In Depth

Is squad rotation killing the FA Cup and who is to blame?

Clubs come under fire for 'cheating fans' by fielding second-string teams for their fourth-round games

After a weekend FA Cup shocks, Premier League and Championship sides have come under scrutiny for their policy of resting big players in cup competitions.

Under-strength Liverpool, Watford and Hull sides lost to lower league opposition and three of the top four teams in the Championship were beaten in their fourth-round matches.

Table-toppers Brighton and fourth-placed Leeds went out to non-league opposition and Newcastle lost to Oxford.

Romantics will take heart from the fact it is the first time since the Football League was founded that two non-league clubs have made it into the fifth round.

However, others are bemoaning the attitude of the bigger clubs, who appear to see the cup as a chance to blood youngsters.

"The 13 Premier League clubs in the fourth round made 98 changes to their line-ups, an average of 7.5 per team," reports the BBC. "Championship sides facing lower-league opposition also rotated players, with Leeds making ten changes, while Brighton and Newcastle made nine."

BBC pundit Alan Shearer accused clubs of  "cheating fans" by fielding second-string sides.

He said: "It's just crazy. I don't understand it. I'm all for bringing kids into the team, but not seven or eight of them. Six rounds from the third round to the final - it's not asking a lot is it?"

Not everyone suffered, though. "Seven top-flight sides who made five or more changes to their starting line-ups did make it through to the last 16," reports the BBC.

However, it is clear that for many, the FA Cup is not a priority - and they may be justified in that opinion, says Paul Joyce of The Times.

"Lifting the FA Cup with Manchester United last season did little for Louis van Gaal's job prospects and even less for the allure of the competition," he says.

Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp has faced most criticism after his side lost 2-0 to Wolves at Anfield, continuing the Reds' nightmare January.

Joyce says: "Klopp often seeks to give the impression that he will select a strong side for games such as this, that he values the FA Cup, and then he invariably fudges it.

"In his seven games in the competition, last season and this, he has used 38 different players, which is a truer insight into a mindset that has yet to take him beyond the fourth round. It has proved a costly way of discovering that he lacks reliable options."

Others, including Chris Bascombe of the Daily Telegraph, spot a paradox in Klopp's decision to rest his big names.

By fielding a side that could not beat Wolves, who were themselves under strength, the Liverpool manager has ensured that his supposedly overworked stars will now only play another 16 club games in the remaining four months of the season.

On the other hand, they face Chelsea in the Premier League on Tuesday and that will be their 11th match since Christmas.

Rotation is "suffocating the FA's golden child", says Bascombe, but fixture scheduling means clubs have little option. There are gaping holes at the beginning and end of the season, "but they might as well introduce congestion charges in winter", he writes.  

Changes are needed, continues the journalist: "Supporters saw through it years ago, an increasing number rejecting these overhyped, glorified reserve games. Winning a knockout tournament has become a short-term aspiration compromising those beloved long-term plans of survival, promotion – or finishing fourth."

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