FA Cup still the king of giant-killings as minnows close in on Wembley
Chelsea, Manchester City, Millwall and Wigan; Arsenal, Hull, Sheffield United and Wigan again. Students of recent FA Cup history have probably identified the common theme: these clubs have comprised the last four in the FA Cup in each of the two most recent campaigns.
Three of those names were entirely unsurprising, the rest rather more of a shock. Three were lower-division opponents and a fourth in the process of being relegated from the Premier League. The fifth, Hull, were a club who had not reached the last four of the FA Cup since Herbert Hoover was president of the United States.
And while the chances are that this season's semifinalists won't be Preston, Bradford, Middlesbrough and Reading, this current competition already ranks among the most unpredictable yet. There may have been a hint of hyperbole, but the fourth-round Saturday of shocks was described as the greatest day in FA Cup history. Four of the Premier League's top six exited early. Manchester City lost at home to Middlesbrough. Chelsea, only ever defeated once at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League under Jose Mourinho, saw Bradford respond to a 2-0 deficit by scoring four unanswered goals.
It was a stunning scoreline. It also crystallised the impression that times are changing in the FA Cup. This used to be celebrated as a competition in which underdogs prospered, but the dominance of the superpowers seemed entrenched. Between 1996 and 2010, only five teams won the competition: the "Big Four" -- as they were then branded -- of Chelsea (five times), Arsenal (four), Manchester United (three) and Liverpool (two), plus Portsmouth, the lone gate-crashers at an exclusive party.
Now, unless Arsenal defend their crown, there will be a fifth winner in as many seasons. Perhaps, too, it will be an improbable one. Wigan's 2013 final victory was arguably the greatest shock in the showpiece event since West Ham in 1980 -- the last lower-division team to lift the trophy.
Now there is an era of unpredictability. Sometimes the elimination of the elite can be attributed to the vagaries of the draw, pitting them against each other and allowing others to progress. In 2012-13, Manchester United were beaten by Chelsea, who were themselves knocked out by Manchester City. Last year, Arsenal knocked out Tottenham, Liverpool and Everton, while City again disposed of Chelsea.
But, over the same period, Arsenal have lost at home to Blackburn, Liverpool have been beaten by Oldham, and Spurs were eliminated by Leeds. Of last season's top seven, only Everton and United have not lost to lower-division opposition, and Louis van Gaal's team were taken to a replay by a Cambridge side who were playing non-league football nine months earlier.
Van Gaal complained about Cambridge's height, their direct style of play and their bumpy pitch. Such conditions would have been well known to many a manager grounded in the English game. That brand of football would be familiar to players who had served their apprenticeship in the lower leagues. But there are fewer and fewer at top clubs; it helps explain how Liverpool were bullied out of a tie at Boundary Park by a limited, but sizeable, target man in Oldham's Matt Smith.
When United drew with Cambridge, they fielded only one player (Michael Carrick) who had appeared below the Premier League. When Liverpool won at League Two AFC Wimbledon, it was courtesy of Steven Gerrard who, one-club man as he is, represents a throwback to the era when captains such as Bryan Robson and Graeme Souness could outplay or outfight opponents, whichever was required.
Perhaps, as standards have risen and some have been fast-tracked to the top, slight technicians and academy-reared passers are ill-equipped for a more physical game. Squad players, in particular, have been found wanting.
Yet the paradox is that, if Football League sides are ever more distinct from their top-flight counterparts, they have nonetheless benefited from the Premier League's quest to import quality. Talented players are found further and further down the ladder.
Bradford striker Jon Stead played in the top flight for Blackburn and Sunderland and showcased skill and superb hold-up play in his brilliant performance at Stamford Bridge. Lee Tomlin, a player whose dreadful disciplinary record means he has been confined to the lower leagues, outshone David Silva as Middlesbrough won at the Etihad Stadium.
But while Aitor Karanka's side counterattacked with real quality, that result was arguably more indicative of City's troubles. While they have done better in the Capital One Cup, consider their FA Cup record against Championship opponents under Manuel Pellegrini: drew with Blackburn before winning the replay 5-0; went down 2-0 to Watford before recovering to win 4-2; beaten 2-1 at home by Wigan; went down 1-0 to Sheffield Wednesday and needed an injury-time goal to progress; lost 2-0 at home to Boro. A combination of a manager's complacency and ignorance of inferior opponents and a squad with very few players who have plied their trade in lower leagues seems dangerous.
There is an additional factor when the favourites have failed: the tactical equation. Bradford played an old-fashioned 4-4-2 at Chelsea with, once again, a target man (James Hanson), whereas only one Premier League visitor this season, Leicester, has played the formerly ubiquitous system. It almost represented a venture into the unknown for Jose Mourinho's team.
But while some managers, like Bradford's Phil Parkinson, stick with systems that have served them well, others have shown a big-game strategic excellence by cleverly customising their plans. Roberto Martinez, then at Wigan, outwitted David Moyes in his quarterfinal win over Everton in 2013. His final game plan, to beat City, was such a brilliant blueprint that his successor Uwe Rosler borrowed it 10 months later to achieve the same outcome.
It puts a focus on the managers of the less-favoured teams this weekend. Having outmanoeuvred Pellegrini, Karanka turns his attentions to Arsene Wenger. Preston's Simon Grayson was in charge of League One Leeds when they beat Manchester United in 2010, and looks to add Van Gaal to Sir Alex Ferguson on his list of scalps. Crystal Palace are a top-flight team, but they weren't when they were rank outsiders and beat Liverpool in 1990, courtesy of a winner by Alan Pardew. That same Pardew is Palace manager now. He is proof that FA Cup shocks can happen. And it seems they are occurring more often.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.