For a trophy that has often fought for its place in the game, the League Cup says a lot about where English football stands this year. His finale hadn’t had such a meaning for a long time.
Most immediately, a resurgent Manchester United is seeking its first title in six years, a win that would serve as a signpost for improvement under Erik ten Hag. There is a rare excitement surrounding the club again, best seen after the Europa League win over Barcelona.
Newcastle United are waiting much longer, which makes the anticipation for this final even greater. The club have not won a major trophy since 1955 and unlike on so many occasions since then, the competitive nature of Eddie Howe’s team means they don’t feel like outsiders, dreaming rather than hoping. They see in it a possible signpost for their own ascension.
St. James’ Park rocked. Looking at the crowd, you can feel the pure joy of a successful football team again.
And yet it is impossible to escape the impure context. As shrewd as Howe’s coaching was and as much of his side were at the club, Newcastle are here largely because of a seminal controversy in English football history – and arguably a low point so far. The Saudi takeover has seen a whopping £262m spent in a calendar year and they certainly see value in it.
Make no mistake: if Newcastle won, it would of course be used politically by the state; for PR, for sportswear. The absurd argument that “binding assurances” had been given that the Public Investment Fund was separate from the Saudi state was reduced to absurdity last week when the same body sought sovereign immunity in a US court over the dispute between its LIV Golf Tour and to call for the PGA Tour.
This morally jeopardizes any success. It spoils the victory. It certainly doesn’t warrant chatter about how awesome this all is. There are too many problems. One is that it inherently puts fans in an unjustified position. These are days to enjoy. Rather, that emotion is exactly what these states are looking to buy – as the opposition may well see for itself.
Manchester United supporters could soon find themselves in a similar position at what would mark an even lower bottom. A Qatari bid has emerged as the biggest bidder in the Glazers’ sale process, which would mean the club could be the Saudis’ biggest political rival in the Gulf.
The situation is framing the game, not least given the protests against the owners – it’s just not likely to happen quickly. A number of related sources say this will be a “slow process” and there are increasing murmurs that the Glazers are considering minority investments.
One of the many contradictions about this game is that a win could strengthen the argument to keep the club. Joel Glazer doesn’t want to sell and the excitement surrounding the Ten Hag team – and how it finally looks like they’ve picked a right date – has fueled a sense that a favorable new era could be upon us for the club. The owners will be aware of how Liverpool’s financial prospects have changed as they once again have an exciting and competitive team.
While all of this may seem like saying a bit too much when we have the simple decision of a trophy final, it just sums up the complicated context of this game.
It also provides information on what will happen on the pitch in an even more direct way than club hierarchy spending.
A real dislike for Newcastle has grown within the game for a number of reasons and Howe’s responses to questions about the club’s ownership have undeniably made him less popular in wider sport. The manager, meanwhile, has tried to capitalize on that sense of hostility. Howe has caused the team to take on an “evil” and cynical side, making her very difficult to play against.
Even at a fundamental level, Ten Hag was asked this week about the time waster that has so irked so many other Premier League teams. You can certainly see the lessons Howe learned from a trip to Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Newcastle will be very difficult to break.
The problem is that Howe didn’t quite strike the balance between defense and offense. If Newcastle’s defensive record stays this respectable, their rating will have fallen. They are now just three goals and one win in their last seven Premier League games. Abandoning attack early in the season now seems to be one of those instances where a number of good but not top-flight players simultaneously enjoyed those occasional bursts of superb form. They’ve all fallen off at once now.
The only caveat is that the only game they have scored more than once in 2023 was in the League Cup when they beat Southampton 2-1 in the semi-final second leg to secure their place in the final. Howe believes the occasion can get more out of them and is trying to encourage that.
Ten Hag has no such problems with Manchester United at the moment. They fly. Form and performance were already good, but Thursday’s Europa League win over Barcelona felt like a change of gears. You could certainly see that in the way Antony and – especially – Marcus Rashford ran to Xavi’s defence. The most striking element of the game was how fast United were.
It was a throwback to the 1993-94 and 2007-08 teams, but also something new and closer to the Ten Hag ideal. The coach commented enthusiastically after the game.
“I like the speed. I like dynamic football. I don’t like static football, I don’t like boring football. I like football that entertains people.”
This could become the most defining element of the new Manchester United, just as Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City excelled in exuberant control and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in aggressive pressing. It is something to see, in both senses of the word.
It’s just not the finished article yet – which is one of the main reasons Ten Hag Napolis want Victor Osimhen – so they’re far from unstoppable.
Howe, meanwhile, is keen to restart Newcastle. Player media duties have been curtailed as he wants to focus fully on getting their game plan right. This is where Newcastle could enjoy an advantage as they have had over a week to prepare while Manchester United have had three games in eight days. Howe wants players to start the game wild. It will add to the occasion, all the more so as this is the first domestic final in 35 years that some fans will be allowed to stand.
The sound will be incredible. It’s just distorted by all the noise around the device.
It’s about more than the League Cup itself. It’s said a lot, but this time it means something very different.