Time to abolish the away goals rule

Sport

It was already a strong suspicion, and now it’s certain. The manner of Chelsea’s and Arsenal’s recent elimination from the Champions League makes it clear that we should scrap the away goals rule. Instead, if the aggregate scores are level at the end of a two-legged tie, then the two teams should play a penalty-shootout straight away. Away goals should have no special importance; extra time shouldn’t happen either.

Here’s the best argument in favour of the away goals rule. Tired from travelling and intimidated by the home fans, the fear is that – without the away goals rule – some (perhaps most) away sides would focus almost exclusively on defending well, because doing so typically takes less energy and less arrogance than attacking well. Chelsea’s victorious Champions League run in 2011/12 is the most prominent bit of evidence demonstrating that this approach isn’t usually very exciting. Conversely, rewarding away goals more highly than home goals helps tip the scales back towards the centre.

It’s worth noting that even this added incentive to attack sometimes doesn’t motivate teams to play with significant ambition away from home. Nonetheless, if we abolished the away goals rule, it’s true that – in general – away teams would play with less attacking intent.

But this argument isn’t conclusive. There’s a potentially significant downside to balancing the scales in this way.

In football, it’s always conceivable that either team may score within the next minute. All it takes is a dodgy bounce; a solitary error by a defender or goalkeeper; a moment of brilliance from a striker. In the second leg of Champions League and Europa League ties, the score line is very frequently such that, if the away side scores one goal next, the home side will have to score two or more in response in order to go through to the next round. The disproportionate impact of the away goal – which, bear in mind, is just a single fluke away from occurring at any stage – means that there’s often a heavy measure of uncertainty and variability in both team’s prospects across the two legs.

For sure, part of the drama of football comes from these kinds of sensations; the thrill of knowing that ‘anything could happen’. But, firstly, the away goals rule often takes this too far. Clearly, we don’t want to watch a sport where the quality of play has no impact on the result, otherwise we’d decide sporting victors based on a roulette wheel. The away goals rule often makes the result of a tie more similar to a roulette wheel-type of outcome than is desirable. Secondly, there are other important components of the drama of football too, and the away goals rule obliterates them.

Right now, most Champions League and Europa League ties have terrible structure. They’re usually messes, disordered by the skewing effect of the away goals rule

One such component is watching managers and players making measured tactical choices, and seeing who makes the right call. But to make measured tactical choices, there must be a certain degree of predictability about what will unfold; after all, you can’t make a tactical choice about how to roll some dice. The away goals rule, and the massive impact it imbues on a single away goal – a single potential fluke – brings ties too close to dice rolling.

Another such component is watching a team attack with freedom. In most cases, a team will only be able to do so fully when playing at home: it takes extreme confidence, and a subdued crowd, to attack with full freedom at another club’s stadium. But the away goals rule too often neuters the home side’s attacking freedom, because it’s often the case that committing too many men forward and allowing the away side to score is effectively equivalent to conceding two goals. When this is the case, it’s almost impossible to attack without suffering a great deal of tentativeness, and the drama of the match suffers as a consequence.

More than all that, though, a big component of the drama of football is – say it quietly – structure. Think about anything that evokes strong emotions – be it a book, a film, a song, a speech. Everything else being equal, the better the structure of that thing is – moving clearly and steadily from introduction, to the main part, to another main part, to the conclusion – the stronger the emotions it’ll evoke. More excitement, more passion, more entertainment. Right now, most Champions League and Europa League ties have terrible structure. They’re usually messes, disordered by the skewing effect of the away goals rule.

Ideally, two-legged ties are almost symmetrical: they nearly resemble two halves of one long match. For this to happen, the end of the first leg must genuinely feel like ‘half-time’. However, as things stand, two-legged ties in the Champions League and Europa League usually feel strange and very asymmetrical. Frequently, fans, the media and – seemingly – the clubs treat the first leg as a mere introduction, or an appetiser. When it ends, it is almost always very unclear who holds the advantage and who holds the initiative. Is a 0-0 home draw in the first leg good or bad? How about a 2-1 home victory?

