by Jake Miller
Since 1969 the European Cup has used the away goals rule to separate sides that have drawn on aggregate. The tie-breaker, applied after 180 minutes in UEFA Competitions, gives extra weighting to goals scored away from home (as the name suggests) in an attempt to encourage teams to be more adventurous on their travels, but is it still applicable?
Introduced firstly in 1965, the rule has remained un-altered in European club football since its first sighting. In the early days of UEFA competition, whilst travel was arduous and conditions usually massively in the home sides favour, going away from home was a monumental disadvantage and thus many teams were happy to get home with whatever they could from away games.
The away goals rule, deemed necessary to try and get away from the oft boring approach of travelling teams parking the bus to try and keep the game alive for when they played the 2nd leg, created a very interesting tactical question of weighing up risk and reward, one which still hasn’t been conclusively answered.
The question nowadays ultimately boils down to whether playing at home is worth the huge disadvantage of being against an opponent whose goals are worth more than your own. The problem is that comparing the supposed advantages of home field and the away goals rule is impossible because there is no way of measuring factors supposedly key in improving the home team’s chances (atmosphere, familiarity with surroundings etc.).
I’d suggest that given the chance, most teams would instantly accept an offer of being away from home for both legs if aggregate score draws automatically gave them a win, but the psychological barrier of being the home team is an idea that is sewn into every sport in the world.
Of course it is easy to argue that both teams have it the same as there will be two games played; one at home and one away, but this is ignoring the dynamic of knockout football. It is extremely rare to see teams playing a gung-ho style in the first leg as, away goals or not, a major first leg deficit is difficult to overturn (coincidentally only twice in the Champions League history have a home side lost the first leg and qualified).
This leads to cagey first leg encounters by design, and thus the away team in the first leg is much less likely to score away goals. It could also be considered counter-productive as instead of promoting an attacking football match, the away goals rule instead makes conceding at home a necessity to stop, thus negating the home team’s threat. A rule introduced to increase the entertainment of knockout games in Europe has instead put massive emphasis on the importance of not conceding at home.
Again, this is purely anecdotal evidence and difficult to prove by way of statistics, however there is another advantage available to teams who play away from home second time round. The rules of the Champions League are such that the away goals rule is applied twice – once after 180 minutes and again after 210 minutes (i.e. after extra time in the 2nd leg) thus giving the away team an extra 30 minutes to score an away goal.
With the difference between Europe’s elite sides being so small, extending the length of the away goals rule by 16.66% is surely a massive advantage? Fortunately, the extra period is a particularly rare occurrence (both ties having to end in exactly the same result for it to go to extra time) although this is the very reason that the away goals rule was abolished in the Football League play-offs.
As for solutions, the simplest would be to scrap the away goals altogether with a draw meaning the sides play out extra time and penalties. An alternative would be to play the rule very specific to the League Cup semi-finals in which away goals are only used as a separator after extra time in the 2nd leg, thus being used a last resort as a tie-breaker, presumably to avoid a penalty shootout. Whilst perhaps better in some respects, it perhaps put even more emphasis on the side playing away from home in the second leg’s advantage of having an extra half an hour to score an away goal.
My ultimate argument is a very simple one. Football matches have always been decided by who scored the most goals, and it is a system that does us well. The timing of and the venue in which these goals are scored is not deemed important in any of the leagues that we all watch week in, week out. The away goals rule changes that, and I don’t think it’s for the better.
POLL: Should the away goals rule be scrapped? Have your say below:
Jake Miller is a feature columnist for Just Football and can also be found over at Playing the Percentages.