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John Brewin profile picture  By John Brewin

Stagnant League Cup needs reforms to inject life into failing competition

Jose Mourinho, despite winning the League Cup for the fourth time last season, voiced what has become a common question.

"If you ask me could the English football survive or even be better without this competition?" he said after Manchester United's 4-1 defeat of Burton Albion.

"Maybe we would be fresher for European competitions, for example." 

Elsewhere, Tuesday's crowd of 23,926 at Wembley for Tottenham's 1-0 win over Barnsley had said much of the cachet of the Carabao Cup.

"If we are going to try to win Carabao Cup or FA Cup, and forget the Premier League or Champions League, it's a big mistake," Mauricio Pochettino said ahead of the match.

Fielding weakened teams has been accepted practice for elite clubs in the early stages of League Cup for two decades or so. With dwindling crowds, and even the smaller clubs fixated on their league positions, the time has come for reform. 

Merge with the FA Cup?

This would be even more radical than abandoning the competition altogether, and would outrage the traditionalists, but apathy to both competitions might be solved by merging them. It would remind of UEFA merging the old Cup Winners' Cup with the UEFA Cup to form what eventually became the Europa League, though it should be acknowledged that the EFL and FA are different bodies often competing for the same revenue streams and right to govern.

There could be complications for non-league clubs, whose participation is a bedrock of the FA Cup, and one of its charms, as the process by which they are whittled down might have to be hurried if the final of the new competition is staged in the last weekend of February/start of March.

Should the merged competition's final be staged as the end of season showpiece the FA Cup final has always been, then it can potentially run over the whole campaign, perhaps introducing Premier League clubs earlier than their traditional January entry, reducing the winter workload that managers like Mourinho say harms English clubs' European chances.

Poor attendances were common in the third round of the Carabao Cup, with just 6,607 watching Crystal Palace vs. Huddersfield.

Reduce the workload

That merger/or cutting of the competition seems unlikely at best, since it remains a flagship for the EFL, but steps can be made to prevent it becoming such a chore. Going straight to a shootout after 90 minutes seems eminently sensible.

The two-legged semifinals that still happen in January now seem anachronistic and unnecessary in the light of the heavy slog that clubs face at that time of year. Staging semis at Wembley happens in the FA Cup, so why not in this competition?

Under-23s only?

Among the stars of Wednesday night's matches were Marcus Rashford, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Reiss Nelson and Charly Musonda, youngsters on the rise. That went against fears the League Cup has become a practice ground for inflated Premier League squads, where experienced, usually imported talent gets a run-out, though that was the case when Huddersfield travelled to Crystal Palace to lose 1-0 in front of just 6,607 fans.

Though Roy Hodgson was happy with his first win in charge of his boyhood club, he did not take long in postmatch to pinpoint his priorities, one of which was a first runout for Mamadou Sakho.

Meanwhile, for Manchester City, Ilkay Gundogan got a long-awaited start at West Brom, and Jack Wilshere made a promising return for Arsenal against Doncaster.

Managers might lament the loss of such opportunities but then again there are merits in a competition allowing only Premier League Under-23s against lower league players. It would give youngsters a chance to play against experienced pros that Premier League 2, the reserve set up, lacks.

Michy Batshuayi celebrates after scoring the first of his three goals for Chelsea vs. Nottingham Forest.
Marcus Rashford was among the stars of the third round.

Seeded teams drawn away to smaller sides

Aside from the 54,256 watching at Old Trafford, still 20,000 below capacity, low attendances showed a heavy lack of interest. When gates plunge as low as that crowd at Wembley, lower leagues lose much of the financial attraction of travelling to the big boys: clubs get 45 percent each of gate receipts, 10 percent goes to the EFL.

With that trend in mind, making all seeded teams from the Premier League play away from home gives small towns the chance to welcome big clubs to packed stadiums, and perhaps even gain the revenue from TV choosing the fixture as a live match. Added to that, bigger clubs' loyal away fans always enjoy trips to unfamiliar grounds.

Make all tickets £10 or lower

Cheap tickets will not always provide a solution; Tottenham reduced prices on Tuesday to £10 for full price, and even £15 for luxury Club Wembley seats, but still the national stadium rattled in emptiness.

However, West Ham, offering similar pricing and also giving away tickets to schools, pulled 35,806 to the London Stadium for a 3-0 defeat of Bolton. "Pay on the gate" was also adopted. Were the EFL to enforce a maximum ticket price, it might help swell gates. Empty banks of seats, as was viewed in the closure of the Arthur Wait stand at Selhurst Park, only extend the idea of the competition being a backwater.

John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.


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