It’s time to review what makes the FA Cup’s early rounds so challenging to handicap, and turns underdogs into such a pesky presence in English football every January.
Yes, the FA Cup is technically the championship of the Kingdom, the crown jewel of the proudest (or at least deepest) group of elite footballers in the world. But the soccer club landscape is so very different from what fans of professional sports teams experience in America.
Imagine that Stephen Curry or LeBron James finished a grueling NBA playoff run that ended in a loss, and that they were asked about their immediate plans going forward. Now imagine that they said, “I’m going to prepare to lead my team in the Super Basketball Cup next weekend.” That’s what it’s like for Premier League teams playing in more than 1 competition.
Remember that major, mainstream American sports clubs are beholden to, even part of, a single “league.” They don’t have to worry about 1 championship run costing the team another championship run, like a Major League Soccer club that’s ill-prepared for the spring MLS calendar due to having made a fanatical CONCACAF bid. (North American football imitates European football right down to the weird details and schedule conflicts.)
English Premier League managers love to win the FA Cup, but it’s impossible for them to put A-1 lineups on the pitch at every turn. Not if they’re also interested in winning the Premier League or the UEFA Champions League or the Carabao Cup. The FA Cup stands as the far more tenured and prestigious of the 2 domestic “Cup” tournaments, but its all-elimination format (and the fact that every sanctioned club in England can join in the bracket annually) makes it hard to win even if everybody in the organization goes all-out to do so, sacrificing other goals in the process.
Premier League stalwarts feel that if they’re cautious and judicious enough with FA Cup lineup choices, their chances of winning the event may only go down a few % points, while leaving the top-11 lineup fresh and healthy enough to keep winning Premiership matches on Saturday and Sunday, the results on which the club’s financial bread is buttered. Once the FA Cup bracket is whittled-down to a handful of teams, the best lineup available plays for every side, since the FA Cup Final is in sight and everyone has a solid % chance to lift the trophy.
But for underdog teams of the Premier League, and for surviving clubs from English Championship and League One, playing in the 4th Round and onward in the FA Cup is a tremendous opportunity and a #1 goal. Fulham or Brentford are not going to win a Premier League crown any time soon. But each could win an FA Cup. As a result, 3rd and 4th Round FA Cup fixtures often pit the best of a weaker side against a so-so lineup from a stronger side, making underdog picks into the “sexy” action at sportsbooks until at least the Quarterfinals.
Let’s look at the odds on this weekend’s FA Cup matches with a singular theme in mind – how exciting are the favorite’s prospects in domestic and/or UEFA league play, and how will each manager handle the circumstances? It’s important to weigh each underdog’s chances against the strength-of-opponent they’re likely to meet, not the prestige of the opposing shirts.
Match odds and lines courtesy of Bovada Sportsbook. Scroll to bottom for a look at WagerBop’s FA Cup futures bet recommendations, all of which are designed to remain valid well after the final (barring another postponement) 4th Round matches on Sunday afternoon.
Chorley FC vs Wolverhampton
There are many unknowns vis-à-vis how Wolves (-2.5) will approach a Friday night road match against lower-division side in the FA Cup. Nuno started a strong side in the 3rd Round against Crystal Palace, but must prepare Wanderers to face Chelsea next Wednesday, so he could conceivably go to a younger lineup to rest big stars for a showdown.
Wolverhampton is down a pair of top scorers, though. Raul Jimenez, who had 4 goals in 10 Premier League appearances, has been out since November with a scary skull fracture. Daniel Podence, who has 3 goals in 15 league appearances, has been held out of the last 3 matches with a thigh injury. The only definite is that John Ruddy will be in goal.
Chorley FC’s total-goals price at Bovada is (-900) on Under (1) tally, giving away what bookmakers and sharks believe is going to happen to (not Newcastle’s) Magpies against Wolves on Friday. If Wolverhampton leads 2-o or 3-0 late in the 2nd half, there won’t be reason to push for more.
Pick: Under (3.5)
Southampton vs Arsenal
Arsenal is in an interesting position this weekend. Gunners play Saints in the FA Cup before meeting Southampton again in a league match on Tuesday. Some ‘cappers think Arsenal (+125) could try to use a similar squad in both fixtures.
