The FA Cup third round passed by this weekend with few shocks and even fewer full-strength teams fielded by leading Premier League clubs.
Liverpool beat neighbours Everton with a second-string side packed with youngsters, Manchester City coasted to victory against Port Vale with a similarly half-strength team and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's Manchester United played out a 0-0 draw at Wolves, despite starting with Marcus Rashford on the bench and with Anthony Martial, David De Gea and Jesse Lingard not even in the squad.
The biggest teams to fall at the third-round stage have been Crystal Palace and Brighton -- neither have previously won the Cup and both are hardly Premier League heavyweights -- which means the FA Cup has once again come under fire as being outdated, increasingly irrelevant and a diminishing priority for the big clubs.
But is it really so bad? There were packed stadiums as League One side Rochdale held Newcastle to a draw at Spotland and at Gillingham, where West Ham earned a hard-fought win. Curtis Jones, meanwhile, wrote his name in the FA Cup folklore with his stunning goal for Liverpool against Everton. There have been enough signs that the FA Cup is alive and well if you look in the right places, but there are still tweaks that can be made to make the competition even bigger and better.
1. Let the lower-ranked teams play at home
Everyone loves a cup upset. The prospect of a Premier League club being humbled by a side from the lower leagues is what makes the FA Cup so special, and there is a greater chance of that happening if they were forced to leave behind the comforts of their state-of-the-art stadiums and cosy dressing rooms. So when the draw is made, the Football Association should automatically ensure that the lower-ranked team stages the tie.
In the third round, that would have seen Arsenal travel to Leeds, Chelsea play at Nottingham Forest and Manchester City make the trip to Port Vale. Even Liverpool would have had to surrender home advantage against Everton to play their tie at Goodison Park. It would also have seen Sheffield United have to travel to non-league AFC Fylde. There may not have been a single upset had the ties been switched, but they would all have been played at full stadiums, which works for both the FA Cup romantics and the TV executives who want a noisy, passionate crowd alongside the action on the pitch.
The counter-argument to lower-ranked teams playing at home is that they would miss out on a big payday by travelling to the likes of Anfield, Old Trafford or the Emirates, but to make the cup special, the sporting element must come before financial gain.
2. Scrap replays and go straight to penalties
Wolves coach Nuno Espirito Santo claimed after his team's 0-0 draw against Manchester United on Saturday that finishing the tie at Molineux with a penalty shoot-out, rather than a replay at Old Trafford next week, would have been the most sensible solution. The FA has already made changes to the cup by abolishing replays from the fifth round onwards (that change was introduced last season), but they should now go further by ending them altogether from the third round.
Firstly, such a move would help ease the fixture congestion in the game, especially after a busy Christmas and New Year fixture programme that sees teams play four league fixtures in less than two weeks. But it would also increase the excitement if a cup tie was played to a conclusion at the first attempt, with extra time and penalties deciding the tie.
Lower-league clubs would argue that the prospect of a replay is a financial bonus they would not otherwise get, but replays are becoming an inconvenience to supporters as much as players. The costs of travelling to a replay -- ticket, travel, food, etc. -- is another drain on the resources of fans, especially if they have to take half a day off work to attend the game.
End the problem by finishing the game at the first attempt.
3. Force Premier League clubs to play six first-team players
One of the biggest criticisms of top clubs in the FA Cup is that they use the ties to rest players and make wholesale changes, especially in the early rounds.
Liverpool will point to their 1-0 win against Everton on Sunday as justification for making nine changes from their most recent Premier League fixture, and few of their fans would argue that they did not enjoy seeing a team of youngsters send their neighbours crashing out of the competition. But generally, fans are being short-changed when they turn up to a cup tie and see their team, or the opponents, fielding unrecognisable line-ups.
To mitigate this, a rule should be introduced that forces teams to field at least six players who have made five or more league appearances for the club that season. That would allow managers to rest players, but also ensure that teams are still strong enough for fans to feel as though they are getting value for money. It would also diminish suggestions that big clubs are not taking the competition seriously.
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4. Ensure free travel for away fans
One thing that the FA Cup gets right is the rule that away teams should get an allocation of tickets amounting to 15% of the stadium capacity of the home team. It saw over 6,000 Everton fans attend the tie at Liverpool and Leeds United sell 8,000 tickets for their Monday night trip to play Arsenal at the Emirates.
Bigger away contingents lead to a noisier atmosphere, which again is a tick in the box of the TV companies who pay to broadcast the FA Cup. But while more fans are able to travel to see their teams in the cup, it is not cheap and, with the FA earning £30m a year from the cup's sponsorship deal with Emirates, some of that money should go towards providing free travel for visiting fans.
With so much money in the modern game, subsidies for travelling fans would allow more to travel and also show that the game is prepared to give something back to those who watch their teams up and down the country.
5. Scrap the Carabao Cup
Does England really need two cup competitions? In France, the Coupe de La Ligue is to be scrapped after this season in order to reduce fixture congestion, while Germany ended their League Cup, the Ligapokal, in 2007. Spain and Italy only have one national cup competition but in England, the FA Cup and League Cup (Carabao Cup) continue to fight for space on the fixture list.
The League Cup, run by the EFL, even has two-legged semifinals in January -- the busiest month of the year -- despite a succession of top managers highlighting the folly of playing two games rather than getting the tie done in one go. The time has come for the League Cup, which dates back to 1960-61, to go the way of its French and German counterparts. Abolishing it would leave the FA Cup as the stand-alone cup competition in England and ensure that teams take it more seriously because there would be less congestion on the calendar.
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6. Make the FA Cup a VAR-free zone
The FA Cup has one foot in the VAR camp and one foot outside it because the system is only used in ties played at Premier League stadiums. In the third round, we saw referee Michael Oliver using the pitchside monitor (finally!) to send off Crystal Palace's Luka Milivojevic for a head-butt against Derby County at Selhurst Park, but in other ties at places such as Rochdale, Middlesbrough and Gillingham -- which all hosted televised cup ties -- VAR was not available.
Logistically, it is understandable that some lower-league grounds cannot accommodate VAR, but you can't have a competition where some ties have it and others don't. It makes no sense. The FA should ditch VAR completely and ensure it is a level playing field for every club until they can find a way to ensure it is in place at every stadium from the third round onwards.