Will There Be An Upset In The FA Cup 3rd Round?

Will there be an upset in the 3rd round of the FA Cup? With the draw for the 3rd round announced, today on the blog Mark Taylor takes a look at the potential for unlikely clubs to progress to the final in May.

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Despite the globalisation of football and unfettered access to titanic league clashes around the world involving the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona, the English FA Cup still retains the ability to enthral viewers, spectators and players alike. And the Third Round of the competition, when the Premiership makes a first appearance in the draw, is the date that every fan pencils into their diary.

A Brief History of FA Cup Upsets

Non and lower league sides have already fought through numerous qualifying rounds, involving exotically named sides such as Armthorpe Welfare, Pelshall Villa, Concord Rangers and just plain Sheffield. Come the draw, each side will entertain the hopes of a big name tie, the guarantee of a huge payday and the slim hope of joining the likes of Wimbledon, Yeovil, Blyth Spartans and Colchester in the giant killing Hall of Fame.

But how realistic is it that the survivors of a variety of preliminary and qualifying rounds will make headlines in the intimidatingly named Third Round Proper and beyond. Is the FA cup a great leveller, or more pertinently, was it ever a great leveller? Unusual events gain disproportionately large amount of news coverage and therefore remain in the collective memory long after a host of inferior sides have been dispatched by their more illustrious rivals. The giant killers of the past probably weren't winning out of step in the greater scheme of things.

Tottenham were the last non-League side to raise the trophy, as members of the Southern League in 1901 and the record of sides from immediately outside the top flight is equally poor in recent times. West Ham United’s triumph in 1980 was the last time a team from outside the top flight won the FA Cup.

The footballing landscape was very different when Tottenham were playing in the non-League, they gained admission to the Second Division of the Football League seven years after their cup triumph, but the uninterrupted years of recent failure of teams from outside the top flight to lift the trophy indicates that the FA Cup is now truly an elitist competition.

Top 4 Domination

Over half of the Cup winners since 1985 were placed in the top four of the top Division at the start of the 3rd round. The top four places in the EPL, which were invariable occupied by the Big Four themselves have dominated the FA Cup roll of honour. Overall only two teams who have been placed lower than 9th place in the first week of January have gone on to win the cup over the last 27 years and the increasing gap between the EPL and the remaining Football League teams is being reflected in the FA Cup results.

The seventies and early eighties may have been a final golden age for Second Division sides in England’s premier cup competition, with wins for Sunderland, Southampton and ultimately WHU. But there has been little point in looking beyond the top flight to identify the winners since a yet to be knighted Trevor Brooking stooped to score an unlikely headed goal to defeat Arsenal at the dawn of the eighties.

January Placings and FA Cup Success

In the chart below I’ve illustrated the record of the top sides within the Premiership’s overall Cup dominance. If you are looking for the FA Cup winner in January, you will need a very good reason to look outside the current top four in the Premiership and based on historical trends, the winners are long odds on to already occupy a position of ninth or better.

The best Premiership sides may not prioritize the FA Cup, but their squads are extremely deep and anecdotally mid to lower Premiership sides, with thinner squads are also putting Premiership survival ahead of cup glory.

If the FA Cup provides no real encouragement for the lesser sides when viewed from a winner’s perspective, the prospect of reaching Wembley is open to a slightly wider audience. If we restrict ourselves to the last decade to get a more contemporary picture of events, we see the trend towards the Cup being lifted by the very best reinforced.

Eleven of the twelve winners occupied a top four slot on Third Round day and Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and latterly Manchester City have each claimed at least one win. Only Portsmouth, a "lowly" ninth place in the January of their triumphant year, managed to break the near monopoly of Champions League contenders.