It would be better if, alongside scrapping the away goals rule, we also got rid of extra time

It’s very rare that anyone has a convincing answer to questions like this, and that’s mainly because of the away goals rule. Instead, we generally see the main passages and conclusion of the tie all crammed into about 45-60 minutes of the second leg. That’s because it’s only as the clock ticks down – and only as opportunities to score an away goal fall, with the first tie having already finished and time elapsing in the second – that the players and fans can form solid expectations about how events will unfold. Perhaps that creates higher emotional peaks. But it makes the overall spectacle much more uneven and, by consequence, perhaps worse overall.

In this way, if we abolished the away goals rule, then the two legs of each tie would be far better balanced. A potential downside is that each tie would probably resemble ‘Attack vs. Defence’ to a greater degree than is currently the case. However, that might actually be a good thing. Forcing teams to more clearly demonstrate ability to attack well and defend well, rather than merely do both adequately – which is often all that is required when playing in ties under the current system – would create worthier winners.

Some say that the away goals rule helps rectify the unfairness of playing extra time. Ties currently go to extra time when the aggregate scores are equal at the end of the second leg, and neither team has scored more away goals than the other has. The extra time – 30 minutes – happens straight away, so the team who’s at home for the second leg enjoys a bonus 30 minutes of home advantage. That’s unfair, and the away goals rule helps correct for that.

However, it’s foolish to expect two mutually opposing distortions to combine to create an optimal balance. Depending on the nature of the match and the teams, some home sides will get a net benefit from these distortions – e.g. perhaps if their fans are especially good at motivating their players – and some away sides will get a net benefit from these distortions – e.g. perhaps if they haven’t had to travel very far to reach the stadium. Either way, it’s unfair. It would be better if, alongside scrapping the away goals rule, we also got rid of extra time – moving straight from regular time to a penalty shootout if the aggregate scores are level.

It’s a risk that’s worth taking in order to find out what’s best for football

Some will disagree with all this. At a minimum, however, the away goals rule should be altered so that it only kicks in when the aggregate score line is 3-3 or greater. Usually, when the aggregate score is 1-1 or 2-2 and a team progresses on away goals, only one away goal has been scored in the whole tie. A team can easily score an away goal without trying particularly hard to attack, and without playing well at all – again, a flukey goal is always in the offing. Without doubt, we should all agree that counting away goals as ‘double’ is unacceptably disproportionate when only one has been scored. As such, the away goals rule should certainly not apply when the aggregate score is 1-1 or 2-2.

Admittedly, if one leg of a tie is drawn 2-2, and the other is drawn 0-0, then the above reasoning doesn’t apply as strongly, because two away goals have been scored in this case. However, the rules would become too complicated if we accounted for that, and instances of this combination of score lines is reasonably rare.

All told, it is of course possible that the advantage of using the away goals rule – discouraging overly-defensive play from the away side – is so large that, actually, the quality of matches would become lower if the rule were scrapped. If that happened, then clearly we’d have good reason to reinstate the away goals rule.

However, there are good reasons to expect that abolishing the rule would be beneficial overall – and if it wasn’t, the cost would merely be a couple of boring tournaments. It’s a risk that’s worth taking in order to find out what’s best for football, and UEFA should take action now.

Ben Sanders is a second-year PPE student at Brasenose College. A ceaselessly optimistic Liverpool fan, Ben remains convinced that Brendan Rodgers’ men will complete a glorious ascent into the Premier League top 4 by the end of the season.

 

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Check out Jack’s side of the argument too: [btn type=”default or primary or success or info or warning or danger or link” link=” http://oxfordstudent.com/2015/03/24/in-defence-of-away-goals/”]In defence of away goals[/btn]

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Featured Photo: Kevin Quigley