What the Carabao Cup final says about the sorry state of English football
For a trophy that has often struggled for its place in the game, the League Cup this year says a lot about where English football is. Its final has not had such importance in a long time.
Most immediately, a resurgent Manchester United are aiming for their first silverware in six years, a victory that would serve as a signpost for the improvement under Erik ten Hag. There is a rare excitement around the club again, as could be best seen after that Europa League win over Barcelona.
Newcastle United are waiting far longer, which makes their anticipation for this final all the greater. The club have not won any major trophy since 1955 and, unlike so many opportunities since then, the combative nature of Eddie Howe’s team ensures they do not feel like they go into this as underdogs who are dreaming rather than hope. They view it as a potential signpost in their own rise.
St James’ Park has been rocking. On seeing the crowd, you can sense the pure joy from a football team doing well again.
And yet it’s impossible to escape the impure context. As canny as Howe’s coaching has been, and as long as most of his squad have been at the club, Newcastle are mainly here because of a landmark controversy in English football history - and arguably a nadir up to now. The Saudi Arabian takeover has ensured a huge £262m was spent in one calendar year, and they are certainly seeing value for it.
Make no mistake: if Newcastle were to win, it would of course be used politically by the state; for PR, for sportswashing. The preposterous argument that “legally binding assurances” had been given Public Investment Fund is separate from the Saudi state was rendered an absurdity last week, when the same body attempted to claim sovereign immunity in a US court regarding the dispute between its LIV Golf tour and the PGA Tour.
That does morally compromise any success. It taints victory. It certainly doesn't warrant any broadcast gushing about how great it all is. There are too many issues. One of them is that it inherently puts fans in an unfairly invidious position. These are days they should get to enjoy. This emotion is instead precisely what these states seek to buy - as the opposition may well find for themselves.
Manchester United supporters could soon be in a similar position, in a moment that would represent an even lower nadir. A Qatari bid has announced itself as the biggest bidder in the Glazers’ sale process, which would mean the club could be owned the Saudis’ greatest political rivals in the Gulf.
The situation frames the game, not least given the protests against the owners - it just isn’t likely to be quick. A number of connected sources say this will be a “slow-burning process”, and there are increasing murmurs the Glazers are looking at minority investment.
One of many contradictions to this match is that victory could strengthen the argument to keep the club. Joel Glazer does not want to sell, and the buzz around Ten Hag’s team - and how this finally looks an appointment they got right - has fostered the sense that a propitious new era could be at hand for the club. The owners will be conscious of how Liverpool’s financial outlook transformed when they had an exciting and competitive team again.
If all of this seems a bit much to be talking about when we have the simple decisiveness of a final for a trophy, it only sums up the complicated context of this fixture.
It also informs what will happen on the pitch, and in an even more direct way than the expenditure from the club hierarchy.
A real antipathy has grown within the game towards Newcastle for multiple reasons, and Howe’s responses to questions about the club’s ownership has undeniably made him less popular in the wider sport. The manager has meanwhile sought to use that sense of animosity. Howe has got the team to embrace a “nasty” and cynical side, that makes them very hard to play against.
Even on a basic level, Ten Hag was asked this week about the timewasting that has so aggravated so many other Premier League teams. You can certainly see the lessons Howe took from a trip to watch Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. Newcastle are going to be very difficult to break down.
The problem is that Howe hasn’t quite found the balance between defence and attack. If Newcastle’s defensive record remains so respectable, their scoring has dropped off. It is now just three goals and one win in their last seven Premier League games. The early-season abandon of their attacking now seems one of those cases where a series of good but not top players enjoyed those occasional bursts of superb form at the same time. They have now all dropped off at the same time.
The caveat is that the only match where they have scored more than once in 2023 came in the League Cup, as they beat Southampton 2-1 in the semi-final second leg to secure their place in the final. Howe believes that the occasion can bring something more out of them, and is seeking to nurture that.
Ten Hag has no such issues right now with Manchester United. They are flying. Form and performances had already been good but Thursday’s Europa League victory over Barcelona felt like a gear shift. You could certainly see that in the way Antony and - particularly - Marcus Rashford ran at Xavi’s defence. The most striking element to the game was how fast United were.
It was a throwback to the 1993-94 and 2007-08 sides but also something new, and closer to Ten Hag’s ideal. The manager was effusive about this 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 the people.”
This may well become the most defining element of the new Manchester United, in the same way that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City were characterised by a luscious control and Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool by aggressive pressing. It is something to watch, in both senses of the phrase.
It just isn’t the finished article yet - which is one big reason Ten Hag wants Napoli’s Victor Osimhen - so they’re far from unstoppable.
Howe is meanwhile intent on restarting Newcastle. Player media duties have been restricted, as he wants full focus on getting their gameplan right. This is where Newcastle may enjoy one advantage, given they have had over a week to prepare, while Manchester United have had three games in eight days. Howe wants the players to start the game ferociously. It will feed into the occasion, all the more so as this is the first domestic final in 35 years where some supporters will be allowed to stand.
The sound will be incredible. It is just distorted by all the noise around the fixture.
This is about more than the League Cup itself. That is something often said, but this time it means something rather different.