SeasonWinnerRunner UpWinner's Position On 3rd Round DayRunner Up's Position On 3rd Round Day
2000-2001 Liverpool Arsenal 4 2
2001-2002 Arsenal Chelsea 2 6
2002-2003 Arsenal Southampton 1 7
2003-2004 Manchester United Milwall 1 31
2004-2005 Arsenal Manchester United 2 3
2005-2006 Liverpool West Ham 3 9
2006-2007 Chelsea Manchester United 2 1
2007-2008 Portsmouth Cardiff 9 32
2008-2009 Chelsea Everton 2 6
2009-2010 Chelsea Portsmouth 1 20
2010-2011 Manchester City Stoke City 3 10
2011-2012 Chelsea Liverpool 4 6

However, the prospect of a day out at Wembley is a very real one for many mid table EPL sides and even ocassionally, promotion contenders from the Championship. A run of five unbeaten Premiership games is more than good enough form to navigate a side from Round three to the FA Cup final and over the last seven seasons, all bar five EPL teams have managed those level of Premiership results at least once. So if you are looking outside the elite for a potential cup run, a final appearance is possible, but be prepared to hedge or bet each way.

Championship Contenders

For those looking to the Championship, we can quantify the task faced by such sides when they inevitably face a Premiership team in the cup, even if it is the last EPL side standing, by referencing expected goal differences.

The Premiership’s biggest mismatch was played two weekends ago when QPR visited Manchester United and continued repetition of such a game would likely see United score an average of 2.4 goals, conceding 0.4 in return. So the EPL’s best are around two goals ahead of the Division’s worst when playing hosts. At a neutral venue this supremacy drops to around 1.6 goals, 1.2 if the venue is reversed.

It wasn’t very long ago that QPR were a Championship side and we can use typical results achieved by teams that are promoted to and relegated from the Premiership to establish a connection between the two Leagues. These skill levels overlap, the worst of the Premiership are inferior to the best of the Championship and currently an average Premiership side is around one goal superior to an average Championship team.

Therefore, a typical Cup clash involving average teams from each league would still see the Premiership side favoured on the day, even if they were the visitors. Championship sides are much more likely to be the underdog in a cup tie with a Premiership team, even if they are drawn first from the bag.

Randomness of the Cup Draw

The unseeded draw format is the only small, random edge for anyone looking to follow a non-Premiership side to the later stages of the cup. Random pairing can mean that Premiership sides may inevitably eliminate each other. Both Manchester teams have been drawn together in the recent past, as have Liverpool and Everton and a large number of all Premiership Third Round ties has occasionally led to non-Premiership representation in the later stages.

The average number of all Premiership Third Round ties over the last decade is just under three per year. When the actual number of such ties has been three or under, the semi-finals and obviously the final have been all Premiership affairs. If there’s been a higher guaranteed attrition rate, then Championship sides have managed to survive to the semis and even the ultimate game.

In 2002-03, the Third Round saw seven all Premiership ties and mid table, Division One (the precursor of the Championship) Watford made the last four. A year later, ten EPL sides were paired together early and second tier Millwall made the final. Lastly, the Championship was tripled handed in the 2007-08 semi-finals possibly partly as a result of a fifth of the Premiership falling at the hands of their own in January. Barnsley in 2007-08, alone were required to perform any giant killing acts to progress deep into the competition and Millwall avoided top division sides in their run to the final against Manchester United.

A small edge perhaps, but one that may not be reflected in the prices of the non-Premiership participants following a favourable Third Round draw.

Final Thoughts

The trend towards the FA Cup being very much the domain of the rich, squad based Big Four is well established and should not be ignored, but with an appreciation of the ebb and flow further down the pecking order, we may, like Yeovil’s famous sloping pitch, be able to tilt the more adventurous odds slightly in our favour. Even if the top prize eludes our selection.

The Third round ties will be played on the weekend beginning January 5th 2013, but the draw was announced last weekend.

The Odds

Manchester City are currently favoured to claim the FA Cup this season with best price of 6.50 offered at BetVictor, while Manchester United follow close behind at odds of 7.50 at Bet365. Chelsea is listed at 8.50 with Skybet, Tottenham 12.00 at Betfred, Arsenal 12.00 at Skybet and Liverpool likewise 12.00 at Stan James. Everton rounds out the likely candidates with a best price of 15.00 at Ladbrokes.

 

 

Read more of Mark's work on his The Power Of Goals blog

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