Arsenal played a quality squad against Newcastle in the 3rd Round with striker Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang adding to his impressive season across all competitions with a goal in the extra-time victory. Several starters like Alexandre Lacazette, who leads the team with 9 goals, began on the bench vs Magpies and were substituted-on during the match. Emile Smith Rowe has featured in the last 5 Premier League games for Gunners with 3 assists in addition to an FA Cup goal.
However, I’m more up for Southampton’s (+225) moneyline, since Saints are having a corker season in tough circumstances, and this is the underdog’s best chance at an upset in the 2 matches. Arsenal could fall to the same pressing style that conquered Liverpool on 1/4, and Southampton has linear FA Cup momentum, having won a late 3rd Round match this week.
Barnsley vs Norwich City
Canaries (+140) are due for an FA Cup streak after disappointing in top-division play in 2019-20.
Pick: Norwich City
Brighton & Hove Albion vs Blackpool FC
Brighton didn’t pull any punches with its 3rd Round lineup, so there’s little doubt the pitch at Falmer Stadium will be graced will be another solid group on behalf of manager Graham Potter in the FA Cup 4th Round. Neil Maupay leads Seagulls with seven Premier League goals and could see 90+ minutes in the match on Saturday.
It’s not a perfect setup to wager the top-level side. There’s an injury concern with Adam Lallana, who has missed the last 3 matches with a groin strain, and Danny Welbeck, who hasn’t made an appearance in 2021 due to a bad knee, but Lallana didn’t factor-into the 3rd Round win anyway.
There has been so much negative press surrounding Blackpool for several years running that it’s hard to imagine an upset in this setting.
Pick: Brighton (-1, -1.5)
Millwall FC vs Bristol City
After watching the FA Cup last January, I’m convinced that any Millwall (+105) “plus” moneyline with the club hosting any lower-division side is probably a solid tournament wager.
Sheffield United vs Plymouth Argyle
Bovada’s got a (-135) price on Under (3) total goals, but the line’s still too high considering how well Blades can defend a side like “Socks of the 1970s” (Pilgrims, actually) at home.
Swansea City vs Nottingham Forest
Tricky Trees of Nottingham Forest beat former Premier League entry Cardiff City in the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, beat Millwall 3-1 in a league match that followed, and were a sloppy striking day from extending the hot streak vs Middlesbrough on Wednesday. The points give Nottingham Forest (+240) a little breathing room in the race to avoid relegation to League One, which could produce focus on the FA Cup match and an upset or a regulation draw on Saturday.
Pick: Draw (+235)
West Ham vs Doncaster Rovers
West Ham mixed its lineup in a slim victory over a League One side in the previous round, so we don’t envision the approach being different against Doncaster in this round. Michail Antonio will likely start again up top for Hammers, and he’ll be supported by the best passers in the squad, Manuel Lanzini (3 assists) and Andriy Yarmolenko (4 assists). There will likely be a few reserves mixed in for West Ham, but don’t expect a young side despite the 2-tier gap in opposition.
Doncaster Rovers are 1 of the few English teams for which respect and tradition garner “official” nicknames, like “Green Bay Packers” or “New York Knicks.” But a special nod given to a shield doesn’t mean that a club can play with Premiership footballers.
Pick: West Ham (-1.5)
Cheltenham Town vs Manchester City
Not to make too many American sports references, but Man City is almost like an “Alabama” or “Clemson” brand that can change-out its lineup and still look amazing, thanks to a 2nd string that’s as highly-recruited and carefully brought-along as the 1st team. That being said, City has developed a recent tradition of starring in domestic tournaments and does not want to let up on producing that trend, since the FA Cup and Carabao Cup finals give Sky Blues a chance to assert dominance on English turf without the casualties of a week-to-week Premier League grind that often conflicts with the organization’s UEFA Champions League ambitions.
Man City’s manager Pep Guardiola did not start Raheem Sterling against Birmingham in the 3rd Round, but allowed Kevin de Bruyne to spend time in midfield while forward Phil Foden continued to shine in the FA Cup.
