On a recent edition of The Guardian’s “Football Weekly” podcast Sid Lowe threw out the comment that the away goals rule in Europe should be abolished immediately on the grounds that in recent years, more often than not, it has produced a defensively minded first game, with the home team more concerned with not conceding than building a lead.
There was no further discussion on the subject (and it could be argued that the first set of Champions League quarter-finals blew the argument out of the water) but I knew that Arsene Wenger had made the same point in the past and one set of games certainly don’t prove a point, so I did at least wonder whether there was some merit in the idea of scrapping the rule entirely.
Purely from my own memory it did seem that the tactics of European games had changed over the years.
It used to be the common assumption that the team playing at home in the first leg needed to look for a good lead to defend in the away leg, whereas in today’s game the common thinking was that the home sides main priority needed to be to ensure that they didn’t concede an away goal with the hope that they could get one of their own in the return fixture.
Yet we all know that the mind plays tricks and so I decided to look back over the results of European Cup/Champions League matches, specifically the 1980/81-1989/90 period compared to the 2000/01-2009/10 period.
The 90s had a time where group play decided the finalists so were less relevant, and anyway, if the recent tactical changes caused by the away goal theory was right then the disparity between goals scored should be even greater over a twenty year period.
The first thing I noticed was how simple the European Cup seemed to be back then compared to the seemingly never-ending behemoth we have now but, for simplicity’s sake, I compared the home team performances in the first leg of the quarter-final and semi-final stage for both periods.
Had the attacking instincts of the home team been reduced through the years? The unequivocal answer is “not really.”
Throughout the eighties the home team scored a total of 94 goals, and in the first decade of this century they scored 85. Nine goals over sixty games isn’t that significant a figure (and if we could replace this years quarter-finals for a low scoring year then the disparity would be even less).
So if the goals scored by the home team hadn’t changed that much over time did they at least seem less likely to be going for a win in the modern era? Well, in the 80s they won 36 games and in the 2000s they won 31.
Again there is a difference but it would be a stretch to call it any kind of a trend. The home team in the current games is just as keen to score goals and get a win in the first leg as its counterpart from times past.
There is one thing that has changed over the years though, and I would argue that what is different now is the way that coaches, and subsequently the media, talk about European fixtures.
The modern manager is much more reluctant to build up expectations than his eighties counterpart, who would often look to fire up the fans for a great night of European football, and over time we have all absorbed this cautious talk and taken it to be indicative of a cautious style of play, whereas the reality, as shown by the statistics, is that what happens on the pitch today isn’t all that different to what it was twenty years ago.
Not for the first time in soccer what people say and what they actually do are two very different things, and the away goal rule isn’t going “away” anytime soon.
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