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Cup takes Premier League back to the Old School

Remember last season’s FA Cup? No, why would you?

It was a mundane affair that produced hardly any upsets and by the quarter final stage there was only one non-Premier League side left in the competition. Twelve months on there will be at least one semi-finalist from outside the top-flight.

So what’s changed? Well, admittedly the unseeded format of the competition means that certain years England’s footballing heavyweights can draw each other in the same round in which there may also be an all-League One clash. Portsmouth’s ascent to FA Cup glory in 2008 typified this as the South-coast club duly took advantage of being the only top flight club in the last four.

Yet of the five Football League clubs in the hat on Sunday, four had put out higher-placed opposition (three of them Premier League teams). Only Middlebrough can be accused of having a favourable draw although if they advance past Chelsea in their belated-fifth round tie they too will be hailed as ‘giantkillers.’

So is the gap between the Premier League and the Football League decreasing or is this just random FA Cup anarchy?

Those who say the top of the Championship and the bottom of the Premier League are very similar should take a look at Queens Park Rangers. Two seasons ago QPR inspired by Adel Taraabt, won the Championship title at a canter. Two managers and three expensive transfer windows later, Rangers after surviving narrowly last season are now routed to the foot of the Premier table.

This season’s cup upsets owe more to an increase in diversity of playing styles than to a decrease in quality. In the “Barcelona era” of football, it is fashionable to try and play a stylish pass-and-move game regardless of whether a team possesses the quality of player required to play this way successfully. Look at Wigan, perennial strugglers in the Premier League but often lauded for the way they pass the ball. The Premier League’s foreign players are often the most aesthetically pleasing for supporters, and many teams now aspire to the “Barca model” of technical ability over physical attributes.

Perhaps this is why Stoke’s style of play brings them so much success, relatively speaking. It is so incongruous in comparison to rest of the League that teams simply struggle to deal with it.

Of course anyone who has watched lower league football will know that many teams attempt to emulate this abrasive gameplan centred around the ferocious contesting of set-pieces, crosses and long balls.

And herein lies the modern day quirk that may be responsible for this season’s FA Cup upsets and also Bradford City’s presence in next week’s League Cup Final.

While twenty years ago many top flight clubs would have still employed a hefty target man up-front and a burly no-nonsense centre-half (Brian Deane, Matt Elliott, Julian Dicks-types) who would have been more than happy to mix it with the lower league dogs of war. Nowadays the trend is to sign slighter ball-playing defenders and technical forwards, which undoubtedly does make the Premier League a better spectacle.

But what it does mean is that teams from England’s top flight are growing increasingly unaccustomed the more direct tactics many Football League teams employ. Just look at the amount of problems Bradford’s set-piece routines caused Aston Villa over two legs.

Even Everton one of the Premier-League’s more battle-hardened sides could not withstand Oldham Athletic’s late aerial bombardment, as the League One club’s six-foot, four-inch striker, Matt Smith, nodded in a last minute equaliser.

It was the type of goal that would’ve made a purist squirm, but a neutral rejoice. Not everyone can play like Barcelona, and the contrast in playing styles is what makes English football and in particularly this season’s FA Cup so entertaining.

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