The “Robins” have gotten stingier in back since fielding a 2019-20 team that couldn’t keep West Ham’s U21 squad (an actual U21 squad, not shorthand for “weak exhibition lineup”) from scoring 3 times. But the roster has zip, zero, and zilch experience vs players of City’s quality.
Pick: Man City (-2.5)
Brentford vs Leicester City
Foxes remain the “Rodney Dangerfield” of English soccer despite riding atop the Premier League. No respect! What kind of moneyline is (-145) on Leicester City vs English Championship?
Well, Brentford is a candidate for promotion in 2021. And there’s always a chance that UEFA ambitions will lead to thin aristocrats’ lineups in domestic tournaments. Leceister sat its 2 leading scorers, James Maddison and Jamie Vardy, in the FA Cup 3rd Round, but otherwise started a surprisingly strong squad against Stoke City, and easily won that match 4-0. Brendan Rogers means business in the FA Cup, and he’ll field a similar lineup against Brentford on Sunday, though he might pull a few midfielders with a short turnaround to a mid-week EPL meeting.
Pick: Leicester City (-145)
Fulham FC vs Burnley FC
Burnley put a curious lineup on the pitch in the FA Cup 3rd Round, a mixture of rarely-used players, some youth members and a handful of normal starters. Chris Wood, the team’s leading scorer, started up front alongside his normal partner Ashley Barnes. Matej Vydra came off the bench to score in stoppage time and helped Clarets win on penalties.
Burnley also played 2 starting center backs, but used reserves on the wing-backs as well as across the midfield behind the striker duo. Handicappers expect a stronger lineup on Sunday in the 4th Round, but Fulham is still touted as the moneyline go-to at (+115), a price I’m not buying.
My boy Tony Khan is running Fulham Football Club these days, but it might take him a year or 3 to get his arms wrapped around the chore, like the current plight of Jacksonville pigskin.
Pick: Burnley (+215)
Manchester United vs Liverpool
If Nikola isn’t making WagerBop’s pick on this contest I’ll eat my hat, but stay tuned.
UPDATE 1/23: Nikola V. and I keep hemispherical-different schedules, and I have to believe he saw the headline “FA Cup / 16 Fixtures” and assumed that I must be making our blog’s Liverpool and Manchester United prediction for Sunday. So here goes!
Ordinary thinking would tout a Man United vs Liverpool league match to entertain punters more than an FA Cup match at this juncture of a season. Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp does not prioritize success in English tournament kickoffs quite as often as his counterparts in elite manager’s chairs, and the Premier League table is a lot more competitive than it was last season, meaning that neither club feels a need to hedge any bets when taking the other on in league play. In other words, Liverpool could afford to play for a draw at points last cycle, but “points” has become the operative word with Reds currently 6 points off United’s pace in 2021.
Maybe MUFC’s visit to Anfield last Sunday was thrilling…for purists. For everyone else, it was a 0-0 draw with 7 on-target shots. Liverpool possessed the ball for 2/3rds of the match, but only tested David de Gea 3 times, while committing 15 fouls and taking 2 yellow cards.
Okay, so the EPL match would spank the FA Cup much under normal circumstances. After last Sunday’s snoozer of an outcome, though, you’ve got to predict that it goes up from here.
Bovada’s identical odds of (+160) on each club seem to ignore Klopp’s mood following Thursday’s appearance vs Clarets. Liverpool has not scored a goal in a league match since winger Sadio Mané’s tally against West Bromwich over the holidays. Incredibly, Reds have been blanked by Burnley, Newcastle, and a hot Southampton side over the past few matches, and the manager is now telling reporters that there’s no way Liverpool can defend its Premiership crown in present form.
Klopp is enough of a Drama-Llama sometimes that you’d want to chalk-up his quotes as motivational pabulum. But coaches don’t become less stubborn or committed to the plan when things go wrong. Prideful skippers are more likely to double-down when in a slump. Klopp won’t suddenly think of the FA Cup as the most important event in the world. He’s trying to come up with ways to spark an anemic attack in the Premier League and ultimately in UEFA.
