Thursday, January 27, 2022

EFL Cup semifinals: Which of Chelsea, Tottenham, Arsenal and Liverpool need to win the trophy most?

The EFL Cup occupies a curious place in English football’s firmament. The first trophy of the season and for some coaches the ideal way to get into the winning habit in the spring months yet there are few that would not argue that it sits below the FA Cup in the affection of clubs and supporters.

Ralf Rangnick is not alone in questioning whether a secondary cup competition even belongs on the schedule. However the Manchester United head coach’s cross city counterpart Pep Guardiola might beg to differ. He has made the trophy his own in recent years, winning six of the last eight including its four most recent finals. 

For City, it is often base camp for further silverware, but Guardiola’s side were eliminated two rounds ago in this edition, and for this season’s semifinalists, it may be the best hope of silverware the season offers. The Premier League trophy already appears bound for the Etihad Stadium while the two north London representatives in the semifinals do not currently have European football to look forward to in 2022. Whatever its status, a trophy is better than none but who needs it most?

4. Liverpool

For whatever reason the EFL Cup (and perhaps even English cup competitions in general) never seem to have enamored Jurgen Klopp. Since his first season in English football, where he lost to Manchester City on penalties in the League Cup final, he has guided his side to just two semi finals, both in this competition. It is easy to see why Klopp’s focus might be elsewhere. The European Cup has always held a particular power over Liverpool and a first league title in over 30 years became an obsession for this club before 2020.

Everywhere you look there are signs that Liverpool simply have higher priorities than the EFL Cup. Jurgen Klopp will hand pre-match press conference responsibilities over to assistant Pep Ljinders before naming a team largely compromised of fringe players and youngsters. This is a competition for Takumi Minaminos and Divock Origis, not Mohamed Salah, who has played just over an hour of football in the league cup since moving to Anfield.

The latter will, of course, play no part in this tie after joining up with Egypt for the Africa Cup of Nations (AFCON), as has Sadio Mane and Naby Keita. Meanwhile Alisson, Joel Matip and Roberto Firmino missed Sunday’s draw with Chelsea after positive COVID-19 tests.

But from those players that are there, it seems feasible that Klopp, who will not be in the dugout after testing positive himself, might be inclined to go a little stronger against Arsenal this time out with the semifinals placed either side of an FA Cup third round tie with Shrewsbury Town of League One, one where rotation seems an obvious choice. It is hardly Liverpool’s absolute priority — even after reaching the semifinals Klopp was professing how he would be happier to hand Arsenal home advantage over one leg than play two games — but the fixture calendar might offer him some encouragement to chase a first domestic cup title.

3. Arsenal

Arsenal have become a consummate cup team, albeit one who have not won this particular trophy since 1993. For much of the years since their relative lack of success in the EFL Cup reflected Arsene Wenger’s decision to field teams of academy graduates, though in recent years they have generally gone deeper in a competition that allowed Arsenal managers to give minutes to squad players.

Mikel Arteta has largely continued that approach this season with Eddie Nketiah and Nicolas Pepe among those taking their opportunity to shine against what has been a mostly favorable set of opponents. The former averages more than a goal a game in the EFL Cup and seems a likely candidate to start at least one of the semifinal legs with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang at AFCON.

As for the competition’s standings in Arsenal’s priorities, it is perhaps worth noting that their steady slide from top two team to top four to top eight has not come at the cost of the Gunners winning cup competitions. No one at the Emirates Stadium needs reminding that this is a group of players that have historically proven that on their day they can nick a result against the best opposition. The issue has rather been sustained success over 38 games. 

Of course they are eminently capable of balancing league commitments with at most three EFL Cup games and whatever the FA Cup throws at them. This is a sizeable squad built with a European fixture list in mind, one that has not been on the calendar this season. However, the best way for Arteta’s side to show growth right now would be to emerge victorious in the race for fourth, even if a trophy offers that moment of ecstasy that a creditable league finish does not.

2. Chelsea

It’s Chelsea. It’s a trophy. Few clubs are as single minded in their pursuit of silverware as the Blues, who under Jose Mourinho had a Guardiola-ish attitude to this competition, winning it twice as they looked to build momentum for the run in. They may have only won it once since then, but they have tended to be at its business end more often than not, reflecting the deep wells of quality in Chelsea squads.

This particular competition might also come at a significant moment for Thomas Tuchel. Who knows what state his tenure will be in come the final on February 27, but right now the German could do with a win. Not that he is under any significant pressure from the Chelsea hierarchy; instead beating Tottenham over two legs would offer a welcome fillip to the season just as its timbre appeared to be changing.

Injuries and COVID-19 absences may well have derailed their title challenge, while Romelu Lukaku’s interview in Italy brought a little too much attention on Chelsea for Tuchel and his system for the manager’s liking. The German has the backing of the club and his players for how he dealt with the latter, but recent events have served as a reminder of how tenuous any head coach’s grip on power can be at Stamford Bridge.

As such, the stakes are higher for Chelsea in this competition not because it is a particular priority for them to be clutching it at Wembley later this year, but because losing right now, especially to their former manager Antonio Conte at the head of one of their great rivals, would merely bring unwelcome pressure to west London.

1. Tottenham

There was a time when Mauricio Pochettino was absolutely right, that winning a domestic cup competition and in particular the EFL Cup would not bring any great vindication for his Tottenham project. The Spurs side of the second half of the 2010s were one of Europe’s best sides, a benchmark for how to be successful in the modern age without superstar names. They were shooting for Premier League and Champions League glory, not a competition that earned you the right to play in the Europa Conference League.

That was then. This is now. Glory in the EFL Cup would not undo the wrong turns Tottenham have taken since the momentum of Pochettino’s best years started to fritter away. It would, however, offer something tangible for supporters who have waited long enough and for a group of players that perhaps have always needed to get in the habit of winning things after 13 years in which their trophy cabinet has gathered dust.

After all, they did not hire Antonio Conte because he fit snugly into their blueprint of attractive, possession-led football (though his tactical approach has always been more easy on the eye than he gets credit for) but because recent history suggests he is one of the few managers in Europe who brings with him a cast iron guarantee of silverware. As a manager he has won nine, including league titles at each of his last three jobs, to go with the 14 he won as a player. It was a running joke at the time of his appointment in November that this job would offer with it Tottenham’s greatest test of their ability to get in their own way; if they could Spurs it up with Conte at the helm then there was surely no hope for them.

The initial signs have been impressive indeed, with eight unbeaten matches in the Premier League but Conte insists it is a long road to silverware: “I think that for everyone it’s always very important to win trophies — for the club, for the players, for the managers. On one hand, I have to tell you this. 

“On the other, I think you have to build to win trophies. You can win trophies by speaking and saying you want to win. But then you have to be good and build something ready to win.” Those comments would appear to have at least one eye on the January transfer window, where Conte will expect new signings to strengthen his squad. Equally you do not appoint a manager like the Italian with long term squad building objectives.

Tottenham want silverware, surely more significant than EFL Cups. But after so long without any trophy to call their own, Spurs surely need this competition more than any of the other semi finalists.

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