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Improving the Carabao Cup: Insist upon youth, cut prices, end extra-time

The Carabao Cup returns this week with the relevance of the competition under renewed scrutiny following recent comments by the likes of Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola questioning its worth.

With high-profile managers questioning the need for a second domestic cup and supporters staying away from many ties, does English football really need the tournament? Or are there changes that can revive the competition and make it a worthwhile element of the fixture list? Here are some ideas, beyond that which suggests it should be scrapped altogether. 

Four homegrown youngsters in each team

Some clubs have traditionally used the League Cup, in its many different guises, as a testing ground for emerging young talent; Sir Alex Ferguson, for example, gave the likes of David Beckham and Paul Scholes their Manchester United debuts in League Cup ties.

Ferguson was criticised at the time, accused of devaluing the competition, but the reality is that few top clubs now field their strongest teams. Some simply use it to play fringe players rather than youngsters, however, so moves should be made to force Premier League clubs to field at least four academy graduates, aged 21 and under, in each round, including the final.

If clubs cannot find four of their own to play, that would be a failing on their part but there should be no exceptions. Such a rule would encourage youth development and also ensure that kids at clubs such as Chelsea and Manchester City get first-team opportunities they rarely experience.

Higher-placed team plays away

Too often, fixtures involving Premier League clubs at home to lower-league teams result in half-empty stadiums and a predictable win by the top-flight outfit. The visiting supporters get their "day out" at a Premier League ground but there is little sense of unpredictability or excitement about a big team coasting to victory against a smaller one. So a change in the format that would see the lower-ranked team host the tie would see the Carabao Cup played in full stadiums and with the prospect of giant killings, which are the lifeblood of any cup competition.

Take this week's ties as an example. Aside from Manchester United's trip to Swansea, all of the remaining big six in the competition are due to play at home, with Arsenal hosting Norwich and Manchester City facing Wolves at the Etihad. Imagine those ties in reverse, with Arsenal travelling to Carrow Road or City having to face Championship leaders Wolves at Molineux.

Both ties would instantly have more appeal and the possibility of a big upset. As it stands, it is difficult to envision anything other than straightforward home wins for Arsenal and City.

Could the Carabao Cup be revamped to make it most appealing to fans and clubs?

Regionalise the competition

For a competition played in midweek and usually at the end of the work day, it's not easy to encourage fans to travel any kind of distance for a game in a competition that many have grown to regard as insignificant. It is even harder to convince away fans to make the journey when, as with Manchester United's trip to Swansea, it involves a five-hour journey and no prospect of a train home at full-time.

So a move to regionalise the competition on a north-south basis would make it easier for fans to travel and perhaps throw up more local derbies that would encourage greater attendances. The bonus for competing clubs would that more localised fixtures would cut down on fatigue caused by travelling to and from games in the other half of the country.

Cut admission prices

This is a pretty simple initiative and one that every Premier League club, some of which continue to charge almost full admission prices, can afford to adopt in an era of huge sums being earned through broadcasting rights.

Manchester City deserve credit for making tickets available for this week's tie against Wolves for £10 for adults and £5 for children. With many schools on half-term this week, City can now be assured of a full house with many youngsters watching Pep Guardiola's team at an affordable price.

Go straight to penalties

The debate over the value of 30 minutes of extra-time at the end of drawn games is a wider one, relating to every competition rather than merely the Carabao Cup. But in a busy domestic fixture list, is there really any point in playing for a further half an hour when the tie could go straight to penalties?

Few fans enjoy having to wait around when they face a long journey home and managers and players would happily take their chances with spot kicks rather than risk fatigue and injury. The Carabao Cup could lead the way by getting rid of the extra half hour and taking games straight to penalties if two teams cannot be separated after 90 minutes.

No more two-legged semifinals

Jurgen Klopp was bemused at having to play a two-legged League Cup semi-final against Stoke City in January 2016 shortly after his arrival at Liverpool. The former Borussia Dortmund coach could not understand the logic in playing two legs in the midst of a busy month at a time when many leagues were either on their winter break or just emerging from one.

Klopp had a point. There really is no sense in playing a League Cup semi-final over two legs. It would help reduce the fixture list and cut down on expenditure for fans if the semis were played over 90 minutes at a neutral venue.

England has more than enough stadiums capable of hosting a League Cup semi-final, so they should become one-off affairs with the result decided on the night.

Don't have the draw at 4 a.m.

The Football League bore the brunt of criticism for allowing early-round draws to take place in the middle of the night (U.K. time) in Beijing and Bangkok. A draw at 4.15 a.m. in the U.K. may work for the competition's sponsors, but it is treating match-going supporters with contempt. Staging it after the completion of a round, at 10 p.m., worked well enough; that format should be maintained.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_


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