FA Cup Round-Up: Shock upsets and an overdue sacking

Gabriel Sutton by Gabriel Sutton / 08 January 2018, 11:16

Gabriel Sutton (@_FootbalLab) takes us through all the action from the third round of the FA Cup, which contained shock upsets, a sacking, and renewed hopes of an unprecedented quadruple...

Grim day for Hughes

The last time a Premier League club was knocked out of the FA Cup by a League Two outfit came back in January 2016, when Swansea City were defeated 3-2 by promotion-bound Oxford United. That was, at least until Stoke City’s 2-1 loss at Coventry City, as Jack Grimmer’s late-winner spelt the end of the road for visiting manager Mark Hughes, who was dismissed later that evening.

It was slightly ironic that the last opposing gaffer the Welshman shook hands with as Stoke manager was Mark Robins. He had headed home Hughes’ cross in this competition for Manchester United at Nottingham Forest in 1990, a goal perceived as a turning point for Sir Alex Ferguson’s career.

The Sky Blues had a side that fought tirelessly for Robins, with Jordan Willis and Tom Davies commanding at the back as midfielder Tom Bayliss’ star continued to rise. By contrast, the Potters looked ponderous and lacklustre.

Hughes is not solely to blame for the team’s decline over the last 18 months – the recruitment team have often failed to get deals done and players have underperformed. However, the manager and his coaching staff have continually picked a three-at-the-back system without the personnel required.

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Mame Biram Diouf, a forward by trade, lacks the defensive awareness to play a wing-back on the right and Erik Pieters does not have the pace to fulfil that role on the left. In the second half on Saturday, when Geoff Cameron went off injured, they moved to a back-four with Diouf at right-back and Tom Edwards, a right-back, at left-back.

Such disjointed and jumbled tactics were only ever going to end with two results, one on the field and one in the board room.

Newport fight back

Having lost 5-1 at Elland Road despite a largely competitive performance in August’s League Cup tie, Newport County had unfinished business with Leeds United and so did manager Michael Flynn; he netted an excellent goal against them for rivals Bradford back in 2011 but was on the losing side.

The former midfielder was celebrating victory though on Sunday after his side overturned Gaetano Berardi’s early deflected strike, which gave the visitors the lead until the final quarter of an hour. Conor Shaughnessy then turned Frank Nouble’s centre into his own goal for the equalizer before Shawn McCoulsky, who had made a fine impact from the bench, headed Robbie Wilmott’s corner home to send fans into delirium.

Flynn and Newport got their revenge through this triumph and more importantly, a victory that will do wonders for the fan-owned club’s finances. They may be able to improve the facilities to further their long-term prospects and, to boost their immediate play-off chances, sign new players to augment the impressive existing group.

Recruitment is one of many areas Flynn - along with Lennie Lawrence and Wayne Hatswell - have proved proficient in, judging by the success of forward Nouble, midfield controller Matt Dolan and sturdy defender Ben White. Sunday was another great day in the perfect marriage between Michael Flynn and Newport County.

Posh poacher pushes progress

Continuing the theme of lower league sides engineering late comebacks against Championship opposition, we move to Peterborough United.

Their FA Cup journey looked to be heading for an end with 15-minutes to go, when they trailed at Villa Park through Keinan Davis’ goal, but not on Jack Marriott's watch.

The former Luton Town striker nodded in Danny Lloyd’s firm cross from point-blank range to draw Grant McCann’s men level, before Ryan Tafazolli headed them in front from Marcus Maddison’s corner.

The latter was also involved in the third goal in injury-time, squaring the ball after a fine counter-attacking move for Marriott to finish beyond Jed Steer. Peterborough deserved their win and to get it, they showed quality to befit a level higher than League One.

Question marks remain over McCann – and whether his side manage games well enough. The proceeding fixtures had seen a 93rd minute equalizer conceded against Doncaster, after defeat to nine-man MK Dons.

There is a worry that if Maddison and Marriott were to depart, the Posh may not have a squad equipped for a top six tilt, but the M&M duo's presence make them a different proposition.

For now, Peterborough have established themselves as a side that could trouble any opposition but the best in the Fourth Round.

Arsenal under-estimate Forest

Given that Arsenal were heavy-favourites to record a victory in their FA Cup clash at the City Ground, their deserved 4-2 defeat to Nottingham Forest might come as a great surprise to some. And yet, compare the two line-ups more closely and we can see that there isn’t a David and Goliath gulf to speak of.

33-year-old Per Mertesacker and 32-year-old Mathieu Debuchy have only made 20 competitive appearances between them since May 2016. By contrast, right-back Eric Lichaj, who scored a first half brace and centre-back Michael Mancienne might have no European experience, but they also have no fitness issues having played almost every week for their side.

Speedster Ainsley Maitland-Niles has looked bright at times for Arsenal but he and centre-back Rob Holding remain in a developmental phase, both having been in the Championship a couple of years ago. Worrall is benefiting from playing regularly in that division now, despite his late sending off on Sunday and while there are suggestions that Armand Traore is too attack-minded to play at left-back, similar has been said about Maitland-Niles.

18-year-olds Joe Willock and Reiss Nelson were starting only their fifth and sixth games in professional football respectively. The players in their position for the Tricky Trees, energetic midfielder Ben Osborn and inverted left winger Zach Clough, have established themselves as mercurial talents at this level. One might argue too that attacking midfielders Kieran Dowell and Alex Iwobi are not necessarily streets apart in terms of natural ability.

There was arguably only three or four areas where, on paper, Arsenal had better options in their starting eleven – and even the big hitters didn’t perform as expected. That suggests that Arsene Wenger not only underestimated the consequences of an early exit from this competition, but also the ability of his opponents, for whom that victory provides a timely boost.

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Gary Brazil is doing an excellent job in temporary charge at Nottingham Forest but has made clear his expectation for the club to ‘move in a different direction’ in their search for a permanent head coach. That performance – which saw Ben Brereton star in his favoured role up top – offers a reminder to would-be bosses of the talent on Trentside. If only Arsene knew.

City raise the bar

The two halves of Manchester City’s 4-1 victory over Burnley on Saturday were wonderfully captivating for entirely opposing reasons. Ashley Barnes’ first half opener for the visitors heightened the enticing prospect of an epic shock, before the Citizens brought out their A-game in the second half and were a joy to watch.

Their regular tactic in that second period was for left-back Oleksandr Zinchenko to shuffle into a central midfield position, dragging Johann Berg Gudmundsson across to create space on their left flank. They then released Leroy Sane with cross-field passes and he could isolate Matthew Lowton one-on-one.

Right now, there isn’t noticeably a team in English football that tries anything close to that. The same can be said about the idea of having a goalkeeper with the kicking ability of an outfield player. While both strategies skill - and are executed brilliantly by City's top-class players - they should not necessarily be confined to England's elite.

We are seeing a Premier League trend of clubs being so afraid of the drop that they set out in most games to primarily avoid defeat. That approach arguably counted against Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Hull last season, while Paul Clement, Tony Pulis and Hughes have all left their successors relegation-threatened sides that look fearful of attacking the opposition.

Man City’s dominance has been helped hugely by the finances available to them yet as well, in Pep Guardiola they have an innovative manager who coaches players in a way that allows them to consistently improve. From that, every club can learn.

Managers Departed

Last man down

Graham Westley
Graham Westley
16th February
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