The much-maligned EFL Cup has scrapped extra time. Chelsea’s entertaining shootout with Tottenham was the latest vindication of that decision.
Wednesday night wasn’t a great advert for the Carabao Cup. Burton Albion went into the second leg of their semi-final hoping — but probably not expecting — to overturn a 9-0 deficit against Manchester City, the champions of England.
In what was supposed to be the second most important match of the competition, viewers were treated to the deadest of rubbers. You didn’t watch it, did you?
Needless to say, the EFL Cup gets flak for many other reasons, but fair play, abolishing extra time in favour of going straight to penalties was a great idea.
The competition’s matches have already become punchier affairs, guaranteeing a 10pm bedtime and, as its organisers say, reducing player fatigue.
Intentionally or not, the decision to abolish extra time also has another effect.
By chopping that half an hour of open play and placing a greater emphasis on penalties, the Carabao Cup has turned itself into football’s nearest equivalent to a limited-overs cricket match, eliminating endurance as a route to success and instead focusing on the simplest part of the game: in football’s case, thwacking the ball into the goal from 12 yards.
Even if the change was only implemented to lighten the effects of fixture congestion, the result is that the EFL Cup now offers a match format all of its own.
Despite a few setbacks, 2018-19 has been a mostly enjoyable season for the tournament, and some of its most memorable moments have come as a direct result of the rule change.
Back in September, for example, Frank Lampard’s Derby County beat José Mourinho’s Manchester United at Old Trafford. Although Marouane Fellaini levelled the tie with an equaliser well into stoppage time, the immediately ensuing penalties saw Derby win 8-7.
That the shootout even reached Phil Jones shows just how entertaining it was.
A day after the Old Trafford upset, Tottenham and Watford played out their own 2-2 draw at Stadium MK, Spurs’ one-off home for the night.
Three goals in the final 10 minutes were followed immediately by a shootout in which MK graduate Dele Alli scored the winner.
Another good game, another match not interrupted by thirty minutes of players visibly not wanting to be in Milton Keynes.
That dramatic final 10 minutes transitioning neatly into the drama of penalties turned a controversial occasion into a highly watchable game of football.
Perhaps most importantly, the new format allowed Christian Fuchs, James Maddison and Çağlar Söyüncü of Leicester to deliver one of the most beautiful triptychs of terrible spot-kicks ever seen — something that may not have happened, or that we may not have stayed awake for, had Man City been given another half hour at the King Power.
And so to Thursday night. While Chelsea vs Tottenham was always going to be more of a spectacle than a handicapped Burton vs Man City, the game more or less lived up to expectations.
And, as luck would have it, the new rules gave us another quick penalty shootout, the highlights of which included Eric Dier sending the ball into the stands for six and Jorginho dancing the ball past Paolo Gazzaniga with a kick you surely wouldn’t see outside of the Carabao Cup.
But while Jorginho deserves credit for his moment of audacity, perhaps our glasses should be raised highest to the competition itself.
Penalties are often decried as a cruel and ultimately random way of deciding matches, but as a cheap form of instant entertainment they are unparalleled.
By increasing the likelihood of penalties, perhaps the EFL Cup is simply embracing its role as the cheapest, silliest, most latently commercial form of domestic football we have.
A greater reliance on penalties is not a good thing for football as a whole, but for the secondary domestic cup in a country that has fallen somewhat out of love with its primary domestic cup, it might be just the ticket.