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Scores rise as romance blossoms among the surprising mismatches of the FA Cup

A gulf in class can produce more goals in the FA Cup

The world famous FA Cup trophy
1 of 1

The first tie in the FA Cup fourth round is the one with the biggest difference in league positions between the teams. On Friday night, Chorley from the sixth-tier National League North will play Wolves from the Premier League.

It has the potential to be the highest-scoring game. No tie in the third round produced more goals than the five conceded by eighth-tier Northern Premier League Division One North West Marine to Premier League Tottenham – though some produced as many.

Goals are a function of competitiveness. The wider the difference in ability between two teams seems to be the more goals there are likely to be.

Let me illustrate this with some figures from previous seasons in the FA Cup. For a reason that I hope will become clear, I am going to start by ignoring teams from below the EFL. It is a broad category that includes everybody from full-time professionals to amateurs. Only Chorley are left this season anyway.

I took FA Cup results from the past 25 seasons, 1995-96 to 2019-20. I confined myself to teams from the Premier League and the three divisions of the EFL: Championship, League One and League Two.

I also limited myself to ties between the third and sixth rounds, which were played at partisan venues. This season, as if I need to remind you, there will be no fans in them, for the fourth round as for the third, and possibly for later rounds as well.

The difference in level between teams could be nought, one, two or three – nought was Premier League v Premier League, Championship v Championship and so on, three was Premier League v League Two.

Scores rose with the difference in level. The average number of goals per game was 2.6 when the difference in level was nought, 2.8 when it was one, 2.9 when it was two and 3.2 when it was three.

The proportion of games with more than 2.5 goals – the commonest betting line – was 49 per cent when the difference in level was nought, 51 per cent when it was one, 57 per cent when it was two and 66 per cent when it was three.

This season in the fourth round there are six ties between teams from the same level, four between teams separated by one level, another four between teams separated by two levels and one between teams separated by three levels.

A few scribbles on a scrap of paper and taps on a pocket calculator suggest that the most likely total number of goals in those ties may be 42.

Games between Premier League and sixth-tier National League North will usually feature even more goals than those between Premier League and fourth-tier League Two. So the most likely total number of goals for all 16 ties in the fourth round could be 46 – which was the average over the previous 25 seasons.

This is not surprising because the composition of the fourth round this season is close to the average for the previous 25 seasons.

There are 15 teams from the Premier League, 11 from the Championship, three from League One, two from League Two and one from below – our friends Chorley.

Over the previous quarter-century the fourth round consisted typically of 14 or 15 teams from the Premier League, ten or 11 from the Championship, four from League One, two from League Two and none or one from below. As I say, the make-up of the fourth round this season is close to a historical average.

What happened in the past as rounds went by was that teams from the Premier League gradually pushed out teams from elsewhere. This season Premier League teams account for 47 per cent of those in the fourth round.

Over that previous quarter-century Premier League teams accounted for 45 per cent of those in the fourth round, 58 per cent in the fifth round, 77 per cent in the sixth round, 84 per cent in semi-finals, 90 per cent in finals. And 100 per cent of all winners.

Same old faces looking down from the Premier League

Wolves have won the FA Cup four times, though not since 1960. That year, coincidentally, the fourth-round draw also paired Manchester United with Liverpool. They will play on Sunday at Old Trafford. In January 1960 they played at Anfield. United went through with a 3-1 away win.

What strikes me looking back at season 1959-60 is how little has changed at the summit of English football. I was born during that season and now I am old. Yet 14 of the 22 teams who were in the First Division are now in the Premier League – almost two-thirds of them.

Only Arsenal and Everton stayed at the top level throughout. All of the others spent some time away, but most of them have come back.

There is more consistency across 61 seasons at the highest level than further down. Only eight of the 22 teams who were in the Second Division are now in the Championship – just over a third.

Three of the 24 teams who were in the Third Division are now in League One and five of the 24 teams who were in the Fourth Division are now in League Two – exactly one-eighth and just over one-fifth.

Fortunes can wax and wane for all teams, but those most likely to be in the same place now as they were a lifetime ago are those who started at the peak.


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Goals are a function of competitiveness. The wider the difference in ability between two teams seems to be the more goals there are likely to be
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