particular humiliation. Pearson, we reckon, might institute a quick Hunger Games. Just to shake things up a bit.