The staggered nature of entries into the EFL Cup is one of the factors which sets it apart from the FA Cup, with the final batch of Premier League teams entering the competition in last week’s 3rd round. The EFL Cup is both the earliest and shortest way to win a trophy and qualify for Europe, and a straight knockout format always offers the opportunity for shock eliminations, such as Tottenham and West Ham being knocked out by Colchester and Oxford respectively last week. On the competition’s current Wikipedia page, it states, “[The prospect of European qualification] has allowed the League Cup to retain popularity, especially with fans of clubs for whom success in cup competitions offers their only realistic chance of qualifying for Europe.”
Yet is this really true? Whilst using EFL Cup matches as an opportunity to rest senior players and blood youngsters was something which was initiated by the likes of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Arsene Wenger at Arsenal, other Premier League clubs have taken this idea and run with it. Brighton for example made 11 changes going into the home tie against Aston Villa last week, with the average age of the starting line up being just 21 and 10 academy graduates taking to the field during the match. By contrast, whilst Pep Guardiola made multiple changes for Manchester City’s trip to Preston, the side featured the likes of Raheem Sterling, Gabriel Jesus, Ilkay Gundogan and Bernardo and David Silva.
The current ‘Big 6’ have arguably taken the competition more seriously than most other Premier League clubs in recent years, and this is reflected by their dominance of the competition, both in terms of winning the trophy and reaching the latter stages. The last winners from outside the big 6 were Swansea in 2013-14, one of just 5 instances of a Premier League club outside of the big 6 reaching the Final this decade. You’d have to go back to 2003-04 to find the last time 3 or more clubs from outside the big 6 reached the Semi-Finals stage, and there have been 7 seasons this Century when no Premier League clubs from outside of the big 6 have reached the Semi-Finals.
The cliched explanation for this trend, often trotted out by fans and occasionally managers after an exit in the early rounds of the competition, is that it gives the club the opportunity to focus on their Premier League campaign. However, is there any evidence to support the idea that a run to the final stages of the EFL Cup is detrimental to performance in the Premier League? The dominance of the big 6 is far from ideal from a statistical perspective, with the sample size of Premier League clubs reaching at least the Semi-Finals of the EFL Cup this Century being just 23 instances.
With Premier League expectations varying from club to club, one way to investigate whether an EFL Cup run can prove disruptive would be to compare their final league position during the season of the cup run with the position they achieved the previous year. There were 4 instances of Premier League clubs outside of the big 6 reaching at least the Semi-Finals having been promoted the previous season, thus making such a comparison impossible, though it should be noted that the Premier League performances ranging from Ipswich’s 5th place in 2000-01 to Hull’s relegation in 2016-17, with the other 2 clubs, Wigan in 2005-06 and Blackburn in 2001-02, both finishing 10th.
From the remaining 19 instances, 5 clubs finished in the same position during the season of their cup run and the season prior, whilst 4 clubs recorded a lower finish, including relegations for both Birmingham and West Ham in 2010-11. Birmingham won the competition that season, yet crashed from 9th to 18th in the Premier League, the biggest drop within the sample. There were however 10 instances of clubs improving on the previous season during the season of their cup run, with Aston Villa recording the biggest rise, jumping up 10 places whilst reaching the Semi-Finals in 2003-04. Given the size of the sample size, it would be unreasonable to say with confidence that a long run in the EFL Cup is beneficial to a league campaign for Premier League clubs outside of the big 6, though equally there appears to be little evidence to support the idea that it is detrimental.
The other theory regarding the potentially detrimental impact of a long run in the EFL Cup is that it will lead to a drop in league performance the following season. Reasons for such as drop could include the delayed impact of cumulative fatigue within the squad, a raising of expectations, which could encourage a club to move away from what led to their cup run the previous season, or the burden of additional fixtures for any clubs who qualified for European competitions.
At first glance, many of these potential reasons may seem tentative, so much so that the results may seem surprising. From the 23 club sample, the 3 clubs playing the following season in the Championship after relegation were again removed, leaving a sample size of 20. From this 20, 3 finished in the same league position both seasons, 4 improved their league position the season after their EFL Cup run, whilst 14 clubs finished in a lower position the following season. It is also worth noting that only one club from outside of the big 6, Blackburn Rovers, managed to reach at least the Semi-Final in consecutive seasons, winning the competition in 2001-02 and then reaching the Semi-Final in 2002-03.
|Club||League Cup Run (Season)||League Position Season Prior To League Cup Run||League Position Season Of League Cup Run||League Position Season After League Cup Run|
|Hull City||Semi-Finalists (2016-17)||4th in Championship (Promoted)||18th (Relegated)||18th in Championship|
|Stoke City||Semi-Finalists (2015-16)||9th||9th||13th|
|West Ham United||Semi-Finalists (2013-14)||10th||13th||12th|
|Swansea City||Winners (2012-13)||11th||9th||12th|
|Birmingham City||Winners (2010-11)||9th||18th (Relegated)||4th in Championship|
|West Ham United||Semi-Finalists (2010-11)||17th||20th (Relegated)||3rd in Championship (Promoted)|
|Aston Villa||Finalist (2009-10)||6th||6th||9th|
|Blackburn Rovers||Semi-Finalists (2009-10)||15th||10th||15th|
|Wigan Athletic||Finalist (2005-06)||2nd in Championship (Promoted)||10th||17th|
|Blackburn Rovers||Semi-Finalists (2005-06)||15th||6th||10th|
|Bolton Wanderers||Finalist (2003-04)||17th||8th||6th|
|Aston Villa||Semi-Finalists (2003-04)||16th||6th||10th|
|Blackburn Rovers||Semi-Finalists (2002-03)||10th||6th||15th|
|Blackburn Rovers||Winners (2001-02)||2nd in Division One (Promoted)||10th||6th|
|Ipswich Town||Semi-Finalists (2000-01)||3rd in Division One (Promoted)||5th||18th (Relegated)|
|Leicester City||Winners (1999-00)||10th||8th||13th|
|Aston Villa||Semi-Finalists (1999-00)||6th||6th||8th|
Whilst the sample size is again smaller than ideal, the fact that 70% of the clubs in the sample recorded a lower finish the following season suggests there could be some method behind clubs who deprioritise the EFL Cup. One final potential cause for this drop, which is the one I would find most compelling, is that a good run in the EFL Cup puts players and managers in the shop window. Southampton for example suffered a huge slump after consecutive top 8 finishes and their run to the 2016-17 EFL Cup Final, finishing 17th the following season. Whilst the sales of Jay Rodriguez and Paulo Gazzaniga shouldn’t be overlooked, the Virgil Van Dijk transfer saga plagued the start of their season and by the time he was finally sold in January, the club were already in trouble. Whilst the Dutchman missed the EFL Cup Final due to injury, the Saints did not concede a goal en route to the final, beating fellow Premier League sides Crystal Palace, Sunderland, Arsenal and most notably Liverpool, against whom Van Dijk put in a Man of the Match performance in the first leg of the Semi-Final.
Fantasy Premier League Tip – Andriy Yarmolenko
Andriy Yarmolenko looked to be a shrewd piece of business when West Ham bought him for £18 million from Borussia Dortmund in Summer 2017, though Hammers fans could have been forgiven for fearing the worst when injuries restricted the Ukrainian to just 9 Premier League appearances in his debut campaign. Yarmolenko scored at nearly a goal every other game at Dynamo Kiev, and now back to full fitness, has showcased his goalscoring ability with 3 goals in 6 appearances. Yet to record a negative Plus Minus rating this season, a £6 million price tag makes Yarmolenko a bargain, provided he stays fit.