Why are the Carabao Cup semi-finals still played over two legs?

Carabao Cup semi-finals feel like a relic from a bygone age, and with complaints about fixture congestion growing, it’s time to bin them off.


So, the first leg of the Carabao Cup semi-final between Arsenal and Liverpool has been postponed by a fortnight because of an outbreak of Covid-19 in the Liverpool ranks, and the result of all this has been angry back and forthing on social media between Arsenal and Liverpool supporters, with the former being angry about Liverpool getting the match postponed at just over 24 hours’ notice, claiming that they should just ‘put a team out’, and the latter countering that they’ve acted within the rules.

The nature of being a football supporter these days is, of course, ‘my club good, every other body tangentially connected with the game bad’, so, as with every other conversation related to football in the 21st century, it took roughly nine seconds from the announcement before a bunch of people starting screaming at each other. But in the rush to secure bragging rights, a crucial question about all of this has been rather overlooked; why are we even bothering with two-legged Carabao Cup matches in the first place?

In recent years, the trend in relation to domestic cup competitions has been to trim them down. Endless replays to settle FA Cup matches were replaced by penalty shootouts in 1991, while two-legged ties in the League Cup ended – apart from the semi-finals – in 2001. Extra-time and replays have been shorn under pressure from the biggest clubs. Yet in the middle of all of this sits one outlier. Come hell or high water, the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup will be played over two legs.

There are good reasons why cup ties are played over two legs. It’s considered fairer by some, since both teams have the opportunity of (at least) 90 minutes home advantage. But there is also a belief, widely held within the game, that the team playing at home in the second leg has a slight advantage. Many believe that the team playing away in the first leg can set up defensively in order to preserve a draw or even lose narrowly, both of which are considered favourable results, before pushing on and winning the tie in the second leg. It’s even enshrined into tournament rules. Champions League group winners always play the second leg at home, and runners-up away.

But the extent of ‘home advantage’ is debatable. One statistical analysis of 12,000 matches from European club competitions between 1956 and 2007 showed that around 53% of teams playing at home in the second leg (corrected for stronger teams generally playing the second leg as a result of tournament seedings) won the tie overall, though the effects of travelling on teams in the 1950s would likely have been far greater than they are now.

A further study of matches played between 2010 and 2017 contradicted this idea somewhat (it showed just 48.8% of teams playing at home in the second leg of European competitions winning the tie overall), and regardless, the stresses and strains of travelling abroad for European matches are a completely different matter to, say, Spurs making a short trip across London to play Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in the semi-final of the Carabao Cup. The idea remains that there is a distinct advantage to playing the second leg at home.

So why is there a necessity to retain a two-legged semi-final in the Carabao Cup? Money is the obvious answer. A crowd of 50,000 paying an average of £40 each for a ticket will bring in £2m in ticket sales alone, as well as other commercial revenues. It’s worth it for the clubs.

In addition to this, the EFL have a television contract which requires them to put on two-legged semi-finals. They could in the future opt to change what they’re offering (in exchange, in all likelihood, for less money), but within their current contract period their hands are somewhat tied. It’s also been suggested that two legs benefit bigger clubs, because they give a second opportunity in the event of a first-leg horror show.

There remains something fundamentally unsatisfying about investing yourself in a football match for 90 minutes only to recall, upon hearing the final whistle, that this wasn’t a final whistle but a half-time whistle, and that half-time would be lasting for seven days rather than 15 minutes. It lacks the drama that the modern crowd – and likely the modern broadcaster, too – really craves. The first leg of a cup semi-final is the first chapter of a book, when you’re not allowed to even look at the second chapter for a week or two after you’ve finished it.

This isn’t the only consideration, either. Continuing to play this extraneous match in the midst of a pandemic doesn’t sit comfortably, and even if we look beyond this crisis, managers complain long and hard about the ‘punishing’ schedule of the game in England. Well, here’s a candidate to reduce that workload by one.

And if the issue of home advantage is to be taken as seriously as many believe it to be, then play the semi-finals at neutral venues. Playing them as a one-off match at neutral club grounds might even give them a little bit of ‘event’ status. It seems reasonable, given the way in which fixture schedules are arranged these days, to assume that the best interests of match-going supporters is not a consideration, one way or the other.

Chelsea vs Spurs at The Emirates Stadium and Arsenal vs Liverpool at Villa Park might have made for a spectacular pair of Carabao Cup semi-finals, but that could never be, and the results of these two two-legged ties have already been pushed back another week by this week’s outbreak in the Liverpool camp. The events of the last few days should be serving as a reminder to the EFL that more does not necessarily mean better, and that two-legged domestic club football feels increasingly like an anachronism in the 21st century.

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