If anything, the 4-1 win over Aston Villa in the 3rd Round showed what happens when Reds relax and aren’t playing under a cloud of pressure and criticism. If Klopp begins to see the 4th Round match with Man United as some sort of litmus test for new tactics and tinkering, it might do more harm than good for a discouraged front line whose problems are at least in-part psychological.
Meanwhile, a handicapper has to admit to being wrong on occasion, and it appears as though MUFC manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær has had a longer-term plan in mind for Red Devils than what WagerBop initially perceived. United didn’t score and beat Liverpool last Sunday, but the game-play illustrated a formula for success. Ole’s team defended well enough to frustrate a mega-talented host and produce a clean sheet, and his world-class attackers can always turn any counter into a goal or a corner kick. Strangely, Man United has become a stronger English Premier League frontrunner by playing like a scrappy underdog when the scenario calls for it. Versatility equals victory.
It’s good to be versatile in the FA Cup too, and it must be favoritism in Bovava’s betting clientele that’s keeping the club in superior form from getting a favorite’s ML for this Sunday.
Pick: Man United
Everton vs Sheffield Wednesday
Just to clarify, this match is on Sunday. (Har, har.)
Toffeemen played well on the attack to score twice vs Wolves this week. There’s no way on this Earth that Sheffield can present any more of a staid defending challenge.
Pick: Everton (-1.5)
Wycombe vs Tottenham (Monday)
Jose Mourinho played a decent, but not great, lineup against Marine in the 3rd Round. Speculators can antificipate a similar situation on Monday, with Tottenham having to play Liverpool just 3 days later. Goalkeeper Joe Hart will likely be between the posts for Spurs. Carlos Vinicus will start on the front lines, fresh off a hat trick against Marine.
Vinicus and Gareth Bale cab anchor a strong attack along with Lucas Moura, who also scored against Marine. Whispers of teenage prospects in the lineup are rife as well, however.
I’m liking the Under (3.5) given a methodical EPL side vs a fanatic host-underdog.
AFC Bournemouth vs Crawley Town (Tuesday)
As of Thursday morning 1/21, Bovada pulled all lines on this match except for the Over/Under, with the vig “loaded” on Under (3) goals at (-145) while the Over sits temptingly at (+110).
I’m not taking the bait. Cherries failed to score multiple goals in 3 consecutive English Championship fixtures headed into the kickoff. If a line appears on Crawley Town, I’m interested.
Recommendation: Pass on O/U
FA Cup Futures Odds and Recommended January Bets
Current FA Cup futures odds courtesy of BetOnline:
Man City (+250)
Manchester United (+1100)
Leicester City (+1400)
West Ham (+2200)
Manchester City is not a “prohibitive” FA Cup betting favorite in the sense that payoff is thinner than 2-to-1 on winning tickets. But the fabled club is considered more-than-twice as likely than any other to win the grail again in 2021.
In another COVID-19 plagued year in which sports (and economies) are racing in catch-up mode, a better pick might be the team with the fewest possible distractions. Each of the top 4 most-popular clubs in the futures market have Premier League drama as 2021’s campaign headed to a climax. Liverpool just isn’t all that enthusiastic about the FA Cup, and Arsenal has arduous trips ahead in Europa League. Leicester running out of steam in March or April would be a sort of compliment to the blue-collar club in general, for it has played itself into so many prestigious matches.
I’m leaning toward a dark-horse futures bet on Southampton, the club with a unique, devious style and little to lose in FA Cup competition. Top-half league finishes and UEFA aspirations aside, the momentum of having won in such a late 3rd Round fixture should help Southampton through to the 5th Round, and there could be a larger contingent of minnows in the next draw than usual.
Besides, with Drew Brees eliminated from the NFL playoffs, us Yanks need some kind of Saints to cheer for.
Picks: Southampton 1 Unit, Man City 1 Unit
Kurt has authored close to 1000 stories covering football, soccer, basketball, baseball, ice hockey, prize-fighting and the Olympic Games. Kurt posted a 61% win rate on 200+ college and NFL gridiron picks last season. He muses about High School football on social media as The Gridiron Geek.